Meet two young Nigerian graduates making suit accessories from African fabric
It was during their mandatory one-year National Youth Service in 2013 that Ifeanyi Obi and Tosin Ainah struck a chord of friendship. Three years later, they co-founded a fashion label called Sole Tribe.
Sole Tribe makes suit accessories such as neck ties, pocket squares and lapel pins from Ankara, a popular African fabric. A conversation Ifeanyi had with another friend about the need to promote African fabric the same year he was serving was where the idea began to form in his mind. “I was talking with a friend about Nigerian weddings and people’s preference for suits,” Ifeanyi said. “We thought about the need to incorporate our own touch of African fabrics into suits. Why not do ties and pocket squares out of Ankara fabrics and mix it up with suits,” he pondered.
After Youth Service, Ifeanyi who studied computer science at Igbinedion University traveled to the United Kingdom for his Master’s degree. He saw the craze for designs made with African fabric among Nigerians in the UK. In 2016, when he returned to Nigeria, the idea continued burning in his heart. He felt that Tosin was the person he could partner with to bring the idea to reality.
“Ifeanyi came and told me the dream he had about the suit accessories,” Tosin said. “We started from there, we started cutting, and doing samples. That was early this year. We were trying different things. We went to the market and got different types of Ankara. We started cutting and made a lot of mistakes. We discovered what fabrics work for different designs.”
While Ifeanyi was schooling in the UK, Tosin had gone to learn tailoring. She started a fashion outfit, Belle Bespoke, which she currently runs along with the business. “After Youth Service, I sat down and I looked at everything. I had a friend that wanted to help me in a bank.” I later realized that I prefer to create things to going for the 8 to 5 office work. I felt I was not going to feel fulfilled enough with the 8 to 5. I went to a tailoring school. I was there for like a year and half. I proceeded to a proper fashion school for another 6 months, “Tosin said.
Initially Tosin wanted to study medicine but later opted for Biochemistry at Bowen University in Iwo, Oyo State. According to her, she thought her parents would never allow her to go into fashion. “I was scared telling my dad, especially about going into fashion.” She said. “But, he supported me, and my mummy too. Anytime I show her a new design, she is always excited. When I started, she would give me fabrics, I would spoil them, and she would still give me more.”
When the business started, the duo feared people were not going to embrace their products. But they have been able to sell over 30 products. According to Ifeanyi, that is encouraging because the business is still in the first year. “Initially, we didn’t know whether people were going to accept our products,” he said. “But to our greatest surprise, once we did our first sample, my younger brother wore it out. And some people asked him where he got it from. And someone later bought it and we began to get one or two referrals.”
Ifeanyi and Tosin have separate roles they play in the business. Ifeanyi is the one that does the conception and sketching of the designs, as well as marketing, while Tosin does more of the cutting, drafting and sowing of the materials. They believe the friendship they have developed is helping the business to grow.
Ifeanyi told Outrepreneurs that Sole Tribe will make progress in the market because of its unique solution. “I think there is something lacking in the market. Whatever you see there in terms of suit accessories from ties, cufflinks, pocket squares, everything was made with Western material. But we tend to incorporate our own Africa fabrics. No matter where the fabric comes from, whether it is Ghana or Nigeria, we intend to incorporate that into Western fashion. This is what makes us unique,” he said.
The future looks auspicious for the business as there are plans to expand; it is going to be a luxury accessories fashion house for both male and female, according to Ifeanyi. “I am looking at getting involved in other things like perfume label and going into luxury accessories,” he said.
Some young entrepreneurs jitter when they hear about competition, but not Ifeanyi. The young man speaks with confidence. “I think the most important thing is to keep innovating. Our ties are not just plain; we intend to combine African fabrics with other plain materials, “he said.
What Ifeanyi perceives to be a roller coaster drive to success is probably what moved him to return to Nigeria after his Master’s Programme in the UK when a lot of young people are desperate to leave Nigeria for good. He told Outrepreneurs: “I don’t think many people realise that there is much to be done in Africa. If you really love where you come from, you will want to better the place first before helping others. I am here so that Nigeria can help Nigeria to realise her potential.”
For Tosin, money should not be the primary motivation for anyone to go into entrepreneurship. “Everybody is gifted but some people think their talents cannot put food on the table because of the way things are in the society,” she said. “And they are wondering whether they are going to make money. When we started, we weren’t concentrating on making money. We just wanted to try and see what comes out of it. It wasn’t about money, money, and money.”
Deji Aroloye75 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.