An opulent Nigerian wedding – opulent with a capital ‘O’ – is on at Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill in England.
Guests pour in at the venue in a fleet of luxury cars wearing the official dress code – black tie and evening gown. The venue, immaculately decorated with a million white roses, is an impressive masterpiece of Baroque architecture providing awe-inspiring views for the 400 guests lucky enough to be handpicked for the event
The union between Folarin Alakija, son of Nigeria’s richest woman Folorunso Alakija with an estimated net worth of $1.6 billion according to FORBES, and Nazanin Jafarian Ghaissarifar, has been the talk of town ever since their traditional wedding at the Oriental Hotel in Victoria Island, Lagos, a couple of months earlier.
Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, and a host of high-net worth guests slowly trickle into the Marlborough Room, with its beautiful double-vaulted ceiling and two stunning chandeliers.
The floral arrangements, designed by celebrity florist Jeff Leatham, who frequently designs flowers for the stars, including Oprah Winfrey, left his trademark touch turning the hall into the scene of a beautiful fairy tale.
Guests were treated to a lavish five-course menu and as the night drew to an end, the fireworks display provided the perfect backdrop for American pop star, Robin Thicke, who wowed the crowds to a private performance of his hits before the 12-foot cake was cut.
“Weddings in Nigeria are a big deal and the bigger your name, the harder you have to go to make sure no stone is left unturned. This is your reputation. People will come only to see how lavish or basic your wedding is and the blogs will do a very good job of publicizing every single detail for the rest of the world to see. It has become a reputation maker or killer,” says Bunmi Ajao, founder of Elite Events in Lagos.
The wedding industry has seen a significant rise in Africa’s most populous economy.
According to a recent report by TNS Global, of some $17 million spent on parties in Lagos over a five-month period in 2014, at least one-fifth was attributed to weddings. However, Nigeria has had its fair share of challenges in recent years. Reuters estimates that the economy shrank by 1.5% in 2016 for its first annual contraction in 25 years due to lower revenues from oil and a shortage of hard currency.
But when it comes to spending on that special day, it seems the show must still go on.
“We can’t stop getting married just because there is a recession in the country. It is a lie! It cannot happen. Nigerians love life and weddings are the best ways for us to celebrate the love we have for one another. It is about the entire family coming together to share in the joy of their loved ones. The budgets range from as little as $5,000 to $1 million sometimes and it just depends on what you want,” says Ajao.
After five years in the wedding planning business, the 35 year old, knows just how important it is to get the little details right.
“It is all about planning. I work with so many color-coded excel sheets that track everything from catering, to logistics, to designers and even floral arrangements. But at the end of the day, no matter how well you plan, you cannot avert the last minute drama that comes with the job,” she says.
This is something she learned last year when an ice sculpture ordered by a client began melting before the wedding ceremony began.
“We had to think on our feet. The sculpture was flown in from Dubai that morning and due to African timing, we were running about two hours late and the power supply that was keeping the ice went off suddenly!”
The disaster was averted when she secured a secondary freezer to keep the ice sculpture intact until the nuptials. According to Ajao, Nigeria has at least two weddings every weekend. Depending on the tribe and religion, typical modern day weddings in Nigeria comprise of the introduction, traditional rites, court rites and religious rites.
The magic of every union has to be captured on film, and this trend has given rise to a mini-industry of wedding photographers and filmmakers.
“Weddings are my main bread and butter. You should never underestimate how important the big day is for clients and it is my job to capture every moment of the special occasion which stays with the couple for the rest of their lives,” says Adesina Adegbola, a wedding photographer. He charges anywhere from $500 to $5,000.
Post-production memories cannot look staged and as a result most families spend thousands of dollars to book photographers who can take candid pictures.
“Most couples are looking for videographers who can produce documentary-style films that are a perfect blend of emotion and laughter and something they can keep in their archives forever. That is where I come in,” says Paul Yusuf, the founder of Epro films.
“My job is to capture moments on video that last forever for the couple and it is something I take very seriously.”
Trust and discretion are at the core of his success. These traits are all the more crucial when couples choose people who can capture their special day for eternity.
“It is something you cannot get wrong. After we shoot the video footage, we need to now spend hours in post-production to ensure we provide the best memories from the wedding. It is our job to capture moments the couple may not be able to see because they are too busy during the occasion,” says Yusuf.
Nigerian weddings are also breaking geographical boundaries and it is quite common for couples to tie the knot in Italy, United States, France and even Spain. This has also presented an opportunity for ancillary services in the country.
“We offer great travel packages for those looking to take their wedding outside Nigeria to that special location. Every week we see several couples enquiring about their honeymoon destinations. Dubai is becoming quite a favorite for most Nigerians as well as the Seychelles,” says Frank Bonsu, owner of BCD Travel and Tours.
“Destination weddings are the new thing in Nigeria. Last year we had a client fly out his family to Lake Como for a beautiful wedding and we also had another wedding in Las Vegas. People want memorable experiences and if they can afford it, they usually get what they want for that special day,” says Ajao.
Then comes the styling.
“Our wedding range is probably our most sought-after collection for both men and women,” says Nigeria’s leading fashion designer Mai Atafo. The Mai Atafo Inspired brand has been providing lavish wedding gowns for Nigerians for almost a decade and even in recessionary times, it seems business is still booming.
His pieces cost anything from $1,000 to $10,000 depending on your budget.
“We all want a fairy tale wedding and to get that, you need to dress the part… For that one special day, everything needs to be perfect and it is my job to make sure every single client is 100 percent satisfied when they leave our shop,” he says.
From lavish destinations to private performances from the world’s biggest celebrities, weddings in Nigeria continue to be a sign of social status, which shows no sign of slowing down even in an extremely challenging economic climate. As more and more weekends get booked by couples looking to tie the knot, a lifeline is also being provided to thousands of small and medium enterprises who are increasingly dependent on the business of weddings for their survival.
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