“B“unmi Olaye owner of the fashion label Bunmi Koko graces the cover of Ladybrille Magazine as Ladybrille Woman of the Month, July 2011. In her first USA Exclusive interview, Bunmi shares insights on her background, the business of fashion and a whole lot more!
The Bunmi Koko label was founded in 2009 by Bunmi Olaye and her business partner Francis Udom. In July 2010, Bunmi Olaye won “Emerging Designer of the Year 2010 -International” at the Africa Fashion International Africa Fashion Awards in South Africa. A month later, August 2010, the news media reported First Lady Michelle Obama had commissioned the label and its designer Bunmi Olaye to design a cream colored double breasted coat for the First Lady. In March 2011, the label was the recipient of the Arise Fashion Week Show Lagos, earning a coveted spot to show at New York Fashion Week this September 2011. This past June 2011, the label was finalist at the Scottish Fashion Awards 2011 for the Scottish Retailer of the Year Award. Bunmi Olaye was also invited as a commentator for the Kate Middleton & Prince William Wedding. This month, while we have been enjoying having Bunmi for one full month on Ladybrille front pages and on the background of our website, The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall extended a royal invitation for Bunmi Koko to attend a reception at the St. James Palace. Congratulations to Bunmi and Francis. Enjoy Ladybrille’s exclusive interview with Bunmi Olaye below.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Hi Bunmi, how are you?
Bunmi Koko: Hello, I am very well, thank you.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: We have not had the pleasure of meeting in person, yet. But I must say I find your work, and that of your partner Francis Udom, compelling. I look forward to our meeting someday and actually taking in your designs up close and personal.
Bunmi Koko: Thank you very much for all your wonderful support and it is great to see what you are doing for LADYBRILLEmag! We are looking forward to meeting you one day too. Maybe hope to see you in Nigeria for the opening of our 1st Annual International Luxury Trunk Sale/Seminar at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in August 2011?
Bunmi Olaye Speaks on the Awards & Shares Her Personal Background
LADYBRILLEmag.com: It’s possible! First things first, how are you?
Bunmi Koko: I am very well, thank you and we have just returned from Scottish Fashion Awards 2011, and very excited by the opportunity and recognition that was given to us and it was amazing. Now, we are very busy planning for the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) product launch which will take place in London in early August and the trunk sale show/UNWFP at Nigeria in August, as well as preparation for Spring/Summer 2012 in New York Fashion Week and London Fashion Week!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How does it feel to be honored as Ladybrille Woman of the Month alongside some of our stellar alumni like Supermodel Iman?
Bunmi Koko: Oh it’s a great pleasure! It is definitely an honor and I just can’t believe how it’s been only 2 years since the establishment of Bunmi Koko Brand and I’m very thankful to be getting this recognition while being relatively new in the scene! Thank you very much for this amazing opportunity and hopefully it will inspire some of the young creative entrepreneurs in the industry.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: When we hear about you, it is usually in the context of your work, which is great, but let’s get to know a more personal side of you?
Bunmi Koko: In my spare time I like to attend the cinema, theatre, and concerts. I have an interest in the arts. I love dancing as a means of exercise too. These sorts of things help me relax! I also LOVE trying new recipes and eating good food!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Nice. Share with us your background. Where were you born and raised?
Bunmi Koko: I was born in the 1980’s in Ibadan, Nigeria and grew up there. From time to time I came to Lagos (former capital) on vacation and moved to London at the age of 14. My dad did a lot to make sure myself and siblings had the best education.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Speaking of best education, what high school and college did you attend?
Bunmi Koko: I was privileged to attend some top private and independent schools. I went to St. Margaret’s in Bushey, Hertfordshire where I studied for three years and finished my GCSE’s and then went to Cranleigh School in Surrey to join the Sixth form for my A-levels. Throughout that time I lived in Harrow-on-the-hill with my family before going off to do my higher education courses. Firstly, I went off to Wimbledon School of Art to do a foundation course in Art & Design. After that, I took the Styling and Photography Course in London College of Fashion (LCF) in London. But the desire to make clothes led me to University of East London (UEL) where I did Fashion Design & Marketing Degree.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I hear your mom’s love for fashion really influenced you to become a fashion designer. Share those fond memories with us?
Bunmi Koko: I owe a lot of my passion to my mom actually! I remember my mother would come home and bring me back issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar after traveling. My mother recognized the fashion interest I had since I started dressing up dolls at such a young age, and she wanted to develop this interest I had so she always provided me with a supportive environment.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: When did you get your epiphany that you wanted to become a fashion designer?
Bunmi Koko: I’ve always been fascinated by garments – from the age of about 4. Initially, I’d just dress my dolls and customize clothes for them. But the epiphany came to me during my Foundation year at Art school!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Where were you and what were you doing when that epiphany came?
Bunmi Koko: I was at Wimbledon School of Art, when I had the urge to be a fashion designer and I nurtured that during my studies later down the line.
Bunmi Olaye Speaks on the Business of Fashion in the UK
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Bunmi, I really want to talk to you from an angle of being a designer in the business of fashion, not necessarily being an “African” designer although we will get to that.
Bunmi Koko: Bunmi Koko is an international brand without borders as our product and services appeals to diverse cultures. However we have Scottish/Nigerian heritage as a brand and with this in mind, we can act as an ambassador.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Great. You are in the UK. London Fashion Week and the UK’s fashion industry have evolved to a place where the world is now paying attention. Describe the current climate for the business of fashion in the UK?
Bunmi Koko:The UK fashion industry have earned a great reputation as we have got international British fashion brands like Burberry, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, however the industry is also supporting younger brands like Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders and Bunmi Koko as recently I was invited as a fashion expert to comment on the Royal Wedding of Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Also we were nominated for the prestigious Scottish Fashion Awards.
The current climate for the business of fashion is very challenging and competitive and we are just taking the season as it comes. With a very robust business plan then one should be able to withstand the pressures and challenges when it emerges.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What are some of the key trends that are influencing the UK’s fashion industry and propelling it into the limelight?
Bunmi Koko: Well, London is admitted to be the fourth major fashion capital in the world, with its own signature character of creativity, artistic manner and heritage rag trade. What is special about the fashion industry here is that London is known for always following new trends and “making trends happen” and the more unique a trend is, the more likely it will catch on. It is very fascinating because one morning you could be going to work and most of the people you see are wearing the same type of clothes! We are hoping to one day be an influencer of a mass-trend!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I think you are already getting there. Okay, against London’s fashion backdrop, here you are as a fashion designer of African heritage in London with a showroom. How significant is it that you even have a showroom in London? Is that common among designers of ethnic origin in the UK?
Bunmi Koko: I’m just happy that I have this platform to show my work in London and I suppose that it is really significant and exclusive. To have a studio and a showroom in London is very challenging for all designers. We are trying very hard to work and maintain our standards and develop our business streams. We hope that all designers of ethnic origin in the UK will be able to develop their business and come out fully from the current financial climate.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let’s talk about your designs. I know your business partner is from Cross River (Calabar city), Nigeria and you have shown collection(s) inspired from his neck of the woods. Can you describe the process of designing your fabrics and how both of your African heritages have influenced your fabric designs and choices?
Bunmi Koko: We generate our designs from extensive research from whichever topic we decide to go. We are very academic and also research focused as we have robust design procedures we adhere to.
We never take shortcuts at Bunmi Koko, and this has been a company policy for us when designing. Garments go through Quality Control after they are sampled and the very slightest mistake would require an alteration, which is why our sampling is done in-house in London. We develop our own prints and fabrics from the respective collection inspiration. Our Matriarchy Spring/Summer 2011 collection was our “Journey of Discovery” as it was a tribute to a Scottish missionary and nineteenth century Nigerian aid worker, Mary Slessor who is commemorated on the Scottish ten-pound note and also Francis’ Great Great Grandmother!
So as you can see, that collection had deep roots of culture and it stems from both our Scottish and Nigerian heritages. We wanted to reflect that and honour Mary Slessor and celebrate our very existence, cultures and female empowerment
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Your work ethic and attention to details does indeed show. I heard Francis in a video interview discuss wanting the Bunmi Koko brand to be a lifestyle brand. Share with us, to that end, five strategies you have employed in brand building so you can get to your ultimate goal?
Bunmi Koko: Bunmi Koko brand is an emerging luxury lifestyle brand. The five strategies I would say are:
1. Experienced Team
Working with the best, diverse and talented team in our brand. An example is our CEO Francis who has got numerous wealth of experience in Marine/Oil and Gas. He also sits as a Council Member for the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology International Headquaters, London. So this makes a huge difference in our business policies and strategies. Our sales Manager is a former Louis Vuitton Manager e.t.c
2. Developing a strategic business plans and policies that is shared with team
We develop effective management system that works for our business streams by developing good business policies and standards and ensure it is implemented. We are working towards ISO 9001 Quality Management System Certification in our business. Also we work with good reputable firms like KPMG to audit our business.
3. Project Management:
We have a very functional and efficient project management division. All our projects are supervised and detailed to give accuracy so it tends to succeed.
4. Building lasting relationships with all people and organization
By taking feedback and encouraging effective communication skills within the business. As a result we have generated some awareness about our brand and it is very rewarding to see our hard work.
5. Effective Market Plans
Be focus driven and resilient. Develop our sales and marketing plans by always demonstrating our Bunmi Koko strong innovation and design aesthetic on all our products and services. Being able to adapt quickly to the ever changing market and delivering luxury product and services to our customers.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How are you both using social media to leverage your brand?
Bunmi Koko: We are using all possible social media to connect with the world at the right time. Social networks like facebook, twitter and you tube are very important in sending out our major news like press releases, photos, magazine editorials and such. Also, we are distributing the news on our web site. But the most important is “live” communications, like holding networking events and communicating with people, just to get to build relationships on a personal level.
Bunmi Olaye Speaks on Use of Social Media & Online Retail Store
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I know you now have an e-commerce/e-retail store presence where you sell your clothes. Tell us a bit about why you felt that was the right direction to go for your brand?
Bunmi Koko: Firstly, today’s online shopping is more developed than just stores on Bond street etc. For example if a garment is not available in a store, you can just order it online. Moreover, we have a lot of buzz internationally and if a product is not currently present in a certain country, they can just order online and it will be delivered right to their door. This also gives us a clear statistic on which garments were the public’s favorites by looking at which made the online sales. Also, more opportunities can be offered via the online shop such as exclusive online garments.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I believe e-retail has made clothing really accessible particularly for African designers in the continent looking to reach a new market. For those looking to have an e-brick and mortar store, can you share some of the business principles they should be aware of before opening a e-retail store?
Bunmi Koko: We started out as just an e-brick and mortar store, but I do believe that in our modern day, you have to open an online store eventually if you want to reach the global market. I think the most important thing to keep in mind before taking this step is what you aim to do through it whether it is increasing sales, advertisement, or just brand awareness. Then you can start to build your e-retail store around the clear direction you have put for it. We researched it thoroughly and designed and developed our website. It is amazing to see all the hard work and we are constantly getting feedback as to improve our services to all our loyal fans.
Bunmi Olaye Speaks on How Michelle Obama Commissioned the Bunmi Koko Label to Make a Coat for Her
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Promotions and marketing is so critical for any brand. Somehow, you were able to get the attention of America’s First Lady Michelle Obama. Tell us the informal and formal methods you used to give your brand the type of visibility that attracted the First Lady?
Bunmi Koko: During our visit to South Africa, we won an award and met with the Great Nelson Mandela and his lovely family. They saw our look-book and were very impressed with the collection and recommended that we show them to First Lady Michelle Obama because his wife thought she would like them. This visit also gained us a lot of press coverage that is crucial to attracting big names out there. We continue to dress global celebrities like Mel B, Michelle Williams and fans like HilaryAlexander of Telegrapgh & Sarah Bailey of Harper’s Bazaar. Our clothes have also appeared on several editorials and photoshoots and everyday we are getting more requests to showcase our clothing, so I think we are going in the right direction!
LADYBRILLmag.com: You were recently called on to give insight on the Kate and William wedding. What did that feel like?
Bunmi Koko: It was really an honor to have been invited as a brand to discuss the most talked about dress of the century and also to showcase a design I had in mind for the new Duchess. It was such an amazing and memorable day and I feel so lucky to have been part of it in some way.
The Bunmi Koko sketch of the design I had in mind for the new Duchess of Cambridge was revealed on the television coverage on the day. The dress was made in French lace and had a classic and vintage feel to it. It was made in-house and was called the “Duchess” named after Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge. It displays classic couture techniques of intricate hand finishing as well as a modern and innovative twist to traditional bridal wear for today’s modern bride. It follows a theme of royalty, with the timing of its release.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I know you now have a bridal line. Why bridal wear?
Bunmi Koko: When we started Bunmi Koko, we solely worked on couture orders for private clients and bridal wear was popular. We just wanted to wait for the right time to promote it and launch it officially. As a brand, it is also important for us to develop and venture into new markets, and bridal wear just seemed to be the perfect fit where we can illustrate the elegance of the brand. After our involvement with the Royal Wedding, which gave the brand exposure to about 2 billion people, it was the perfect time to launch the mini-bridal collection. It was one of those once in a lifetime moments, as I was invited by ITV alongside three top British designers to offer expert commentary on the Royal Wedding Coverage of the Newly Wedded Duke & Duchess Of Cambridge.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: In terms of brand expansion and diversification of retail products, how many years do you think a designer should be in business before diversifying into other lifestyle products?
Bunmi Koko: It depends on brand awareness, funding and a brands design aesthetic. However, there is no equation for this. It depends on the business plan and strategy of each brand.
Bunmi Olaye Speaks on the Awards & The Future of the Brand
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You won an Award at the Africa Fashion Awards in South Africa last year. Earlier this year, you won another award at Arise Magazine Fashion Awards. The big prize for Arise is that you get to show at New York Fashion Week this September. How are your preparations coming along?
Bunmi Koko: At the moment, I’m working on the collection and all of our team are busy organizing and planning everything for the event. At Bunmi Koko, we are very detailed and specific with our work, so a lot of attention is being diverted into the collection so we can approach perfection as close as we can! We are also working on the Nigerian trunk show and the launch of our United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) products in August which is being organized by our sister brand Eagle & Thistle, so as you can tell it is a very busy season. Also we are recruiting top models in the UK, Nigeria and South Africa for Eagle & Thistle Group.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What are you hoping to accomplish from showing your collection at New York Fashion Week?
Bunmi Koko: It is such a great opportunity for us to be in New York and we know it is a bigger market. We want to establish Bunmi Koko in New York, by increasing our wholesale stockists as well as generating awareness for the brand. As part of our Spring/Summer 2012 collection, we have designed our first beauty product in a collaboration for Cargo cosmetics to be marketed worldwide through Ulta.com, which will be launched during our New York Fashion Week show in September 2011.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What next for the Bunmi Koko brand?
Bunmi Koko: We will be showcasing our collections all over the world starting with the trunk show in Nigeria, to New York Fashion Week and London Fashion Week. Everyday something new comes up and we get more opportunities to visit new countries. We’re also diversifying into electronic accessories such as MacBook, iPad, and iPhone covers. Moreover, we are thinking of collaborating with shoe designers to introduce footwear into the brand. Basically, we are developing our product portfolio.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Thank you for your time and congratulations on being our Woman of the Month for our Fashion Designer Edition!
Bunmi Koko: Thank you very much for all your support. And to all our fans in all professions, may God Bless you for all your support to us in one way or the other. We love you all!
-Interview by Uduak Oduok
A running feature for 12 years on Ladybrille.com, The ‘Ladybrille Woman of the Month’ celebrates women in business and leadership, who empower themselves and others through their contributions and actions in their local and international communities. In 2014, the feature expanded to include a podcast show. If you would like to nominate a woman to be celebrated, please email [email protected].