Today we are discussing with Seun Abimbola – a serial entrepreneur with almost 20 years of experience. He is also a writer and owns House of Greg, a fashion house. We will be discussing ways you can profit from the fashion industry.
I have been an entrepreneur all my life; right from secondary school. Back then, it wasn’t known as adding value. It was just us trying to make money. I guess that was a good training ground for me in terms of being able to provide a product or service in exchange for money from people. I did that through secondary school and university, and it was just a natural progression for me to go into full-time entrepreneurship after university. Of course, I have moved from one business to the other. Today I am doing three things at the same time but the fashion business is the main thing I do every day.
Some say fashion is different from style. But to me fashion and style go hand in hand and fashion or style is personal; an expression of who we already are. Whatever contributes to who we already are innately is fashion or style to me.
My inspiration to venture into the fashion industry
My fashion business focuses mainly on traditional wears using afro-centric materials. But growing up, I didn’t like wearing natives. I liked to wear my western shirts and trousers, tuck in and look really nice. But growing older, I started questioning why natives were made in a particular way. I’d take my fabric to a tailor and tell him to make my clothe a particular way and he’d tell me that they don’t make clothes that way. I’ll insist that it’s my clothe and money and get it made. Now when I wore the finished clothes, people would compliment me.
So, of course, being an entrepreneur, I started to think that maybe there was a business opportunity in the fashion industry to be grabbed. This was at a time when a previous business I had run had gone bankrupt and I was in some debt. I was looking for some other business to do. So I drew up some designs (I have a tech background), put up a website (before the days of Jumia and Konga and the current popular e-commerce industry) with the pictures of the clothes (my business hypothesis then was if you make stuff, put them online and they can be sold).
I got my first order from someone in Abuja that I didn’t know. (At that time, people didn’t think one could buy natives ready to wear. They always assumed one had to get measured to make some. But I always asked that we didn’t always get measured to get suits or shirts, so I thought that we could grow the space.) So I sent over the order to Abuja, it fit the customer and from there we started selling across the technology platforms. That’s what got me into the fashion industry – curiosity. I tested my hypothesis – there was value and a market and we went forward with things.
Getting training before starting
I tried to. I went to a tailor to learn to sew. But after a month, I was still trying to get the thread into the eye of the needle. Well…the tailor called me one day and told me that I would never learn to sew. He had trained many people and knew those who would become good tailors and those who won’t. He said that in the month that I had been there, I hadn’t done anything tangible on the machine but that I had brought in so much business for him.
Therefore, he suggested that maybe I didn’t need to learn to sew but to learn the business side of things. And that he would teach me things that would make me talk without sounding like a novice. So I learned those things and stayed with the business side of fashion. I relate with a lot of fashion people and they are very creative. But creativity itself can be a hindrance to monetisation of the fashion space. You try to be perfect and that becomes a hindrance to making money quickly. So I didn’t get trained in the traditional sense, but I learned the things I needed.
The training needed to be a proper fashion designer in the fashion industry
The value chain in fashion is rapidly expanding. Now you can begin to focus on specifics. For instance, there is the tailoring part – cutting and putting the fabrics together, creating designs – for people good at sketching and bringing fashion concepts to life, etc. so depending on your inclination, you best stay in that area. If you also find yourself inclined to using Instagram and Snapchat to sell products, then focus on doing that. If you are trying to do what you are not wired to do, you will struggle.
For the life of me, I don’t know how to sew and I have reconciled with my God that it’s something I would probably not know how to do. But I am comfortable because there is so much outside of just sewing that I know how to do. One can also be good with picking out good fabric. Being able to look at a fabric and imagine what it could be used for is value in itself.
If you feel like learning how to sew, then go ahead. Though, I’m on a personal campaign to dissuade people from learning to sew. However, looking at Nike in their early days, they weren’t manufacturing their own shoes. They focused on designing and marketing the shoes. It doesn’t mean production is not a major part of the value chain, but they looked at their strength. Without trying to downplay any part of the value chain, I think there are higher parts of the chain.
A simple example is this: if you make a nice dress and a store likes it and orders 200 units of the dress. If you sew yourself, it’ll take 200 days to make them at the rate of one dress per day; or 100 days at two dresses per day. I am sure somewhere in that period you will land in the hospital. So that’s the angle I look at things. It is important to know what part of fashion to play in. And what item of fashion to engage with. If you are doing bespoke bags, then maybe three handbags a day might be worth your time. But 500 bags in a month by yourself would be hard.
Understanding the psyche of artisans and getting them to meet delivery deadlines for you
Working with artisans can be challenging. But after a while, you start to understand them, after getting into their world. I remember before I got my in-house production unit, there was a tailor I used. A friend of mine who also used this tailor, used to complain about him and his inability to keep deadlines. However, I would tell him I don’t experience such. The problem was not understanding the psyche of these artisans. They live in a different world, by different rules and shouting and threatening won’t work. When you think like them and understand what is important to them then they start taking you seriously. Also the more you interact with them, you understand the responsible ones.
The little things matter to them. For instance, respecting them and not looking down at them. A friend of mine, for example, took her tailors to the mall for some good time. Respect them with what they determine to be respect. Another way to get your job done is in payment. A practical example: When I used to outsource production, to sew traditionals cost N1000, and N1200 to leave everything else to do your own job. For me, N200 extra was nothing, but everything to them. So I would pay them that and get them committed to meeting my targets. Thirdly, sometimes when I got styles from the internet, I allowed them copy the styles for other customers. They would love me coming back always because I would always bring new designs and trends. And I had no problems with that.
Staying up-to-date with new trends and designs in the fashion industry
If you are in fashion, you need to go out a lot. I was once in a party where I saw a guy wearing an agbada and a face cap and I thought it was weird. The weekend after that, in a mall, I saw about five other people with traditional wears and face caps. Now, it was no longer weird. It started becoming the norm.
There was a time women started wearing dresses with sports shoes. Even till now. The first time you see that, you’ll think it is weird. But weird is the new normal. Take me for example, I’m an old-school guy and all my pants (jeans also) were bootcuts. After a while, I couldn’t buy them anymore. So I started having to wear stripcut. Just last week I wore pencil pants (to the laughter of my friends). But I told them it was fashion. But seriously, one needs to learn to evolve.
As a designer you need to be uncomfortable. When you feel you want to pass judgment, go out. If twenty people start to wear a certain style, it is not weird; it is the norm. You need to also watch music videos because they drive trends. Monitor social websites like Bella Naija and watch people in malls, like I did in the last festive period, to understand what people are wearing. You need to learn and add those to your collection, if you are not already late to the party.
Ways to invest in the fashion industry
In the fashion industry, there is trading. Even the man who sells Okrika or Bend-Down-Select is also in the fashion industry, like it or not. In fact, that person might be competing with you in that space. So there is trading of used and new clothes, products you make and those other people make.
There is also production – of shoes, bags – for yourself to sell or for others to sell. There is designing also. Someone I talked to last week is just going to be giving me designs. Then there is training. You could decide to train people on sewing, styling or designing. In the space exists recruiting too. There are those who just recruit tailors. The best artisans are from the other West African countries. One could get involved with accessories. Fashion needs these to go with it.
People are also looking for models. On Konga or Jumia, the clothes that get more attention are those that are modeled. As humans we tend to want to project what things will look like. There is consulting too. The industry is changing and there is the need for consultants. Then there is styling. Some people dress others up.
I heard about a lady running for office in 2019 booking a makeup artist from January 1. Wherever she appears, the makeup artist has to make sure she looks all together. That same lady would need to have a wardrobe consultant, because there is a way she needs to appear to the public. Most world leaders appear in pin-stripe, navy blue suits and white shirts. This makes them appear powerful. In Lagos and Nigeria, when the wealthy step out they look well put together. They are rich and don’t have time for all of this, so someone has to be thinking about their fashion and look on their behalf.
Then blogging. Bella Naija is built around blogging about fashion, etc.
Platforms. For example, The Lagos Fashion Week and GTBank Fashion Week. You could create yours and let people get their designs out and actualise increase in sales.
Challenges you and the fashion industry face
It depends on the space in the fashion industry you play in. Most people, I imagine, will go into production, so they will face challenges with artisans, consistency and quality control. Power will also be an issue. For all these, solutions will need to be found. The same challenges will also be faced by the competition. Then people also owe. It is prevalent in the industry. Five good sales are better than fifty sales leading to owing of money. So upfront it is best to insist on not offering credit. Learn to manage people and their psyche.
This was live from command at ReDahlia Workspaces, 43B Emina Crescent, Off Toyin Street, Ikeja.
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