Nneka Etayokhai: I’m grateful for fashion platforms like AFWN
At the just concluded African Fashion Week Nigeria (AFWN) many fashion entrepreneurs and fashion designers were given the opportunity to show the world their creativity. It was in that quest that two female fashion entrepreneurs, Nneka Stephanie Etayokhai and Iniobong Obinna- Onunkwo teamed up to showcase The Bougie Woman collection, straight from their NENI fashion line. The purpose of offering a retail luxury fashion line tailored exclusively for career driven young ladies that love the “bougie billionaire look” on a budget, inspired Nneka and Ini to share their dreams and create master pieces. In this interview with IFEOMA ONONYE, Iniobong Obinna-Onunkwo and Nneka Etayokhai, whose collection opened and closed the fashion show at AFWN, speak about their collaboration and why Nigeria should start working towards becoming a producing country to encourage the increasing talents wasting away.
At the just concluded African Fashion Week Nigeria, AFWN, NENI fashion brand showcased the Bougie Woman collection. Tell us what Bougie Woman means. The bougie woman collection by NENI is inspired by the beautiful butterfly that flutters playfully in the luscious garden.
The metamorphic transformation of a butterfly’s cycle is phenomenal. From infancy to adulthood, the butterfly experiences life. The best part is the chrysalis stage where it emerges into an adult.
At this stage, growth becomes a place of curiosity, questions, struggles and the dire need to succeed. This emergence in every aspiring woman is called change. The butterfly signifies the modern woman. She’s scarred yet grateful, dares to explore the world, fearless, driven to grow, sees and enjoys every moment as a luxury of her journey to aspire for more and the challenges which makes her confident, courageous, bold, beautiful and intelligent. The garden is the environment and the greenery is life.
The combination of all species of plants signifies different people, diverse cultures, different places and several opportunities waiting for the woman to explore and learn. The NENI brand uses well-made woven textured fabrics (Damask) to produce limited ready-to-wear outfits. Each collection is inspired by the stories of successful wealthy women.
Their lifestyle, struggles, values and beliefs are projected through the styles created from the different patterns on the Damask. This is why the collection is very dear to us. It explains what women stand for.
Most of the fabrics we have seen you wear and work with is Damask. Is there any connection between Damask fabric and African?
Is Damask an African fabric? Well, Damask is a heritage fabric, just like we have addire and Asoke. One of my core values is heritage. So, when it comes to anything heritage that will promote culture, luxury or sustainability, I believe that whatever you’re dealing with has to have that heritage feel.
How long have you been in the industry?
Next year is going to make me 10 years in the fashion industry. And it’s been an amazing journey with ups and downs. Like I said, the NENI collection like my partner, and my colleague, we’ve been through a whole lot. I mean from the setup stage, to the growth stage. It’s been a lot but we’re grateful.
Have you been in other careers before joining the fashion industry?
Initially, I was an investment banker and a portfolio manager. And it was very interesting because when I started, I was a trained engineer before I went into investment banking and portfolio management. And what really inspired me to go into fashion was I made some pieces for my children, and they went for an elite society wedding wearing the dresses.
All the mothers looked at my children said, ‘oh, so they can actually weave pieces of ankara with lace, and do something very nice for the children’. No one had thought of it at that time. That inspired me.
So, we started the brand ‘Little Weavers’ a n d n o w we’ve been in the industry for a while, and we’ve also found another niche which I’ve partnered with my friend, Nneka and we collaborated to create NENI which we showcased our first collection at the just concluded African Fashion Week Nigeria.
So does that mean you went into fashion even as a portfolio manager?
No, not really. As a portfolio manager, I loved fashion and heritage. So, some of my outfits whenever I put them on, I reflect that African heritage. Sometimes, I would come to work in my suit, with coral beads on them. I save a bit of my heritage in contemporary urban and in a mix of everything.
So, imagine someone wearing these suits with, pearls and all of them. So, I just love that heritage feel. It’s always been about fashion, creativity.
At a time, you launched a programme to encourage parents to teach their children to speak their mother-tongue. Do you still have that in line?
Yes, definitely. Like I said, about the Damask, it’s a heritage fabric. So, for me, heritage is very important. I’m a woman that believes in identity. You have to know your culture.
So, when someone speaks to you, wherever you are in the world, y o u have to be able to connect to people by their ‘ l o o k a n d t h e i r l a n – guage. I know where I come from, and I’m proud of who I am.
And I have a connection with the particular roots’. I strongly believe that people should connect with themselves, which is that heritage, communication, and language. It is high time women, parents, society, and community train the children to be proud of themselves, to identify with themselves. There are some people that go out there and forget to teach their children their local language.
All they speak is American English. They will say they don’t understand Igbo or Yoruba. That is wrong because you have to identify with your culture and know your identity. Know where you come from.
At what point did you switch completely from your career into fashion?
It was a personal journey.
And I felt at that time that there was more that was deserving for me. And I just felt it was time for me to leave and, then the inspiration that came with the societal wedding, and I just felt like this was an opportunity.
Let’s just leverage on it and start up.
You basically design for women. Are there any plan to start designing for men?
That will be in the pipeline and I and my team are looking at it as well. Because I make some pieces for my husband and he showcases them almost every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday at his work place or whenever he decides to put them on.
So, we will think about giving men’s line a shot.
Is this the first time your brand LittleWeavers is coming on African Fashion Week?
Yes, this is our first outing on African Fashion Week Nigeria.
So its two brands’ first outing?
Yes, it is our first time on African Fashion Week Nigeria, because LittleWeavers has been going for other fashion shows. We’ve had our own fashion shows.
How did you feel when two of your brands featured on African Fashion Week Nigeria?
I was excited. So, a quick one for people that are actually going through different life endeavours or challenges, you know whatever it is you’re doing whatever investments or whatever plans you have, just stay focused on the goal. I say this because the journey towards creating the collection for NENI and creating the collection for LittleWeaver’s was tedious, highly challenging, very competitive for me, because I’ve two brands making their first outing. I braced myself to take it on because whatever happens, we know we will succeed. So, we just had to stay on the goal. And at the end, people loved us on the runway.
What’s your perception of the Nigerian Fashion Industry?
I feel Nigeria is a consuming economy, and I feel that we could do much better. I feel that the government could do so much by supporting indigenous businesses.
I don’t just want to say fashion because in the fashion industry, we have the value chain. So, I feel there’s so much to be done, so much investment for the young people. There’s so many young people out there that have the talent. I feel we could do better, and turn around and be a producing economy. So, I don’t want to compare us to other countries because I feel that Nigeria has the skills, we have the talent, we have the manpower and I feel we are actually under-utilised.
As a designer of both adult and children wears, what are your biggest challenge putting your pieces together?
I believe strongly in an Ibibio proverb that says ‘Ewo ado iyene’ which means that people are your wealth. You could have a room filled with money, or a whole estate or even own a bank, but you need people. You need the right network of people. You need to empower the right minds. You need to change the mindset of the of the people around you. You need to build the people. It is the people that will bring the wealth. It is the people that will create the infrastructure. The fabrics won’t weave themselves or export themselves at the Apapa port. You need human beings to do that not robots. So, I believe that the first step in everything that we have to do is to invest in the people. It is the people that make or mar your business.
Many hold the notion that women don’t unite. So, what is the force binding the partnership in NENI collection?
Usually, what I feel is that for everybody, the first thing you have to look at for yourself is your personality. Find out your personality; what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses? And if you find someone that can back you up. For instance, if I’m not a good time manager, then I should have someone, a partner who is a good time manager. Or probably I’m very good with calculations, (crunching numbers) then I should have someone that is creative as a partner. Or if I’m the creative one, then I should have someone that knows how to crunch the numbers or has the skill.
In that way, there should be something that would fuse these two personalities together. So I feel, based on what you said that women don’t unite, I think it’s a personality thing. I think it’s not just within the women culture. I think it’s also in all genders.
People just generally have to know what their personalities are, and who they can do businesses with. So, you have to understand your personality. Secondly, can I merge with personality B for business? And what is our vision? What do we hope to achieve? What’s the objective of why we even came together? Once you can answer those questions, you are your way to a good start.
Nneka Etayokhai: I’m grateful for fashion platforms like AFWN
My fashion brand is Nene-hotie And now we are into making couture dresses.
And recently, I partnered with my very good friend, and a sister, Ini-obong Obinna, the CEO of LittleWeavers. And we came together to create this collection called The Bougie Collection for women. We aim to satisfy women of substance, women that want to stand out in the society. I am grateful for the opportunity African Fashion Week Nigeria gave us to show the world what we can do.
How long have you been in the fashion industry?
I’ve been in the fashion business since 2014. I worked with most of the top designers in Nigeria.
I was a former secretary to Mrs. Funmi Ajila-Ladipo, the president of Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria, FADAN and as well, I coordinated designers at all kinds of fashion shows. I have also edited a few fashion magazine in the past. So, fashion is not new to me.
Before this partnership, tell us a little about your fashion brand?
My fashion brand, Nene-hotie has been all about making clothes for women that stand out in the society. We come out with different styles of outfits that stand out.
So along the line, my friend, Ini came up with the idea that we partner. We have really done so well and the African Fashion Week Nigeria, was our first outing. It’s our first show showcasing what we can make as designers.
Did you start your fashion business right from the scratch?
Yes, I gained the business skill after working with a designer. I once coordinated designers as well. So, that is where my own talent for making dresses started. I went to a designing school. I’ve always had passion for the fashion industry and I have been in the business for over seven years.
I am extremely grateful to God for the collaboration for the runway. I pray that we have more collaborations in future.