BusinessDay

‘Ability to merge western, African designs makes our bags appeal to customers across the world’

Femi Olayebi is a self-taught, award-winning handbag designer, trainer, mentor, and the creative brain behind the eponymous Femi Handbags (FH) brand. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE, she speaks on what has differentiated her brand from others and how the right policies would grow the fashion industry.

What has been your experience as an award-winning handbag designer, trainer, mentor, and brain behind the FemiHandbags?

The FemiHandbags journey has been a truly phenomenal and valuable learning experience, especially as I have watched the Nigerian and global fashion industry evolve right before my very eyes. It has also been a humbling experience – I never imagined in my wildest dreams that my work would take me places and earn me the recognition that it has. We have found ourselves playing on the international stage at events like London Fashion Week, New York’s Coterie, CNN’s Marketplace Africa, and are now stocked in small boutique stores in Paris, London and New York. In the course of this journey, I have come to learn that there is still so much to learn, but also that with my years of experience comes a responsibility to reach out to others in that space, mentor, train and give back. This I believe is what propelled me to create the platform, the Lagos Leather Fair, a phenomenon that has turned out to be a very fulfilling and rewarding experience in terms of the impact it has made in the private-public arena. As a designer, I also recognise the fact that disruption is the new normal, and we have to continually discard the old and embrace the new. This requires that we constantly push the boundaries of our creativity to remain true to the brand vision, remain a market leader, and constantly raise the bar and prove that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it.

Who are your target customers and what kind of bags do you make?

Our FH women — the brand’s major customers are predominantly HNIs, and mid- to high-earning women who have the purchasing power and ordinarily can afford to buy handbags from well-known international bag designers; for many of these women, the brand compares favourably with these international brands, and has become a welcome alternative and a favourite. Our handbags are termed iconic, and are truly one-of-a-kind. We bring together an exciting mix of traditional craft and new technology, premium leather and signature touches of the hand woven cloth, ‘aso-oke’ and mesh them all into our vintage-styled silhouettes. All that and our bold use of colour, are our most striking features; the level of attention to detail we infuse into each and every product positions Femi Handbags a cut above the rest. For us, the handbag is a statement piece, a conversation starter, and as such, we do not compromise on the quality of the craftsmanship.

Where and how do you source for raw materials to make your bags?

This varies — we source from one or two suppliers from Mushin Market in Lagos, but mostly get our leathers from our trusted suppliers in the UK and Italy. However, the local market has proven inadequate as a lot of the time, we are unable to get the exact colour or texture we require, and in the required quantities for a certain style and this in spite of the fact that we have our own functional tanneries. However, our tanneries get more value for money from shipping their semi-processed hides and skins abroad, than they would selling in-country for the simple reason that there are not enough of us to purchase their minimum quantity orders. We are also obliged to import all our hardware and accessories as we do not find the desired level of quality here. I believe however, that all this is as a function of underestimating the fast-paced growth and demand of the needs of the industry and the volume of entrepreneurs playing in that space. This is one of the challenges that we are currently hoping to tackle through the Lagos Leather Fair — bringing as many participants across the leather industry’s value chain together to implement solutions that make it easier to access what is ultimately produced in our backyard in a mutually-beneficial manner.

What is your source of inspiration?

I have multiple sources. One of the greatest things about the dynamism of FemiHandbags and the styles is the ability to draw inspiration from anything and everything all around me. I am extremely inspired by art and colour- that definitely runs in my DNA – and by old style vintage silhouettes. We are also always working on our old designs and adding a breath of fresh air to them. That way they can be made even more impressive with a few modifications. For our brand as well, because of the bespoke nature of our pieces, and the ability of customers to — every now and again — contribute to some of the design elements of their FemiHandbag, this can bring about new ideas or new ways of depicting past ideas. The work that I do also demands that I consistently seek out sources of inspiration, by attending fashion fairs, visiting exhibitions, following the work of some of my favourite designers from all over the world, and staying in touch with the evolving landscape of the fashion industry in general.

With your bags being stocked in Nigeria, London, Paris and New York, how are you able to appeal to the demand for these large variety of customers, considering their different environment, and lifestyles?

From the get-go, one of the core design characteristics that I wanted the FemiHandbags brand to embody was its ability to merge the Western with the African in a stylish and attractive manner, one that can appeal to women anywhere in the world. What this means is that while we might source inspiration from the global fashion landscape and what’s in season, every single product maintains core heritage features — every bag contains a touch of aso-oke. The fashion industry has become increasingly globalised, and Western based designers are looking towards Africa for design answers – we’ve seen foreign brands crossing borders to borrow and source style components not just from the African continent, but from cultures all over the world. In a way, this has also further enhanced the appeal of our products, at home and abroad: for the international consumer, the touch of culture makes it exotic, and for the local consumer, it’s a label and a visible reminder that Made-in-Nigeria can be amazing.

What really makes your bags different from others in Nigeria?

Exclusivity continues to be the most important feature of our bags. More often than not, each piece is handcrafted individually even though there are countless variations, and is usually a limited edition handbag, making the wearer feel very special. We also keep reinventing ourselves so much so that the FemiHandbags label has become aspirational and a must-have accessory. Coupled with that is our bold use of quirky colours and the subtle infusion of aso-oke meshed into classic, Western-style silhouettes.

What are the major challenges of bag designers in Nigeria?

One of the biggest challenges to our work as handbag designers is the ability to find enough skilled manpower to produce to the level of quality that we aim to deliver. I’ve been extremely lucky with my staff — I’ve been able to hold together a core team with some who have been with me for over twenty years, yet the problems linger. This has required a balancing act — understanding what they need, helping them to grow, and creating a conducive and comfortable working environment. That notwithstanding, we all still have issues around craftsmanship.

Another critical challenge is the availability of raw materials for the products we design. From the leather itself to smaller elements like eye-lets, buckles, or even something as small as a magnetic clasp or a screw. It’s not that these are completely unavailable, but certainly not in the quantities and the high quality we require. This is why I often have to source from outside the shores of Nigeria for my leathers, metal hardware and accessories.

Copyright is a third challenge that has become increasingly worrisome. Some up-and-coming designers look to established brands for inspiration, and sometimes, this ends up being an entire replication of the brand.

What policies do you think the government can implement to help support bag designers in Nigeria?

It is high time the government recognises the fact that the only way to address the  issues within the industry is to start from ground zero, and go back to the drawing board to work out innovative solutions to help us designers achieve our goals. We can’t keep doing the same thing year in year out and expect different answers. Nigeria is one of Africa’s largest livestock producers and its leather industry offers a fantastic opportunity to achieve its zero-oil plan. It is a significant area that can help boost exports and job creation; support must therefore be increased in the areas of upgrading the systems, training, craftsmanship, production, technology, marketing and branding of leather products. If our design and production skills are not enhanced, if we continue to produce low quality FLGs, if the availability of raw hides and skins remains low, and the cost to the consumer remains high, if we do not begin to truly understand the export market and how it works, we will be unable to achieve our goals. The government needs to focus on formulating a  leather-industry strategy to be driven by stakeholders, improving the regulatory framework to reduce raw materials production costs and initiating the necessary value addition processes – this will  enable leather designers to have access to  processed leathers. They also need to create skills acquisition and improvement centres, and this is KEY, invest in specialised machinery, formulate regulations around quality and standards, ensure the  enforcement of those quality standards, then create a leather marketing campaign to attract outside markets to our FLGs, and induce greater demand.

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