• Sunday, June 16, 2024
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‘We take pride to compare Dohn and Kalistar’s uniform production with global quality benchmarks’

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In 2015, Chinenye Azubike-Onyegbu left a thriving Human Resource career to step into the challenging world on entrepreneurship. Then, she founded Dohn and Kalistar Garments, which specialises in the production and customisation of functional uniforms, just with one employee and now has eight core staff. In this interview, OBINNA EMELIKE, the young entrepreneur tells her vision of building a replica of a big China garment factory in Nigeria, closing big gaps in quality, curbing importation of wears, building capacity and innovative designs. Excerpts:

What inspired you to focus on industrial wear instead of popular fashion trends pursued by many designers today?

When I embarked on my journey eight years ago, I noticed a significant emphasis on fashion designing for women, while men’s wear received considerable attention from male designers. I wanted to break away from the norm and explore something unique. However, I wasn’t sure what that would be until a fortuitous encounter changed everything. At that time, I was fully committed to my role as an HR manager in a company, pouring my heart into my work. It was during this period that someone recognized my dedication and expressed a desire to support me.

Curious about my other skills, I shared my tailoring card with him. It is important to note that I had just begun a new job and hadn’t yet purchased sewing machines. Nonetheless, I had printed business cards and registered a business name to remind myself of my aspirations.

When he saw my card, he exclaimed, “Oh, you’re a tailor! That’s fantastic!” He happened to work for a multinational company and promptly passed my card along to their procurement team.

This opportunity required me to meet certain criteria to become a registered supplier and produce uniforms for them. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, I have remained dedicated to creating industrial wear and uniforms. This experience opened my eyes to a world of possibilities and solidified my passion for providing specialized attire for various industries.

How large is Dohn and Kalistar Garments in terms of operations and capacity?

Currently, Dohn and Kalistar Garments operate with a dedicated team of eight skilled employees. Our monthly production capacity includes 1500 uniforms and over 4000 t-shirts, which we are proud to deliver to our clients. To achieve these numbers, we utilise a total of 15 machines for production purposes, ensuring efficiency and timely delivery. Additionally, we have three machines dedicated to branding, allowing us to add personalised touches to our garments.

While our current size and capacity may not match the scale of our ultimate aspirations, we are committed to taking the necessary steps to build towards our dream factory. We remain focused on continuous improvement and growth, striving to enhance our operations and expand our capabilities in the future.

Are you close to realising your dream of establishing a replica of China garment manufacturing factory in Nigeria?

The dream to start a garment factory began during my second year at university when my parents were no longer able to support my education financially. As a 19-year-old, I had to find a way to pay for my schooling, sustain myself, and overcome the challenges I faced.

During that time, I explored various business opportunities to survive. In my struggles, I started envisioning a business that could provide employment opportunities for hundreds or even thousands of people. I realised that there might be individuals experiencing the same hardships I had faced, and I wanted to create a business that could offer them opportunities for employment.

One day, I came across a magazine featuring a picture of a China garment manufacturing factory. I was astonished to see how many people were employed by that fashion company. It ignited a vision within me to build something similar in Nigeria.

To answer the question, in terms of the quality of our output, we are very close to achieving international standards. While it’s not perfect, we take pride in being able to compare Dohn and Kalistar’s uniform production with global quality benchmarks.

However, we still have a significant journey ahead in terms of production quantity, as we have yet to reach the scale of a China factory.

Additionally, we are still working towards fully penetrating the Nigerian market and expanding our reach throughout Africa before venturing into the global market.

Although we do have clients in other parts of the world, the pandemic and its impact on borders have created new challenges and opportunities for us to explore.

Building a replica of a China garment manufacturing factory in Nigeria remains our long-term aspiration, and we will continue taking steps towards realizing this dream while striving for continuous improvement and growth.

Despite outfits like yours, many organisations still produce their staff uniforms abroad. Why is this the case, and what measures are you taking to address this issue?

It is unfortunate but true that a significant portion, approximately 50 percent, of the work wear market in Nigeria is dominated by imported products. However, it is important to understand the reasons behind this trend rather than placing blame solely on organisations.

Many organisations choose to import their staff uniforms because they believe that local production companies may not meet their specific requirements or deliver the desired quality. Perception plays a role, and sometimes there is a belief that foreign production offers superior results.

To counter this and prevent capital flight, we are fully committed to providing organisations with the same level of finishing and output they would expect from production facilities outside the country. We strive to meet and exceed their expectations, ensuring that they receive top-quality uniforms that match international standards.

We go the extra mile by sourcing the best fabrics available, which not only saves our clients money by providing durable garments but also benefits the environment by reducing the need for frequent replacements. Sustainability is a key aspect of our approach.

Moreover, our customer service is highly dedicated and focused on ensuring a smooth and seamless transaction from the moment an order is received.

We believe that providing exceptional service is crucial in building trust and long-lasting relationships with our clients.

In general, we strike a balance between cost-effectiveness, timely delivery, and reliability. By consistently delivering high-quality products and outstanding customer service, we aim to shift the perception and encourage organisations to choose local production, thereby reducing capital flight and supporting job creation within the country.

Considering the challenging economic climate, how is the uniforms industry fairing?

Before addressing the current state of the uniforms industry, it is important to understand the underlying significance of wearing uniforms and branded clothing.

Uniforms go beyond mere attire; they instill a sense of professionalism and competence in a company’s image. Certain organisations, such as hospitals, rely on uniforms to establish trust and assure patients that they are in the right place. Similarly, construction companies with all their workers dressed appropriately garner respect and credibility.

Even in factories, employees wearing the right gear create a sense of safety and professionalism, fostering trust among the target market.

Now, what about businesses that may not require functional uniforms? Should they forgo customized garments to cut costs? The answer lies in assessing whether they are truly saving money.

When a person walks into an organisation, be it a small shop or a large company, and sees employees wearing branded clothes, it sends a powerful message about the business owner’s intentionality and commitment.

It conveys that the company knows what it is doing and is willing to invest in its brand. This subtle yet impactful impression plays a significant role in shaping customers’ perceptions.

Additionally, many companies may not have their billboards displayed prominently on major roads, but their employees can serve as walking advertisements.

Just as Coca-Cola remains top of mind because it is always visible, businesses can achieve a similar effect by having employees wear promotional and uniformed attire. This simple strategy allows businesses to convey their message and brand identity effectively.

In challenging times, the primary goal for most businesses is to maximise their revenue. Therefore, wearing uniforms and promotional clothing is not merely a luxury but a necessity for any serious business, regardless of economic conditions. These garments play a pivotal role in enhancing the company’s visibility, professionalism, and reputation.

Whether in a recession or not, uniforms and promotional wears are a must-have for businesses that strive for success.

How do you manage the recruitment and training of tailors; who are essential to your business?

Recruitment is a domain in which I possess expertise, having worked as a certified Human Resource consultant for over nine years. Leveraging my HR background, I am skilled in effectively recruiting and selecting tailors who are crucial to our operations.

To ensure operational efficiency, I maintain a pool of pre-interviewed tailors, ready to be onboarded in case of emergencies or when the workload exceeds our current staff capacity. This proactive approach helps us maintain seamless operations even during challenging times.

When it comes to training our tailors, I would like to share an insight with fellow fashion business enthusiasts. Every tailor possesses sewing skills, as that is the core of their profession. The key lies in imparting our company’s unique processes and values to them.

By providing thorough training and emphasizing specific quality standards, we enable our tailors to develop a deep understanding of our expectations. Over time, they become proficient in delivering the desired outcomes consistently, aligning with our company’s ethos.

We recognise that tailors bring their own expertise and experience to the table, and by imparting our knowledge and values, we foster a cohesive team that consistently meets our high standards.

You mentioned the introduction of winter jackets made with Ankara material as a new addition to your production line. How has it been received in the market, and does it extend beyond your uniform production to regular fashion wear?

The inclusion of winter jackets made with Ankara material in our product line was an unexpected development. It originated from a request made by one of our clients, a human resource manager, who needed a special send-forth gift for staff members relocating abroad.

During a conversation with her, she mentioned that her friends abroad loved the Ankara jackets we produced for her family, but found them too light for winter wear. She inquired if there was a way to create a thicker version suitable for colder climates.

Taking this feedback into consideration, I put my mind to work and within 24 hours, I developed a prototype of a thicker Ankara winter jacket and sent it to her. From that point on, the demand for Ankara winter jackets skyrocketed.

We have successfully produced numerous Ankara winter jackets for clients in various countries, including the UK, US, Europe, Canada, and even travelers visiting Jos, Nigeria. The level of acceptance and positive feedback we have received has been incredibly encouraging.

Regarding the notion of whether producing winter jackets goes beyond our typical production line, it could be seen as a deviation, or perhaps not. At Dohn and Kalistar, our specialisation lies not only in functional uniform production and customisation but also in promotional wears like t-shirts, hoodies, varsity jackets, and more. We cater to our clients’ specific requests, including the use of Ankara materials in some of our designs.

The winter jackets we produce are essentially a thicker variation of some of our existing product offerings. We have honed our sewing techniques to create a design that effectively traps body heat while showcasing the vibrant Ankara patterns. Although the name may sound different, the jackets align with our commitment to providing high-quality, customised garments that meet our clients’ diverse needs. In conclusion, the Ankara winter jackets have been well-received in the market, gaining popularity beyond our uniform production line. They represent our ability to adapt and cater to client preferences while maintaining our focus on delivering exceptional products.

What other innovations are you implementing at Dohn and Kalistar Garments?

At Dohn and Kalistar Garments, we are committed to continuous improvement and innovation. Here are some of the key initiatives we have undertaken:

Streamlined Production System: We have developed and refined a production system that optimizes efficiency and reduces production time. Through careful planning and streamlining of our processes, we have successfully mastered an efficient production system that allows us to deliver orders promptly without compromising on quality.

Embracing Circular Economy: Recognising the environmental challenges, particularly flooding in Lagos State, we have taken steps to contribute to mitigating its impact. As part of our commitment to sustainability, we are transitioning to more eco-friendly packaging materials. Additionally, we have adopted a circular economy approach by recycling all pieces generated in our factory. These materials are creatively repurposed to create new garments and other items, reducing waste and promoting a more environmentally friendly approach.

Expansion of Product Line: We have expanded our product line to include winter jackets. This expansion has been a significant milestone for us, as it has allowed us to cater to clients’ demands in colder climates. We take great pride in our capacity to manufacture high-quality winter jackets and are thrilled to have the opportunity to export them to international markets. This expansion has opened up new opportunities for us and for this we are super grateful.

These innovations demonstrate our commitment to continuous improvement, environmental responsibility, and meeting the evolving needs of our customers. We are proud of the progress we have made in these areas and remain dedicated to driving further innovation within our industry.

Finishing has always been an issue, if that is the gap you are closing, what machines and accessories do you have to ensure the feat?

Ensuring high-quality finishing is indeed a critical aspect of our operations at Dohn and Kalistar Garments. To bridge this gap, we utilize a range of machines and accessories that contribute to achieving excellent finishing results. Some of the key machines and accessories we employ include:

Industrial Sewing Machines: We have a variety of industrial sewing machines that are specifically designed for different types of stitching and finishing. These machines enable us to create clean and precise seams, hems, and other essential details in our garments.

Serger Machines: Sergers, also known as overlock machines, are instrumental in creating professional and durable edge finishes, preventing fabric fraying and enhancing the overall appearance of the garments.

Pressing and Ironing Equipment: Proper pressing and ironing play a crucial role in achieving crisp and polished finishes. We utilise steam irons, pressing tables, and other pressing equipment to ensure that our garments are flawlessly pressed, removing any wrinkles or imperfections.

Finishing Tools and Accessories: We also employ a range of finishing tools and accessories to enhance the quality of our final products. These may include specialized scissors, trimmers, fabric markers, measuring tools, and other accessories that aid in achieving precise cuts, accurate measurements, and clean finishing touches.

Furthermore, we are constantly exploring new technologies, techniques, and machinery that can further elevate our finishing capabilities. As part of our commitment to knowledge sharing and contributing to the growth and advancement of the industry as a whole, we will soon be releasing an ebook on this topic, providing valuable insights and guidance for fashion designers seeking to improve their finishing techniques.

At Dohn and Kalistar Garments, we believe that attention to detail and investing in the right machines and accessories are key to delivering exceptional finishing in our products. We continuously strive to enhance our finishing processes to ensure that our garments meet the highest quality standards and exceed customer expectations.

You started in 2015, how has it been, is your business when it should be now and where do you see it in the next five years?

Since our establishment in 2015, our journey has been a combination of challenges and achievements. We are proud of the progress we have made thus far, but we recognise that there is still much more to accomplish.

Looking ahead to the next five years, our vision for Dohn and Kalistar Garments is ambitious yet realistic.

Firstly, we aim to significantly increase our production capacity. Our goal is to reach a daily output of 1,500 uniforms, while maintaining the highest standards of quality and craftsmanship. This increase in production will be supported by the growth of our staff, as we anticipate expanding our team to include at least 100 skilled individuals. This expansion will enable us to serve a larger client base and meet the growing demand for our products.

In terms of market presence, we have set our sights on capturing a substantial market share in Nigeria. Our aim is to secure at least 60 percent of the market, both in the corporate sector and within the local market. This will be achieved through a combination of exceptional product quality, outstanding customer service, and strategic marketing initiatives.

Additionally, we have plans to expand our operations to the eastern part of Nigeria and two other African countries. This expansion will not only increase our geographic reach but also allow us to tap into new markets and establish our brand as a reliable provider of uniforms and promotional wears across the continent.

One of our key focuses moving forward will continue to be improving our finishing capabilities. We are dedicated to delivering uniforms and promotional wears with impeccable quality and consistency. By ensuring that our finishing processes meet the highest standards, we aim to position ourselves as the go-to destination in Nigeria and, ultimately, Africa for top-notch uniforms and promotional wears.

While the road ahead may present its own set of challenges, we are confident in our ability to overcome them and achieve our vision for the future. With determination, innovation, and a commitment to excellence, we believe that Dohn and Kalistar Garments will continue to grow and thrive, making a lasting impact in the industry.