The exterior of Alara.

At last year’s inaugural Retail Congress Africa in Johannesburg, Jennifer Obayuwana, managing director of Polo Luxury Group, purveyors of luxury timepieces such as Rolex, Piaget, Cartier and the like, lamented that Nigeria suffered from terrible public relations. If it’s not Boko Haram abducting young girls from a school (they have since been released), it’s the government facing yet another corruption scandal.

The country was ranked 10th among the biggest exporters of illicit finance from 2004 to 2013 by Global Financial Integrity. At the same time — or perhaps because of — it is one of the world’s fastest-growing markets for Champagne and private jets.

According to The African Consumer and Retail report released this year by KPMG, the market for luxury goods has grown in Nigeria. “The country’s bourgeoning middle class is expected to have consumer spending in excess of $25 billion by 2020,” the report said. Demand for Champagne alone is expected to more than double between 2011 and 2016, while in the aviation industry, 70 new private jets are projected to be delivered in the country over the next four years.

Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy — it overtook South Africa’s position last year — reporting Gross Domestic Product of $510 billion, 32.8 percent larger than South Africa’s GDP of $384 billion. With a population of 170 million, Nigeria also has one of the fastest-growing numbers of High Net Worth Individuals in the world. Last year, there were 131 HNWI in Lagos alone, described in a recent A.T. Kearney report as a megacity that is home to a population of 10 million.

Yet there remains glaring poverty, with 46 percent of Nigerians living on $2 or less a day in 2010, according to the World Bank, and the retail market, said KPMG, remains “highly polarized.”

But luxury players continue to flock in, and one of the earliest domestic pioneers is Alara, a multibrand fashion boutique that opened earlier this year in Lagos. “There’s always been luxury consumption amongst a select group of Nigerians, but there has been a new awareness from a significantly growing middle class, making it a very good time [to open a shop like Alara],” said the woman behind the store, prominent Nigerian businesswoman Reni Folawiyo.

Alara, which means “wondrous performer” in the Nigerian language Yoruba, in many ways crystallizes the emerging dominance of Lagos as the continent’s fashion and economic capital, overtaking perennial rivals Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The lack of malls and poor infrastructure in Nigeria and issues surrounding security have discouraged many an international retailer from entering the lucrative Nigerian market, choosing instead to work with a local distributor, such as the Polo Luxury Group, which has now branched into high-end accessories from labels such as Nancy Gonzalez, Gucci and Dolce and Gabbana.

Folawiyo chose to confront the inadequate infrastructure in Lagos by building her own 10,387-square-foot space in the heart of Victoria Island, far away from any areas of conflict or unrest. “With infrastructure, waiting for a time when everything is perfect, one might have lost a very good opportunity as a trailblazer in a little developed retail industry. Alara is not just a store, it’s a concept; the expression needed to grow from a believable core. An iconic space that would be the identity of a concept that has many stories to tell,” she said.

She turned to the Tanzania-born, London-based architect David Adjaye to design the striking, multilevel, multiuse structure. “I wanted Alara to be something iconic that would change our city, change the way we see ourselves and also change the way the world sees us,” she said. “I couldn’t think of anyone else that would be uniquely placed to deliver that vision.”

Adjaye recalled that the brief for Alara was “to make a boutique space that would showcase the latest and best in African fashion, crafts and art. The boutique is designed to be not only a place where one can shop but also a celebration of an emerging global African lifestyle. This is a vision that both Reni and I share: to ensure that Africa has a place in the global design conversation.”

Alara is a landmark store in more ways than one. “It’s essentially the only luxury store that exists in Nigeria legally, because there are a lot of people who buy Louboutins, for example, overseas and resell them from home,” said Caroline Issa, whose London-based creative consultancy, Tank Form, worked on the store’s branding.

Apart from stocking the rails at Alara with well-known American and European labels like Lanvin, Stella Jean, Nicholas Kirkwood and Saint Laurent, Folawiyo, who cuts a chic figure in Nigerian and London circles with her trademark bangs and penchant for directional fashion, made sure that African designers and artists were well-represented.

The Nigerian luxury customer, she explained, cannot be neatly pigeonholed. “It’s quite mixed. You have the very international shopper who is on a plane every other week and is big on names and identifiable global brands. You also have the shopper who largely wants the more African expression and comes to the store for that experience and to find the lesser-known African brands that are doing something special.”

She cites Valentino as “being our best-selling international brand, which is rather interesting, followed by Simone Rocha.” As for the African brands, she singled out Loza Maléombho and Laurence Airline, as well as Ituen Basi. She is most enthusiastic about fellow Nigerian designer “the very special Maki Oh, as she encompasses very much the Alara story.”

In selecting the brands that make up the Alara offer, Folwaiyo said “we devised what we call the Alara aesthetic, which is an expression of who I think we have become based upon cultural influences and international exposure. Brands were as cautious as you would expect when being approached by a shop that wasn’t already existent, and in a new market. They were, however, excited about the concept and have been supportive since.”

Taxes and duties in Nigeria on imported clothing run to 20 percent duty and 5 percent VAT, which seem reasonable when compared to South Africa’s import tariffs of 45 percent. It’s a necessary consideration in most countries when importing luxury goods, Folawiyo conceded. “It will naturally affect pricing, but you hope that understanding the customers’ needs and the convenience of having the store in their city and also creating a unique experience will persuade people to buy from you,” she said.

Having these brands available in Lagos also affords customers the convenience of purchasing in Nigerian nairas instead of foreign currency overseas.

Folawiyo would not disclose figures but is pleased with footfall and repeat business over the last half-year of operations.

Adjaye believes that Alara changes the conversation completely, redefining Africa on all levels. “The continent is growing at an astounding pace,” he said, “especially in engine countries like Nigeria. There is a fantastic creative class emerging who needs a voice. We have to challenge this notion that Africa is a monolithic entity. There is beautiful diversity and creativity there.”

Harking back once more to the African tradition of storytelling, Folawiyo talked about the story of Alara as “being one of cultural awakening and an acknowledgement that who we are now should reflect the glory of the past and how that looks in the context of how we live today. That touches on every aspect of our lives and as Africans we should celebrate that — in what we wear, how we live our lives and what we eat.”

Speaking of the future evolution of Alara, she said there are plans to take the concept outside of Nigeria. “It’s a unique store and can remain so for a very long time because so much is untapped around us. But we must master this city first.”

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