Business, #, #TDI
Kunmi Otitoju, a 30-year-old Nigerian fashion designer and entrepreneur, holds two Computer Science degrees - a Bachelor of Science degree with first-class honors from Howard University and a Master of Science degree from Virginia Tech. But her first love was Fine Art. As a high school student in Lagos, she won the Fine Arts prize at school every year - for 6 years.
Having moved to the U.S. when she was 17, and then to Europe at the age of 25, Otitoju found herself deeply enmeshed in western culture. Keen on preserving her Nigerian identity and eager to propagate facets of Nigerian culture, she conceived the idea of lining high-quality leather bags with Aso-oke fabric, a hand-loomed cloth woven by Nigeria's Yoruba people.
In 2011, after stints at Goldman Sachs and a few other international corporations, Otitoju established Minku, a fast-growing high-end Afro-centric brand that produces luxury bags, wallets and other fashion accessories for men and women by subtly blending Aso-oke into contemporary Spanish leathers to present a transcontinental finish.
All Minku's products are hand-made at a workshop in Barcelona, Spain, but they are sold at high-end stores in Nigeria and on the company's website.
Otitoju recently spoke to me about her journey, her future plans, and the state of luxury goods in Africa.
For me, Aso-Oke is luxury. It is hand-woven, the weaving is dense, in the imperfection of the weaving lies evidence of the human touch, and it comes in sophisticated colours and patterns. What is luxury afterall? For me, it is the finest aspects of one's culture, distilled, packaged, presented to, and accepted by the rest of the world. For example, Italy has leather and coffee as some of the finest aspects of its culture, and that is evident with the luxury companies out of Italy. Same with Switzerland and watches. Africa was a bit late to the branded luxury game, but we are catching up. Aso-oke lets me contribute to this in a small way.
Are you expanding into other goods and services?
Yes. We now offer a personalization service that lets our clients customize a purchase with their name/initials/message embossed onto the leather. It is a nice way to personalize one's Minku bag, or just to include a message that is a reminder of love or a feeder of good vibes.
In our latest collection, I introduce bracelets for men. Men's bracelets have gained wide acceptance among males, from surfers in Cape Town to investment bankers in New Jersey. I personally buy into the idea of a man wearing a beaded bracelet - it tells a story of travel and daring, and it alludes to an open mind. So combining precious metals - 18kt gold, sterling silver - with powder glass beads hand-made by the Nupe people of Nigeria, I created a collection of men's bracelets. Each bracelet comes in an Aso-Oke lined watersnake leather drawstring pouch of varying designs. The pouches double as key-chains.
You have been running Minku for three years now. How is it received?
Minku has been well received. Like any other entrepreneur, I have had some discouraging moments. But many good opportunities have also arisen, sometimes unexpectedly, and it is those that have helped Minku to grow. So I work hard on product and marketing, but I have also learned that serendipity is part of entrepreneurship.
Are there any specific experiences that shaped your resolve to be an entrepreneur?
So I had a hard question to answer: if I didn't go to Stanford, could I still do good design, at a level similar to if I was a Stanford Product Design grad? I was not sure, but I decided to try. I think a lot of the courage to set out and start Minku came from desperately wanting the answer to that question to be a 'yes'.
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