My father, the Master Tailor
My grandfather was a produce buyer and he wanted his son, who later became my father, to be one as well. But my father, who had always seen the White vicar of the Methodist church they attended in Abeokuta (now capital of Ogun State, Nigeria) well-dressed in suits, said he was not interested. He would, rather, want to be able to make those kinds of suits.
When the vicar was transferred to Lagos, my dad followed him and lived with him.
When he was applying to be admitted into St John's Aroloya on the Lagos Island, in 1926 or thereabouts, and asked what his father's name was, my dad said "Idowu." He did not understand that he was being asked about his dad's surname, which was Adeniji. The Okukenus of Adeniji Compound, Abeokuta, are royals.
From then on, my father, a prince, became Michael Oyebola (M. O.) Idowu.
My father would go to school and then go for his apprenticeship as a tailor with one man called Jibowu. He told me that a customer had brought a suit made in Manchester, England, which sleeve needed an alteration. But it could not be done at Jibowu's shop. My father promised himself that he would go and learn tailoring where that suit was made.
He used to swim with his friends including the one called Eja Nla, real name: Mobolaji Alakija. He recalled that once when he told them that he was going to the United Kingdom to learn tailoring, they said in jest whether he thought that being a good swimmer, he could swim his way across the channels to England. (Long laughter).
My father told me that he saved money from selling kerosene to be able to buy his ticket to travel by sea to England on an Elder Dempster's ship and he even had a little extra five pounds.
As luck would have it, the vicar was transferred to England and before he left, he told my father that whenever he came over, he should get in touch with him in Manchester.
In 1929, my father travelled to England.
He was back living with the vicar, whose name my father really never told me; he just called him "Vicar." He was apprenticed to a tailor in Manchester where they lived. Later, he told the vicar he wanted to have his own apartment. The vicar called a landlady and told her he had someone named Michael who wanted to let an apartment. When my dad got to the house and the lady opened the door for him, she said she thought the Michael was a White boy. The woman refused to rent the apartment until the vicar came to tell her that he could vouch for my dad's good behaviour and all that. Indeed, when my dad decided to leave the apartment for the Council flat he had bought, the lady now did not want him to go. She told my dad to let out his flat and remain in his apartment free of charge. My dad refused but promised to be coming back to help her as he had been doing.
My father finished his apprenticeship and worked for about three years at the same place and became a Master Tailor.
Early 1939, before the start of the Second World War, he got married to a White woman, Doreen Helen; you can see that my father was daring. They went on honeymoon and he decided that he and his wife would return to Nigeria. They travelled with an Italian ship. By then, the war had started but not as fierce as it later turned out. The Italians led by Mussolini were then neutral about the war, so the ship flew a white flag through to Nigeria.
In June 1939, my father set up his tailoring shop, M. O. Idowu & Sons, at Victoria Street, later called Nnamdi Azikiwe Street, on Lagos Island.
And, because he was not just London-trained but also married to a White woman, most of his customers were expatriates. The shop was downstairs while he and his wife lived upstairs.
When the Victoria Street road was to be expanded, he had no choice but to leave the location.
It was to this location, 1 McEwen Street, Yaba that he relocated to, around 1946. There was not much development around here then. The Herbert Macaulay Road was then called St George Road, and for any building to be approved, it must have a shop.
That is why the stretch of the road on both sides of the road is commercial.
Leaving secondary school for apprenticeship
I was supposed to have been born in 1946 but I was told that I kept coming and going and finally stayed in December 1949; at Kofo Abayomi Hospital, Apapa. That is why I was named Adebowale. My full name is Moses Adebowale Idowu. But my parents and many others call me Ade.
I got into Surulere Baptist School in 1955.
I then attended Methodist Boys' High School (MBHS). My classmates left in 1967. But I left earlier….
I was living with the President - now called Primate - of the Methodist Mission 'Remi Soremekun. He was my father's best man when he got married in England. There was also no boarding house then and we lived in Yaba while the school was on the Marina. The principal of the school, Mr (later Chief) David A. Famoroti, also lived on the premises, on the other wing of the president's building.
During one of my holidays, I used the principal's measurements with my father and made him a Safari or casual suit as a gift. You see, I had been with my father (in his tailoring work) since when I could see, right from my primary school. I was always inside the factory or workshop. When I was about seven or eight, I told him that I would be at his back and be a tailor like him. He looked at me and said, 'Ehen? Ok.'
So I told my father not to tell Mr Famoroti that I made the suit. I did not want him to know because I was one of the best arts students at MBHS then and I just did not want him to know that I was a tailor.
When the principal came to the shop and got the suit and wore it, he so much liked it because it fitted him perfectly. That was when my father let the cat out of the bag and proudly told him, 'your boy did it but he said I should not tell you.'
I did not know that my dad had exposed me..
When we resumed, I was in the class when I was told that the principal wanted to see me in his office. I could not remember any wrong thing I did. Could he have caught me and his children and Soremekun's climbing the mango tree behind his room, the one that Nnamdi Azikiwe climbed in those days at MBHS and got him into trouble? I approached his office shivering. He excused the teacher who was with him. Ah: my offence must be bigger than I thought, for the principal to have excused the teacher with him. That heightened my tension.
He was wearing the casual suit. He told me to sit down. I told him I was okay standing. But he insisted, so I sat at the tip of the chair. I could not place my hand on his desk.
Then he said: 'Ade, I want to give you a good piece of advice. You know, I have B.A. and M. A. in English. I cannot even afford to buy a plot of land, not to talk of wanting to build on it.' I wondered where he was going with his story. He continued: 'You can be whatever you want to be, a lawyer, doctor, engineer, artist, whatever, but do not waste your talent.'
He concluded: 'Your father told me that you were the one who made this casual suit I am wearing. He told me that I should not tell you that he told me, but I cannot keep it to myself. I will be doing a disservice to you. It is so lovely. I am proud of you. Don't waste your time going to a university. Don't waste your time working under anybody. Go back to your father and learn this trade. That is my advice to you. And, mark my words, you will not regret it.'
Till date, I have not forgotten the encounter. And, I am always grateful to Chief Famoroti.
I thanked him for the advice.
And, it was my last day in the school.
I was in Form Two.
I went home.
My mum said, if that be the case, I would have to continue being taught at home while I did vocational training.
So I focused on learning the trade and doing my studies with my mum.
I recall that during my apprenticeship, one of my father's journeymen, Brother Ganiyu, beat me and I reported him to my father. My offence was that I did not loosen what he had asked me to. There was then no whipping machine, everything was done manually. When he showed my dad what I did, he (dad) brought out his cane and handed it to him to give me six strokes on my hand. The guy was doing it gently but my dad vowed that he would sack him if he did not flog me properly. When that was done, my father ordered me back to the factory to do whatever I was asked to do properly.
The factory had always treated me like an egg and I enjoyed it but that day, my dad clipped my wings.
I later reported my father to my mum but he explained to me nicely that when I got to the level of cutting a suit, he would teach me but I must know the nitty gritty at the factory or else I would not be able to run it in future. He added that I also had to respect my seniors at the factory, which was why he asked the gentleman to beat me; to boost his ego. Further that if I made mistake at the factory and got disciplined for it, I should not come and tell him because he would beat me by himself.
The following day, I began to even ask Brother Ganiyu whatever he wanted done. I even offered to go on errands to Sabo that my junior apprentices were sent, to buy them stuff such as akara. At Sabo, the traders would always sing 'Oyinbo pepper' for me because I was fairer in complexion than now When I spoke Yoruba, they would wonder how I knew how to. Some would call me 'half-cast' and I would ask if they were full cast.
What I found out about the workshop was that different sets made the pockets of the trousers and the pockets of the suits, collars, sleeves, and they never agreed. So, I got close to the different people and mastered each of the specialisations. I spent like a month on each of the segments.
About a year and a half after I joined my father fully, I went to him and requested to make a suit with a pattern. Because then I could not do offhand cutting like my father used to do. He then asked me to make one for the son of Magistrate Abayomi. I did it and after his assessment that I did it properly, he got me out of the factory and I was by his side studying how he made offhand cutting without a pattern. This required geometric calculations. So, my mum devoted time to teach me geometry, algebra…and government.
After having the mastery of cutting, about two years into the job, my father made me the assistant manager. There was a factory manager, whom I had now become more knowledgeable than. But my dad could not have put me above him, because I was far younger than him and he was my dad's first cousin. However, he was humble enough to learn from me those things he did not know. I succeeded in reducing the length of time of making a suit from seven days to three by changing all the patterns.
When I broke down my methods to my dad, he asked me how I knew them, I told him I dreamt about it, and that was true. I always found the solutions while asleep. I would wake up and remember everything and I would execute it as seen.
Off to England
One day, my uncle, Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, who later became the Chief Justice of Nigeria, came to the shop, and wanted a working jacket. I was about taking his measurements and he refused, that my father should do it instead. My father said he should allow me.When I finished, he told my father to confirm that I did it properly. He left, only when my dad told him that I got it. My dad also said that I should not mind my uncle; that I should go ahead and sew the jacket. When he came back and tried it on, he was delighted that it fitted properly. He said that it seemed that he had been born with it. Then, again, as my father had done with my principal: he let it out that I was the one who made the jacket. Justice Ademola's reaction was almost similar to Chief Famoroti's: he said my father should send me to England to learn the science of cutting as he had done. My dad had gone back in 1955 to England to learn the science of cutting at the Tailor and Cutter Academy, on 41 Wardour Street, London.
The following month, I was on my way to England.
I was supposed to spend four years in the school but I spent only six months, because most of the things to be taught I had already known. So, they kept promoting me till I sat for the final examination and came out with First Class. Thereafter, I started working at Saville Row, Harrods and one or two other places.
The year was 1970. I was twenty-one years and living big. I was earning one hundred and fifty pounds a week. I was living on Kempton Road, East Ham in East London, E6.
It was close to the house of my dad's lawyer, A B Olaiya. So, when he came to London, he saw how I was living there. I gave him a chaperone to follow him to Milan and back. I took him to Club 21 in Soho where I was a member. He had a good time. I gave him the secret of the girls who would dance with the guests and ask for gin but instead were giving water, and would split the money supposedly paid for gin with the bartender.
When he returned to Lagos, he told my father that I was likely not to return to Nigeria because I was living big.
My dad feigned an illness and that he was hospitalised.
Back to Nigeria and disagreement with Dad
That made me return to Nigeria.
Then, you had to have a guarantor to get an international passport, and the person could take the passport from you.
So, my dad took my passport from me and kept it in his safe.
At the end of the first month, he gave me twenty-one pounds, which he said, when I asked, was the stipend he would be paying me monthly.
Amazed, I asked him what he expected twenty-one pounds would do for me?
I told him that would not be enough for me to buy drinks when I hung out with my friends at Caban Bamboo (then the rave club, owned by Bobby Benson).
He told me that I was not paying for house rent, food or anything at all and that the money was just a stipend.
I told him that he should consider me his partner and pay me thirty per cent of the profits made in the shop and I would take care of myself, rent my house and all that.
I went and reported him to his lawyer, J O Ogunro, not as the son of Mr. Idowu, his client, but as a client myself. I paid the necessary fees. When I filled the form, I simply wrote Adebowale. So, when I appeared before him, he was surprised that I was the one. I told him that this was a business arrangement and he should treat it so.
We had a meeting with my dad. He made a case for me; that my demand was legitimate. My dad said I was too young to ask for that kind of money. In response, I told him that, if I was not too young to work and earn that kind of money why would I be too young to spend that kind of money? Mr Ogunro said that my dad could give me twenty per cent but my dad stood his ground: twenty-one naira monthly. He added that, after all, everything would eventually belong to me. I told him that was his prerogative but my earning was different.
My father then went to report me to Angus Pratt, who had been a Class Master at Methodist High School. Mr Pratt, who was now running a stenographers' academy or the like, invited me over, told me to go and be patient, while he spoke some Yoruba proverbs, one of which translates literally to licking a hot soup slowly and another is that when a flame dies, it is replaced by ashes…. I simply thanked him and left.
When I returned home, I went straight to my dad and told him that Mr Pratt was not his friend, that he was planting a bad seed in my mind, that he said it was when he (my dad) died that I would become something. I told him that I wanted him to be alive to see how great I would become and I would take care of him.
I questioned why my dad did not report me to people who had business acumen such as the accountant, Akintola Williams and Moses Adekoyejo Majekodunmi, founder of St Nicholas Hospital?
You see, I had seen the blueprint of my peers in England for the next thirty years and I had envisioned that M. O. Idowu would not just be a tailoring company but involved in the manufacturing of zips, buttons and such other accessories. I had explained this to my dad, that I could take up an acre of his property at Ilupeju and set up an accessory manufacturing outfit. He had told Mr Pratt that I wanted one hundred thousand pounds for that and noted that I did not know the value of money. Which explained Pratt's admonition that hot soups are not taken hurriedly. My dad went back and told Mr Pratt that I said he was a mere stenographer without business acumen. Mr Pratt invited me over again and I told him to his face that he was a teacher of stenographers in his non-office hours - he worked at Great Nigeria Insurance - and I knew he was good at his job but he lacked business acumen.
I left my dad's company, moved out of the house to one of my mum's houses at Nathan Street, off Ojuelegba. My dad said that I would return after I must have suffered enough. I told him to not expect me back.
I withdrew some of the two thousand or so pounds that I had in Lloyd's Bank in England, set up MASFIT, the MAS, being my initials. I got some machines on hire purchase from the Singer company at Alagomeji, Ebute Metta. Once in a while my dad came to see me; I did not return the visits.
On a particular month, I could not pay Singer what was due and the rep was going to be in trouble. When he came to collect the amount, I told him that I was expecting payment from a customer that evening and that he should be patient. He threatened to remove the head of my machine and render the machine useless. When he insisted on removing the head, I invited him to my room in the shop - I lived in one of the rooms in the two-bedroom flat, while the other was the workshop - as if to talk with him but I locked the door while I went to meet my customer, an elderly person, who not only paid me for the job but also added something extra because I told him my plight with Singer. He said it was a gift not a loan.
I returned to the shop, opened the room's door. The man was angry and it was too late for him to return to his office. He lamented that he would be sacked when he resumed the following day. I told him, not to worry, that I already had his money but I would not give him, and that I would be at his office thirty minutes before his resumption hour of 8:00am.
The next morning I was there as promised, met the manger, who was a Cameroonian, told him what happened, pleaded that the rep should not be punished. I gave him the money and offered to offset my debt to the company. The manager advised that I did not have to, rather, I could redeem the two months' payments and use the remaining money I wanted to pay to take another machine on hire purchase. So, I took another whipping machine which I really needed as I used to outsource the whipping of my trousers' edges. I also bought some personal household electronics - a stereo player, air conditioner, fan, everything I needed in my house - all on hire purchase and I never defaulted again. In fact, even before the month ended, I was already there to pay back. And, that rep was promoted to a supervisor, because they told him he had an honest client.
From that space, I moved to Lisabi Street in Surulere. I had fifteen machines. I was doing quite well.
Then, I learnt that my dad had fallen ill and was hospitalised. This time, he was truly sick. He was in the hospital for three months. I ran my dad's shop from morning till about five O'clock and returned to mine. By 10 O'clock, I was at the club till the wee hours. Of course, I also had my staff. That was 1974 or '75. I was still a bachelor. I got married in 1977.
My customers and friends then included some of the top army officers.
It was only when my dad was well enough to come downstairs to work that he discovered that I was the one who ran the shop. He was thankful. I did the work for another week and left again when I was sure that he was able to carry on.
He sent a message to me that I could come back and work with the thirty per cent profit arrangement. I told him I was not interested. I offered to come if he needed my services.
I later set up a factory at Ajakaiye Street behind the former Punch Newspapers' office at Idi Mangoro, off Agege Motor Road. But, I stopped doing bespoke tailoring because I already had a renown as an Idowu and I did not want my dad to lose his clients. So, I veered into industrial sewing, making ceremonial uniforms for the police and the armed forces.
During the coming of the Buhari-Idiagbon military government in 1984, I, like many doing businesses with the government, had some problems. But I was not locked up because I followed due processes, I did not over-invoice or whatever.
Business became tough.
I moved to Sagamu, and set up a factory making t-shirts and sport wears, in partnership with some Indians.
Meanwhile, my dad's last wife's younger brother had ran his shop aground.
My return to my dad's shop, never to leave again
In 1987, while on a ninety-day spiritual sojourn in Iraye, a village in Epe - I am a member of the Celestial Church - a prophet from Ekiti or somewhere far away told me that my dad was on his sickbed and I should not let him die without blessing me. He said that I should go and take care of him as it was my duty as the first son, noting that my father took care of his own father. He added that if I did not go, I would regret it, no matter how I rich I became. Oh, he had said I would be rich and all that.
I told our shepherd that I had to leave immediately. It was a Sunday. I had already finished my ninety days' sojourn, anyway.
As soon as I got here, I found my father on the bed. When I announced my presence, he opened his eyes and said 'Ade, ah.' I told him I was coming from church where I was informed of his sickness and I had a spiritual injunction to come over and take care of him. He asked if I would come and run the workshop and I said 'Yes.' He asked me if I knew that the business had been run aground, I told him not to worry about that. He was seventy that year
The next day, I was back on the beat. I had left the Sagamu factory with my partners. I brought the machines that we were using for industrial sewing at Ajakaiye here. I let go the boys who were working with my dad and trained new ones.
I have remained here since then.
I rebuilt the place to the amazement of my father. When he was able to come downstairs and saw the transformation, he wondered if he was in a tailoring shop in England. He said, so this was what I had also wanted to do that he never understood. I told him that it was simply that it was not the time for it.
He prayed for me.
He left the running of the shop and did much more. As it were, I retired him.
He died on 1997, living until the age of eighty-nine years.
None of my siblings has the patience for this job but they are doing well in their various undertakings.
My son, Michael (Oluwaseyi), is here, with his own ideas on how to carry on in my absence.
I currently work with a set of professionals who could run workshops of their own. One of them, Moshood, has been with me for thirty years. So we have partnership arrangements, not employer-employee relationships. Today, there are only a few people who want to be apprentices. That is a major problem.
I am grateful to God for everything, despite all that I did or went through. Imagine that at my age, I can still stand for about eight hours to cut. It is only by the grace of God. I have no single regret.
To Keep Us Going
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Your kind support will keep us going. You can do so securely here.
Taiwo Obe, FNGE
Commonwealth Professional Fellow
Founder/Director, The Journalism Clinic
+234 818 693 5900