WOW! This young Nigerian makes beautiful casual wears out of Aso Oke
With his uncommon touch and creativity, a 29 year-old fashion entrepreneur, Oluwatobi Ogundele, is redefining how Aso-Oke is sewn. Aso-Oke is traditional clothing worn on special occasions, such as weddings, birthdays and festivals by the Yorubas, one of the largest tribes in West Africa (and, especially, in Nigeria). In ancient times, the aso-oke was often regarded as a status symbol in traditional Yoruba circles. Nowadays, the aso-oke is a major feature at Owambe parties.
Owambe is a sobriquet given to people who relish society parties and attend such parties, regularly (owambe party-goers often appear at such parties in uniform dress codes). While Ogundele had earlier founded Ceomania Alaso Oke to meet the fashion needs of this class of people, he is also opening up a new corridor in the Nigerian fashion industry, by creating casual wears from traditional aso-oke fabrics. His determination to promote Made in Nigeria fashion is unequaled. Oluwatobi Ogundele has started a fashion movement, known as the Owambe Community by which he promotes his two brands, Ceomania Alaso Oke and Ponle Clothing, another clothing line which he created recently.
In this interview, Oluwatobi Ogundele, whose mother was a tailor, shares the story of his entrepreneurial journey into the fashion industry and challenges encountered at the earlier stage of the business, with Outrepreneurs.
Why did you start Ceomania Alaso Oke?
I wasn’t into anything fashion until 2013, when I was in my final year [as a student of English & Literary Studies at the Ekiti State University]. There was ASUU [Academic Staff Union of Universities] strike. I was at home for about six months doing nothing. At a point, a friend asked if I would continue to spend all my time sleeping and doing nothing. For me, I didn’t want to do what others had been doing. I went back to God in prayer and I saw the idea: Aso-Oke. It wasn’t making sense, but the idea woudn’t leave me. I went through some tutelage. I had to travel to everywhere Aso-Oke was being made.
What did you learn from your mum?
From my mum, I learned the art of cloth making and integrity. My mum would never disappoint a customer. Now, I work round 24 hours, at times, to make sure a customer’s cloth is ready. My mum did more of female outfits and she would always ask me to help do some of the hemming. Back then, I used to see it as punishment, but it is fun now. Then, mum worked with manual machines, but I have been able to get some industrial sewing machines.
Tell us what Owambe Community is all about?
The idea came in after I floated Ceomania Alaso-Oke. I am someone who likes anything traditional and home-made. I remember Fashola ( former Lagos State Governor) said during his tenure, that Lagos residents spent 36 billion naira annually on parties. I told myself If this money belonged in Owambe gatherings, I would create a community that could retain this cash. If there is money to be made in parties, then we should render some service to these party-goers.
Did you bother to search for a job after graduation?
I was on the street for six years, doing all kinds of jobs before getting admission into the university. I had to clear a plot of land for N100 or N200 back then. Sometimes, I might have spent the money before I finished the job. I had to move things around for people organizing parties. I cleaned houses. I had to talk to God and he gave me this idea. I have no written CV till date.
How do you get the fabrics used for your Aso-Oke clothes?
They are locally-sourced. From the thread, we make pieces which come in two forms: single and double looms. The single loom is enough to make what you want, but when it is double, it comes in pieces which are joined together to make three, four or more and you then cut and embellish them into what we want.
How many people work in your company?
Currently, I have four full-time staff working with me. And for part time or freelance staff, I can’t count. They are many. We have them in Ijegun, Agbule Egba [in Lagos] and outside Lagos, in Iseyin [Oyo State] and Ilorin [Kwara]. There are even some with whom we do not have direct contact. We have other people who manage them for us.
How was it like at the earlier stages of the business?
It wasn’t funny. There was a job I got for 10,000 naira from a client who stayed in FESTAC (Lagos), which I spent 9,000 to produce. Then, I was staying in Ijegun and I had to go to FESTAC and still return to Ijegun. However, luck was on my side, because the client voluntarily gave me 1,000 naira for transport. Thereafter, I began to ask clients for some pre-payment and go to conclude their work on their clothes. I pay for expenses incurred in the course of the job, after collecting the balance payment and still retain my profits. But at some point, it wasn’t enough, because I had to go beyond that to put things in place. I knew that you couldn’t keep spending the profits of every of your jobs and that was when I started putting money away in thrift schemes.
What were the other challenges you met?
I had a challenge with the location of my business. Most times, I would leave Ijegun early in the morning and come back quite late. No customer would leave their location and drive to Ijegun, because the roads to the place were very bad in 2013. There were days I had to leave my house and come to Allen and Opebi in Ikeja and from there to Surulere and Idumota, with bags filled with products and stacked at my back. At some point, I started getting some helping hand from family and friends, to deliver finished products to customers. Another challenge was gender differences, because the Aso-Oke industry is predominantly a female-run industry. It was strange to some people, hearing someone in his 20s tell them he was into Aso-Oke. Yet another challenge was colour identification. There were over 400 colours I had no idea about. Getting to know the different colours was crazy! I had to get a colour catalogue and browse on my phone, in order to learn more.
At what point did the business start yielding profit, in the real sense of it.?
We started the business in 2013, but we have only started making good profits, last year. We took all the right steps we needed to take and these began to yield results in mid-2016.
What did you do differently that made the business to become more profitable?
We have done so many things differently. Our customer care is out of this world. When it comes to production, detailing, beautifying and final drop, we do all these, differently. My clients are like family.
How is your clientele base like?
I have lost count. The Owambe business is a society business. Whenever we collate data, we discover we have new clients coming in every month. The minimum number of new clients we serve every month is 20, outside existing ones. There are some clients we have never met one-on-one. There are days we produce Aso-ebi for 150 people, from a single order from just one client.
What differentiates your brand from competition?
First, the grace of God has made it it to stand out. I also produce casual wears with Aso-Oke, which most competitors don’t do. I have done Aso-Oke as gown, easy-to-wear bum shots, trousers, skirts and blouses, tubes and office wears. We have been able to take Aso-Oke beyond the usual and regular patterns and put it into daily use.
Why did you add Ponle Clothing to the brand?
From 2013 to December 2016, we had to outsource orders coming from some of our clients, especially those who had been asking us to make buba and soro (traditional Yoruba shirt and trousers) for them without using the Aso-Oke fabric. We had been outsourcing such orders, until we decided it wasn’t a bad idea if we made some additional profit. That was how the idea for Ponle Clothing came up, so that we could serve our clients, completely. Ponle Clothing is a clothing line for male customers, but Ceomania Alaso Oke is for both sexes.
What is the greatest lesson you have learnt as a founder of business?
Don’t assume on behalf of a client. Such assumptions could land you in jail. Everything has to be detailed. Most times, customers have a picture in their minds; if you cannot replicate that picture or something similar in a perfect state, you have lost them.
What skills and attitudes do you think are necessary for an entrepreneur in the fashion industry to succeed?
You need creativity and discipline. You also need to be fashion-forward and have eyes for colours. Most times, what brings out the beauty in a cloth is not what you have done, but how well you have been able to blend the colours.
You are active on social media. Have you been able to leverage social media tools in your business?
When I pick God, family and friends, social media is next in the line of importance, because that is where I sell mostly. Social media is a world on its own.
What is the creative process like, for you to arrive at new designs?
My number one inspiration is from God. I also get inspired by people walking around, while I am driving in road traffic. When I see things done in the western world, I replicate some to the Aso-Oke medium. Sometimes, my inspiration comes from the streets, church, reading through newspapers and medieval Chinese designs. I dream a lot when I sleep. When I get inspired in my dreams, I wake up and put pen to paper.
Where do you want to take your brands in the next few years?
It’s going to be a larger community that serves more people, locally and internationally. I foresee a stage where we can franchise some of our brands to people outside Nigeria.
PHOTOS: Ceomania/Williams Ojo
Deji Aroloye20 Posts
a graduate of Linguistics and a staff writer at Outrepreneurs, Deji's forte includes tech, startups and innovations. Years back, Deji wrote on Entertainment and Lifestyle for a tabloid. If he wasn't a writer, Deji would be a photographer or teacher.