Melodia, creator of the viral Alexis dress, talks business, fashion, and her decision to leave Nigeria

If you spend a lot of time on social media, you quickly learn the importance of virality; that phenomenon that takes your witty comment about some inane topic and takes it to more people than you’d ever imagine. Tweets go viral, songs go viral, and videos go viral. But it’s not every day that a dress goes viral on Twitter to the point that there’s a public waitlist to get it. This is a conversation with Melodia Ebete, a Nigerian and creator of the “Alexis” dress, a dress that went viral on Nigerian Twitter in 2020. She talks to me about fashion, building a business and her big decision to leave Nigeria.

Save for the fact that Melodia Ebete was born in Nigeria, we skip the details of her early life and start right at Redeemer’s University, a private university in Ede, Osun state. But Redeemer’s University was not her first choice; “I wanted to go to the University of Benin to study law,” she tells me. But with the constant strikes at Nigeria’s government-run Unis, she took the option of studying mass communication at a private university. She says that while her university experience was mostly forgettable, she was sure she didn’t have a future in mass communication.

“At the time, I didn’t think journalism or public relations paid well, and I figured quickly that I didn’t want to work for anyone. I always wanted my own business. In hindsight, I might have been afraid that I wouldn’t get a job, but it was majorly just that I wanted my own thing” It’s a sentiment I hear often from University students or recent graduates; yet, the reality of trying to raise capital for a business is daunting. Most people eventually abandon the dreams of building their own thing to join the 9-5 crowd. This compromise is not unreasonable when you consider that 90% of startups fail. How did Melodia beat the odds?

The hard work of building a fashion brand

“I didn’t think about what kind of business I wanted to start until after I left school, but I’m not sure fashion design was the first thing that came to mind. But I remember that after university, I did a few ushering jobs; it took me three ushering jobs to save up money to buy my first sewing machine in 2011. It cost me N18,000.” The same sewing machine costs ₦67,000 today.

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Melodia tells me that when she bought her sewing machine, she didn’t know the first thing about sewing or fashion design. So off she went to acquire skill, with a 14-month training program at what she calls a roadside tailoring shop. “If you learn at a roadside place, they don’t give you in-depth training, they just tell you what to do and give you instructions; they don’t tell you why you should do things a certain way. With places like this, you’ll learn the basics of how to use a sewing machine but they don’t teach you the techniques.”

While she knew that there were gaps in her learning and that she needed some more up-skilling to smooth out the rough edges, she found the idea of pursuing a Master’s degree more appealing. “At the time my friend was asking me difficult questions about why I wanted a Master’s degree. If I was so focused on fashion and wanted to create my own thing, why did I need a Master’s degree right then?”

Her friend’s questions and some introspection changed her mind and she figured that the motivation for her degree was wanting to please her parents–it wasn’t something she wanted to do. In the end, she jettisoned the idea of a Master’s degree and applied to a Haute Fashion house where she learnt illustration, speaking to clients, and other important soft skills. “It was more intense than anything at a roadside tailor,” she added.

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When you have conviction, bet big

One time-tested investment advice is to go big when you have conviction; after all, what’s the point of having belief and then following it up with a small position? When Melodia doubled down on learning at the second fashion school, she knew she would start a business upon graduation in 2016.

But there were drawbacks: she neither had a store nor the capital to set one up. So she started working from home and took orders from people she knew. “I made a lot of mistakes when I started. I often had to amend the clothes or make entirely new clothes for them. I wasn’t making money because I wasn’t charging a lot because I was scared they wouldn’t pay. It took me a year to save ₦100,000; I didn’t take profits or touch anything and it still took me a year.” Despite these challenges, Melodia kept at it, taking more training online and finally building the confidence to create her first collection in 2017.

Melodia’s first collection (2017)

She spent around ₦300,000 on creating her first collection and didn’t sell up to 10 of those clothes. “I was shuttling between Lagos and Abuja at the time to get the collection done, I’d hired a photographer and models, and even after all of that, the collection didn’t do well. At that point, I could have given up.”

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Learning from mistakes

Melodia says that despite the first stumble, she didn’t give up because she didn’t have a plan B. “It was fashion or nothing.” Without a plan B, the only option was to learn from her mistakes and fine-tune her strategy for the future. She learned the importance of having a marketing strategy. Without a known brand name and with zero advertising, her collection did not break through the noise or find brand awareness. “I learned all of these things after I made those mistakes. I tell people who want to start collections to do a lot of research and put other things in place.”

Despite the false start with the collection, her fashion business had started attracting other customers and by 2018, she had a few people who were interning and learning fashion design from her. In the same year, she launched her first physical store in Surulere, Lagos. Her confidence was growing; “by 2018, I had gone double the price. If I was charging ₦8,000 in 2017, I doubled that the next year.” Opening a store also turned out to be a great decision, allowing more people to know the Melodia brand, come into a physical store and have an experience beyond shopping online; it also coincided with the best year the brand had: 2020.

The dress that went viral

The Alexis dress by Melodia

One of the first tastes of success the brand had was a frill dress that sold about 70 pieces. “That was the moment that I felt like people knew me.” Those 70 pairs would pale in comparison to the dress that really went viral in 2020: the Alexis dress.

“I have no idea whatever happened with that dress because it was an experiment. The first time we made the dress, it was a long-sleeved version before the Covid lockdown. We posted it online and nobody noticed. Then we made a shorter sleeve for someone and posted it online and people liked it. That was it, nothing extra.” The dress became an internet sensation almost overnight.

“From the same fabric of the dress that went viral, we made about 34 pieces. When we ran out of that fabric, people were willing to also try it in other fabric choices and it just kept going.People liked that they could have it in different fabrics and that it was versatile enough to be worn to different occasions. At some point, the demand was so much, we had a waitlist.”

What type of setup do you need to handle this kind of demand as a small business? Melodia tells me that there were nine tailors working on only the Alexis dresses; they were making ten of those dresses daily. From that point, business had taken off and there was no looking back; while most people only saw the viral moment, there was four years of work behind it.

In the end, we made at least 3,000 of those dresses.

Leaving Nigeria

October 20, 2020 was the day I decided to leave Nigeria. “The day the shooting happened, I texted my friend to say, I have to leave this country, I can’t stay here. That day took a toll on my business because I’d really just had it with everything. As a business owner, you want to push, you want to own your business, but what happens when a country is not giving you what it’s supposed to be giving?”

Melodia describes her frustration with Nigeria and its failings. It’s a sentiment many young people share, with unemployment at record levels, inflation at a 17-year high and worsening insecurity. Even with all of these failings, packing up and leaving was still difficult. “It’s not easy to leave a business you started from scratch to come and start over somewhere else. But I had to make that decision because I want better, even if it’s going to take me another 4-5 years.”

After deciding to start over in 2020, it still took Melodia two years to act on it, eventually applying for a Master’s degree in Management in the UK. It’s a country where she has family and close friends and still gives her the assurance that she’s still close to Nigeria.

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask her if her plan is still fashion or nothing, she shrugs and tells me, “I believe people can evolve in so many ways.”

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