Entrepreneurs · Fashion & Lifestyle · Interview

IN CREATIVE SPACES WE TRUST

by Akumbu Uche

I love well decorated interiors and as such, a good chunk of my browsing time is spent on virtual hangouts like Apartment Therapy and The Selby. Recently, whilst searching for similar websites to feast my eyes on, I came across Okiriko, a Nigerian blog dedicated to indigenous interior design.

Despite being less visual than I had anticipated, the intimately written but highly informative articles on offer, dishing on decorating tips and urging for an environment friendly approach to design, resonated with me.

Fascinated, I e-mailed some questions to one of the site’s Administrators, SCAD*-trained artist and interior designer, Azuka Okonji, and she graciously answered them.

 

Azuka Okonji
Azuka Okonji

 

Before co-founding Okiriko and starting up your own design firm [Ekaje Design Studio], you were already an accomplished artist and illustrator. Why did you make the switch to Interior Design?

Actually, Interior Design was my first love. I was 14 when I decided I wanted to become an interior designer. I couldn’t get enough of magazines like House and Garden. I would keep stacks of them and pore through them over and over again. So you can imagine my disappointment when it was time to do JAMB and I looked through the courses searching for interior design to no avail, I remember seeing Industrial Design in OAU* and briefly wondering if the courses were related. So Fine and Applied Art for me, was the natural substitute; I had been drawing and meddling with colours since I could remember so doing something in the Arts was inevitable.

Do you find that these two (Fine Arts and Interior Design) complement or conflict each other?

They complement. Illustrations that I do, drawings, design, graphics, they all feed and strengthen the same creative source.

A lot of people use the terms Interior Design and Interior Decoration interchangeably; what’s the difference?

An interior decorator “decorates”. The surface treatments you see like curtains, wall treatments, light fixtures, flooring and the tasteful and artistically pleasing – arranging all these elements in a space is the work of a decorator. Anyone really, with a creative flair and a good eye for colour can decorate.

A designer on the other hand is an “interior architect”; we deal with the actual space planning of the interior of any structure. We make decisions based on quality of life and ergonomics. We study the interaction of man and his environment and we bring solutions that maximise quality of life. We study a bit of everything – construction, electrical layouts, plumbing, lighting, furniture, the merits and demerits of various materials, like carpet, wool, paint, etcetera.

So in other words, an interior designer should be able to design a home for a 70-year old man in a wheel chair who is allergic to natural fibre, and loves to entertain. The architect deals with the design of the external shell of a building while, ideally, a designer takes over the interiors and does everything else. This of course also includes decorating.

Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m your client; could you help me find contemporary art pieces that match my design theme/colour palette?

Absolutely, although my personal opinion as an artist is that art pieces shouldn’t necessarily always be made to “match the décor”.

The world is going green and I would like to adopt that kind of lifestyle. How easy is it to find eco-friendly furnishings in Nigeria?

Very easy. Under-development comes to our aid a lot in Nigeria, not because of our love for the earth, but because we are still a very “manual” society for the most part. We take resources from the earth and produce what we need with very little processing.

The problem I see in Nigeria is not “going green” but staying green consciously. In many rural parts of the country people are still building their homes with materials they get from their immediate environment, [for example] my grandfather’s 4-storey building was built entirely with mud. We plant indigenous plants, we eat organically grown fruits and vegetables when they are in season, we call a carpenter to make a lot of our furniture, and we are not a wasteful society, even if a lot of that is due to poverty.

What we should watch out for are our production and use of plastics and most importantly, the things we import. We need better quality control.

Is it possible to redecorate my home/workspace without necessarily buying new things?

Yes of course, I have an article on my website, “Making the Most Bang for your Buck!” that gives pointers on this issue. We have the wrong belief that oodles of money need to be spent to redecorate; it is not necessarily true.

Looking around your environment and seeing things with “new eyes” shows one different possibilities. This is also a part of going green.

In our society, the services of a professional are more likely to be hired by the Oga Sirs and Big Madams. Do you have any D.I.Y tips for those on a limited budget?

There are loads of websites and magazines that offer countless D.I.Y ideas. Just Google! Be creative with what you have, never be scared of trying out a new idea.

Wallpaper has a reputation for being tacky so I’m surprised to find that you make a case for it on the website.

Ha ha, in what world is wallpaper tacky? Not at all! I pointed it out as an option and a good one. The problem I see with wallpaper is the perception that it ages badly, it’s a pain to put up and take down and after all it’s only just “printed paper”. But wallpaper like everything else has evolved a lot – from washable, to paintable to the range of beautiful patterns ranging from floral to geometric. Its application method has also greatly improved as well as its being easier to uninstall.

Wallpaper still maintains a relevant role in design and I have seen a couple of wallpaper shops here that have a very impressive range of product.

Final question. Home improvement and decoration shows are one of the attractions of cable TV; any chance we might soon see you doing something similar on one of our local channels?

Ooh, nothing like that being planned for the immediate future, but nothing would make me happier!

 

*SCAD – Savannah College of Art and Design, USA

*OAU – Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife

Entrepreneurs · Fashion & Lifestyle · Interview

DESIGNING DIVA: Akpos Okudu

Port Harcourt based designer, Akpos Okudu is one designer to watch out for. Her chic designs have made her a regular fixture at Le Petit Marche, Lagos and celebrities Joke Silva, Adesuwa Onyenokwe and Omowunmi Akinnifesi have been spotted wearing her outfits.

Here, the Future Awards nominee talks to me about how she got started, her fascination with bright colours and some of her trade secrets.

Akpos Okudu

Who is Akpos Okudu?

I’m a University of Port Harcourt History and Diplomacy graduate, a full time fashion designer and I live in Port Harcourt where I run my eponymous label.

What does Akpos Okudu, the clothing line stand for?

Akpos Okudu is a ready to wear line, known for feminine, bright, romantic pieces that are chic and fun.

Your retail prices start from N7, 000. Why should we buy clothes from you, as opposed to buying our own fabric and taking it to the neighbourhood tailor/seamstress?

Buying from Akpos Okudu is definitely stress-free. You get your money’s worth in terms of great fabric, great fit and great finish and I believe that N 7,000 is relatively affordable.

Your grandmother was a dressmaker; your aunt a designer. Obviously, you were exposed to the intricacies of fashion quite early.

Yes, my Grandma and Aunty both worked in fashion and I spent some holidays as a child at my Grandma’s and watched her sew so I guess that rubbed off on me. As I grew older, the interest certainly grew and I made the decision to learn more. The rest, as they say, is history.

What informed your decision to make it a career? How did your friends and family react?

It wasn’t a laid out plan. I started out making clothes for my friends, then friends’ friends, and it slowly transitioned into a business. My parents were very supportive of my decision. They were cool with it as long as I graduated. Having their approval was surely a blessing and my friends supported me by buying my clothes.

You have mentioned that among other things, you take inspiration from flamenco dancers. How do you think this has influenced your choice of colours and fabrics?

I really have a thing for colour, as I think it looks beautiful on women and can really lift your spirit so I gravitate towards colourful objects. It’s definitely something I inject into my collections, season after season.

Your signature colours are bright and bold but you have also worked with pastel colours, for example, the Lola dress from your 2011 collection. In your own opinion, what types of hues are most suited to the African woman?

I really love how bright hues look on dark skinned women. Colours like orange, turquoise and fuchsia can really make you glow but I know for sure [that] colour is a mood thing, so the colour a woman wears really tells you how she’s feeling.

You use a wide variety of fabrics and prints – from African prints to satin. Where do you get your fabrics from?

Sadly, I can’t tell. That’s a trade secret. [Laughs]

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Your clothes all have interesting names – Tarela, Eniye, Nicole. Why do you name your clothes? Why not give them numbers?

[Laughs] I think it’s more fun when each piece has a name.

How do you come up with the names? Are they in honour of friends or does the style scream ‘such and such is my name’?

It’s really random how I pick the names.  I name them after women I admire or my friends or just of whom the piece reminds me.

Your fashion shoots are always tastefully done and in very beautiful locations. How do you choose your models and locations? Is there a particular photographer you use?

Awww, thank you. I’m very particular about the mood I want to evoke with each lookbook so I put a lot of thought, time and effort into my shoots. Even with the models I’m very particular about whom I want. For the photographer it has to be someone who gets my vision.

One of your admirable traits is your out-of-the-box thinking. This is evident in not only your fashion style, but also the way you do business. You have chosen to sell your clothes not in a store but online. What informed this decision?

I started selling online because I didn’t have a store and because I have a lot of clients abroad who can’t buy from a store in Nigeria so it is convenient for me and my clients. Akpos Okudu is now stocked at L’Espace* though.

You started out with the blog Ijaw Girl and now you have your own proper website. How has the journey been so far?

My blog has been great but it was mandatory for us to grow into a website. I explained what I wanted and my boyfriend set it up. [Laughs] It’s been great and it’s been an easy way for the world to reach us.

*L’Espace is located at 19A Olosa Street (Off Karimu Kotun Street), Victoria Island, Lagos.

Entrepreneurs · Fashion & Lifestyle · Interview

TAKING AFRICAN FASHION TO NEW HEIGHTS

The clothing line Busayo NYC is all about style with an African twist. The face behind the brand is Nigerian-American designer, Busayo Michelle Olupona, who is as warm and gracious as her clothing is beautiful. Her blog posts and Facebook page are usually filled with tutorials, behind-the-scenes photos and fun giveaways.

Here, she talks to me about her unique business model, her cultural influences, how she handles criticism and of course, how she is redefining the concept of African fashion.

Designer, Busayo Olupona

Hello Busayo, how is work coming up on your 2012 collection? What can we expect?

A lot more accessories, integration of different types of African prints beyond our Nigerian offerings. A lot more classic shapes but more fun prints.

You have come a long way from being teased, as a teenager, for wearing adire shirts to being renowned for your work with African prints. How did that happen?

Immigrating to the US was a challenge; we left Nigeria and moved to a small town in California. I was about 12, kids can be tremendously cruel at that age and in retrospect, it is a very typical immigrant story but anyway I remember the excitement I had over this one particular outfit, which didn’t fly at all at my school. I think the change comes with age, you learn more about who you are and begin to appreciate the very thing that makes you different from other people. Also, I have to credit my parents – I grew up in a very Yoruba home and never lost my appreciation and love for our culture and that includes our fabric.

Somewhere along the line, you worked as a corporate lawyer. How easy or difficult was it for you to quit your job and work in fashion full-time?

It has been challenging. Practicing law in a firm, I knew quite early it wasn’t really for me but for a variety of reasons, mostly financial and because I had worked hard to earn the degree and become a lawyer, I felt compelled to stay in the position even though it didn’t make me happy.  Some define insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Well, I was practicing law and was really unhappy and was expecting that one day I would wake up and feel happy about my life and of course, it doesn’t work like this. I have since learned that I am the co-creator of my life and if I am unhappy with something, it is my responsibility to change it. It is hard and I am not sure what the end road is but I am enjoying creating my own business, doing something that I love and sharing the rich offerings of our cultures with the world and there is no better feeling than having someone wear a piece of mine and say that she loves it. It makes me happy.

The name Busayo, in Yoruba means “addition to joy”. Most of your clothes have distinctively Yoruba names as well (e.g. Dayo, Lade). How do you decide what name best matches a particular outfit?

Well, most of the pieces are named after someone in my extended family and after people I love. I think there is only one piece that has a western name and that, is named after someone very dear to me. There are some, that are not of relatives – Segun and Nneka, but I have always loved these names. My three favourite pieces from my first collection were named after my siblings – Tolu, Bola and Jide.

Curiously, some of your most feminine apparels have masculine names (e.g. Jacob, Kunle). Why?

The first collection was primarily named after the women in my family. I decided to honour the men in my family with the second collection and this recent collection was named after the men in my family. My Dad is Jacob and one of my uncles is Kunle. Not sure what I am going to do for the next one but I want the line to always have a Yoruba/Nigerian feel and be grounded in that culture.

Your scarves are popular with both sexes. Do you have plans to venture into menswear?

I love dressing women, it is what I know and what I enjoy though I would never say never. I am open to the possibility of collaboration on men’s wear and that is something I am looking into. [For now] I am enjoying just working on accessories and creating my own designs.

You are based in New York and have a sizeable American clientele. How do you cater to resident Nigerians who would love to own your clothes?

I would love to have a boutique in Lagos and luckily, through social media, I do have a following in Nigeria. I am primarily based in the States but my goal is to create a life in both the States and Nigeria. I love Nigeria very much and as a nation, we have a tremendous amount to offer.  In addition, I would very much like to be part of the fashion space within Nigeria, and continue to be a contributor to the growth and development of the Nigerian fashion scene.

You once came under fire for using a Caucasian model in your Fall 2010 campaign. What do you make of such criticism?

It is an interesting dialogue to have.  It wasn’t a deliberate choice not to cast a black model in the campaign, the model we casted frankly, was the best girl we saw. I think it is incredibly limiting to say, “I will only have black women in my pieces”. I design for all women.  It has always been important for me that my clothes and pieces remain versatile. I think any woman should be able to wear a Busayo piece, black, white or yellow. If there is a piece that only works on a black woman, then I believe that I have failed as a designer. Also, my customers are all across the spectrum racially and I love that. I think African fashion needs to move beyond making clothing only for black people. Issey Miyake doesn’t say “We only dress the Japanese”.  Other brands do not limit themselves in this way so why should we.  Part of what is exciting about what is happening in fashion right now is the cross-national and cross-continental dialogues that are happening, in particular, between the West and Africa and I think it is exciting, it opens up more options for young Africans in particular who can now buy pieces that represent their culture and yet are modern and contemporary. I am comfortable in my skin and my identity as an African woman and don’t need to prove anything to anyone.

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I have always thought that clothes sell better in stores because that way, the customer gets to feel the texture and try them on. You on the other hand, retail primarily through your website. Why do you adopt this approach?

As I was starting out, it made sense to sell online as I am able to grow the business organically. Distributing to stores is a goal that I am currently working on and it will happen soon.  I host trunk shows throughout the Northeast [US] and am currently working on creating a Pop-Up Store so I am always creating more traditional retail environments.

Your designs seem more suited to athletic and hourglass silhouettes. How about women who have androgynous or plus-size frames? What looks can they rock?

Great question. I think the singular most common feedback I have received about the business is the demand for plus-sizes. Women are incredibly vocal about their demands and needs, which is great. I am certainly working on expanding the line into plus-sizes and ensuring the fit on plus-sizes is stellar. I don’t believe in rushing into something unless I know that it will be done well.

These days, African prints are as ubiquitous as jeans. How do you distinguish yourself from the crowd? Might you consider using other fabrics?

I think I have a great eye for fabric and prints. There is an abundance of African prints on the market, I will agree but I do think there is a lot of room to continue to make interesting and more dynamic print choices and also, combining different African prints. I have always been interested in the potential of other fabrics like lace and Aso-Oke. I do integrate other types of fabrics on a few pieces, but I personally love African prints and will not shy away from using it. I don’t do this because this is the trend, I do it because sourcing and working with our fabrics is one of my great pleasures in my life and I always want to keep doing that. I think the potential for these fabrics is immense and we haven’t even begun to actualize what is possible with this fabric. It is not as ubiquitous as jeans, just yet.

Some designers send their clothes to celebrities in order to get free publicity. What do you think of this practice?

I think it is great. Like it or not, people see a celebrity wearing something and they want to wear it as well. It is something that I am working on. There are a number of celebrities, who I would love to get into my pieces. Kerry Washington, Adepero Oduye – an upcoming, seriously talented, Nigerian-American actress, Asa … there are so many.

What advice would you give to a young person trying to break into the fashion industry?

I think I would give this advice to anyone pursuing any dream. Don’t stop or kill that little voice that is trying to lead you to find and discover your true and authentic self. It is hard or it appears hard as the road might not be quite paved yet and you have to dig that road yourself. I think we all came to give our gifts to the world and it is our responsibility to discover our gift and use it to better the world. My advice is, figure out what is that you are meant to be doing and however, you can be doing it in the world, no matter how small, it is your responsibility to do so. So take classes, learn how to sew, spend time training your eye, talk to people who are already doing what it is that you want to do. Make pieces for yourself and wear it. There are so many ways and sometimes, what you want to do doesn’t quite exist in the form that you would like so you might have to create it. I think this advice applies for whatever it is you want to be doing, not just fashion.

 

 

Entrepreneurs · News · Science & Tech

NIGERIAN STUDENT CREATES SOCIAL NETWORKING SITE

by Akumbu Uche

A 22-year old Nigerian student has created a new social networking service, Ploggin.com

Its creator, Nnoduka Eruchalu, is a student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) where he is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering.

Nnoduka Eruchalu*

Ploggin is an online platform that encourages worldwide interaction over the Internet. Much like popular social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, the site supports micro-blogging and live-feeds.

However, there are a few distinguishing features. Users have the option of posting comments anonymously and a user can upload a media stream containing a maximum of seven audio, picture or video files.

The site’s slogan reads, “Your collage defines you. Your anonymous feedback defines others.”

“I noticed that on other sites, people usually post a lot of unnecessary pictures and information. Again, the posting format I have created allows users to be more authentic, honest and less self-censoring”, explained Eruchalu.

“It took me about three months to write code, programme and set up the website. During this time, I was also working as a Teaching Assistant at school and interning at Microsoft”, he said.

Asked about plans for the future, Eruchalu said, “I hope that Ploggin grows but I am already working on my next idea. There is a lot of speculation about what the next major platform will be and when it comes, I want to be a part of it.”

Since its launch in November, Ploggin has attracted 250 users and a growing number of visitors.

 

* Photo courtesy of Nkemka Uche.

Entrepreneurs · Interview

SHOPPING MADE EASY

If you are anything like me, you love to send gifts to friends and family all year round but sometimes, distance can be a problem. You may have relatives overseas and don’t have a way to get through to them at that time or there is this beautiful item you have seen online but they won’t ship it to Nigeria.

Well, there is a solution to such a problem – a personal shopping /online order website, Ayeka’s Shopology (AS). They help to source and deliver everything from sports equipment to skincare products; cakes, flowers and a variety of wedding accessories and gifts. A unique touch is their Gift Hamper Ideas, which cater to 4 different budgets (Aje Paco, Jara, Big Don and Oga Pata Pata).

Ayeka’s Shopology is committed to providing greater access to goods and services to all Nigerians, regardless of where they live or what payments instruments they have. In addition, they want to boost the local economy by enabling local businesses to tap into a larger overseas market.

I caught up with the Managing Director of AS, Omoneka Musa Oyier to find out more about how it works and the appeal of the Internet to many young entrepreneurs.

Omoneka Musa Oyier, MD Ayeka's Shopology

Who is Omoneka Musa Oyier?

In two words, Consummate Professional.

What is the story behind Ayeka’s Shopology? How did you create and develop it?

When my [younger] brother was still a baby, he couldn’t pronounce my name so he started calling me Ayeka and soon everyone picked it up.  The “-logy” suffix in Shopology refers to a theory or way of thinking so basically, it’s my theory of online shopping.

The premise behind Ayeka’s Shopology (AS) is that online shopping should be a seamless experience for Nigerian shoppers.  In addition, I wanted to make it possible for local, Nigeria-based businesses to participate.  Therefore, our core product “Order-It!” allows Nigerians anywhere in the world to actually buy goods and services from local businesses, thereby benefitting the local economy.

Of all the business ventures you could have pursued, why a personal shopping/online-order website?

Well, as a young person with limited capital, I wanted to establish something that didn’t require significant financial resources to set up. I also wanted to be able to access the business from anywhere in the world because I travel a lot.

Also, I was frustrated on two fronts:

  1. When I was in Nigeria and wanted to buy something from outside Nigeria, it was a mission. Even when you have a credit card or PayPal account, many online stores overseas do not ship to Nigeria.
  2. When I was outside Nigeria and wanted to send something to my friends or family back home for instance, to wish them “Happy Birthday”, there was no way of doing it in a secure manner. And what was available was often too expensive.

So these were my main motivations.

How many countries do you operate in?

Ayeka’s Shopology is registered only in Nigeria. We however procure goods from the US, South Africa and occasionally the UK on behalf of Nigeria-based customers.

Do you have a physical office location or is it web-based only?

At the moment, I run AS as a home-based business so it is strictly web-based for now. In addition, I have three individual agents based in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt tasked with sales and order fulfillment (deliveries).

Where is your headquarters?

At my home in Port Harcourt.

Do you have plans to expand to other cities and towns?

Of course, but based on demand and resources.

It is not unusual to find Nigerians sending packages overseas through relatives and friends. Do you think Ayeka’s Shopology will catch on?

Yes, I certainly think so, especially for online purchases, as opposed to in-store purchases.  I do think though that people will continue to rely on relatives and friends to a certain extent and AS does not seek to replace that. It’s simply an alternative for those who don’t want to wait or who are looking for something really specific.

You go to great lengths to make the shopping experience ‘wahala’ – free for your clients. In doing so, you must have experienced a lot of ‘wahala’ yourself. What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Some customers want help bidding online for a product, which requires a lot of time and attention and is not a guaranteed purchase. So that is somewhat challenging but not difficult or bothersome really.

Many entrepreneurs go through a succession of failures before finding a business model that finally works. Has this been your experience?

This is my first venture into the business world. I hope it doesn’t fail but if it does, I will take my lessons and resurrect it in a better form.  When one of my agents reports to me about how happy a recipient was to receive a hamper or a cake, it motivates me to make the service even better because it actually makes people happy. So I am completely invested in making it work, regardless of the challenges ahead.

A growing number of young entrepreneurs are embracing the Internet as a way of doing business. Have you any words of wisdom to share?

Yes, I think many young Nigerians should set up online businesses. The main thing to remember is that it requires the same level of attention and education as a brick-and-mortar business. You need to know about marketing, draft business plans and financial plans and advertise. Luckily, there are many free resources online to help you do these things.

The holiday season must be a very profitable but hectic one for you. How do you combine work with family responsibilities?

Well, AS is still a young business – only three months old, so we have not gotten to that hectic stage yet. However, even in this early stage there is a lot to do and I can spend 24 hours working on the business. Luckily, early on my husband and I agreed to a set schedule: after 5p.m. and on weekends, no more work.

I am still stumped as to what Christmas/New Year gifts to send to my relatives and friends abroad. I want something unique. Any suggestions?

If these friends are Nigerian and live outside Nigeria, then I would suggest you send them a traditional Nigerian Christmas hamper*. When I was a student overseas, I really missed unpacking hampers at Christmas time. It’s like a tradition and it’ll make them feel closer to home.

* These hampers are versatile and can be sent all year round.