Ladybrille Magazine, over our five year history, has seen very remarkable women grace us with their presence in our monthly ‘Ladybrille Woman of the Month’ feature. This women, ranging from CEOs of successful companies to Supermodels, have been tireless in the their commitment to excellence and have shown sheer determination, amidst personal and professional obstacles, to succeed in their numerous endeavors. They have overcome their obstacles with finesse and their stories have been nothing short of inspiring.
Through it all, one consistent theme is that these brilliant women have extended themselves beyond their immediate realities to reach back and lift others in their respective communities as they climb towards or attain success.
Sinem Onabanjo is one such woman. Born and raised in Turkey, Onabanjo who has a deep love for writing and photography, has shown through all of her work, a passion and deep love for Africa, indeed her record speaks for itself. She has also helped create opportunities for many in Africa’s fashion and entertainment industry and we feel the best is yet to come from this remarkable Ladybrille woman. We are indeed delighted to have her as our Ladybrille Woman of the Month for July 2012. Enjoy.
Interview conducted by Ladybrille’s Editor-in-Chief Uduak Oduok.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Sinem, I must say you are an interesting personality that I have watched over the years in the African fashion and entertainment media digital space. First how are you?
Sinem: I am great, thank you. And thank you very much also for having me on Ladybrille.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (My pleasure.) Let’s start from the very beginning for the benefit of my audience who do not know you. Tell us about your personal background. Where were you born and raised?
Sinem: I was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey – the melting pot, if you’ll excuse the cliche, of diverse and at times conflicting cultures,norms and traditions, and of course the meeting point of the East and the West. I attended American Robert College followed by a BA in English Language and Literature at Bogazici (Bosphorus) University before I moved to the UK to do my MA in Shakespeare at Royal Holloway College, University of London.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Quite an interesting journey and one I look forward to exploring in this interview. Why don’t I delve more). What was your childhood experience like in Turkey?
Sinem: I am an only child, and the youngest in the family so growing up was a lonesome experience most times, but I am grateful for it, as anyone who has grown up as an only child would know, having to entertain yourself for long hours and summer holidays, you learn to be quite independent, creative and self-sufficient which has served me well; to date I can spend hours on end doing whatever it is I am focused on for the day and not get bored for a bit. I used to read a lot, write a lot and do a lot of pencil and charcoal drawings, do mix tapes recorded off radio and learning English as a second language, learn lyrics to songs by writing them down.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Hmmm . . . what are some of your fondest memories as a child growing up in Turkey.
Sinem: It has to be the seaside! Growing up in a country surrounded on all three sides by masses of water (The Black Sea in the north, The Aegean in the west, and the Mediterranean down south), pretty much any child learns to swim at an early age during those long, lazy summer months spent at one coastal town or another. I try to spend at least two weeks every year holidaying in Turkey and to this day the feel of the sand between my toes, the sea breeze in my face and the sun on my skin make me ridiculously happy. Also teenage years in Istanbul are my fondest memories. I think growing up in middle-class Istanbul families, we were raised with a fine balance between freedom and parental authority, so even if we had to abide by curfews, my friends and I were allowed to go out once a month on nights out and later at university, go on spring break. Exploring different parts of town with friends, dining out or checking out gigs and having fun girls’ holidays at spring breaks were all fun experiences.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (That’s actually a good transition for my next question.) I know you have a big love for photography. How did that come about?
Sinem: Growing up, I always loved taking photographs, but of course then it was at an amateur level. It was not until Suby, my other half, took up photography as a full-time profession as opposed to the hobby it had been for many years that I ventured ahead to use an SLR. Even then, I spent a good seven months resenting the camera for taking up so much of my quality time with hubby and it was only on a gloomy spring day feeling quite restless I grabbed the camera, got into my car and drove around tiny villages and country lanes for hours, occasionally stopping on the side of the road taking pictures of whatever church, chapel, field, flower I had stumbled on. I got home about six hours later, starving and mud-caked, but with about 300 frames and absolutely in love with the said camera. As much as I have graduated to fashion photography, I still do enjoy the occasional drive around looking for the picture perfect landscape and would love the opportunity to do that more often.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You are particularly intriguing because although you are Turkish, you are very immersed in Nigerian/African culture. Tell us about how that came about?
Sinem:I think it was very much an organic process. Having grown up in a multi-cultural cosmopolitan, I have always been intrigued by, open to and respectful of different cultures. Also having spent a year at halls of residence while doing my MA and later on in London, another cosmopolitan capital, I have made friends with people of different cultures – but predominantly Italian, Spanish, Greek, Nigerian, Ghanaian and Caribbean.
The way I see it is, Nigerian culture is quite dominant, more so than many others, but also quite accepting of and open to non-Nigerians; so while say perhaps a Chinese person or an Italian may be pleased or surprised with your grasp of their language or their culture, much like us Turks, if a Nigerian sees you eat Nigerian food or speak in pidgin, they are quite enthused by the interest you have taken and the effort you are making. I have noticed and still continue to notice many non-Nigerian people – from the whitest of white ‘oyinbo’ to Afro-Caribbeans – having adopted Nigerian tastes, whether it be in music, fashion or food, being embraced into the community by Nigerians happy to accept them.
I guess my own interest began years and years ago when a certain Mr. Okocha started playing for my team Fenerbahce and I would plaster pictures of his and his then-fiancee now-wife Nkechi’s pictures on to my scrapbook and over the years strengthened through marriage and strong friendships and business links.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs at the Okocha reference.) How long have you been married to your husband?
Sinem: We have been married for six years now, but we have been together for over a decade.
Sinem: Thank you.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: With how active you are in Nigeria’s fashion and entertainment industries and Africa as a whole, I am sure many consider you an African. (Laughs) But I will say I enjoy every once in while running into your articles that share your experience as a Turkish woman and the information you share about your country.
Oh, thank you ever so much; well, in that case, I hope to write some more in the nearest future.
SINEM’S FORAY INTO PUBLISHING & DIGITAL FASHION MEDIA
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Smiles) (Let’s talk writing and publishing.) I know you have a passion for writing. What compels you to write?
Sinem: I think what inspires me to write, in its simplest form, are the stories I am inspired by, the people I am intrigued by and the ideas I want to explore further and share with whomever enjoys and appreciates what my pen and my heart have to offer. Also good writing – good penmanship and wordplay always inspire me to write more and to write better. I truly admire people who can write well.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Likewise.) Now let’s go as far back as we can with your writing career. I really came to know about you through your writings for BHF Magazine. Were you writing for other publications before BHF?
Sinem: I was writing for a number of fashion publications, most regularly for now-defunct Colures Magazine, a black British fashion and lifestyle bi-monthly. Although I have written for as long as I can remember and used to write for the Turkish Cosmopolitan and Turkish Marie Claire while I was still at university, having gone into academics and then into teaching, it was not until 2005, I started making the time for my writing and rekindled my passion for journalism. I came on board BHF in 2007, and during that time I continued to contribute to a number of other African and Nigerian publications such as Made, True Love West Africa, Arise and Canoe.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Why did you choose, primarily, to focus on African style and entertainment?
Sinem:I think African style and entertainment chose me! Even before BHF, when I was writing for Colures, as the team were more black-British driven, due to the African influences I was exposed to I often found myself bringing an African fashion flair to the publication, also doing a 10-page shoot and a 2-page story back then with leading African designers Yemi Osunkoya of Kosibah, Nkwo and Tina Atiemo at a time not many African designers were being featured. With BHF, due to the nature of the publication as an African fashion, entertainment and lifestyle one, I was immersed more and more into writing about African style and entertainment, and the more I learnt, the more I discovered I enjoyed it. And when my freelance gig with True Love West Africa came along, not only did I enjoy writing for Bola Atta immensely, I also enjoyed the challenge of coming up with features that would appeal to a predominantly Nigerian audience.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You transitioned from BHF to spearhead a new publication called FAB in Nigeria. Why did you make that transition?
Sinem: I think there comes a point in everyone’s life where what was once used to be a new challenge becomes a daily chore and we start looking forward to new challenges. For me, BHF was a strong publication which could have got even stronger with certain measures in place; however, although I had immense editorial authority, with no authority over or say in publishing choices or the pace at which the publication was growing. I felt it was time to move on to a position where I could have more of a say as part of management on the decisions regarding the publication and work at my own pace which is about 200mph, so FAB came along at the right time to present that opportunity. Also working with a team that works at the same pace and on the same page, in less than two years, we have managed to make FAB an international publication available on news stands in eight countries (with a further five coming next month) as well as on Android and Apple apps and digitally via pocketmags.com
LADYBRILLEmag.com: It seems you have more editorial control at FAB both as a photographer and an editor. Explain the amount of creative freedom you enjoy at FAB?
Sinem: As editor-in-chief of FAB, I work with a number of contributing editors and editorial assistants to come up with issue themes, feature and editorial ideas. While I am at liberty with regards to content, this is never at the expense of the other two key people involved, our publisher Familusi Akin Babajide, and our creative director, Suby. Fortunately, it is not in my nature to be a control freak, so I am always happy to take suggestions on board; good ideas are not the monopoly of editors-in-chief, if an editorial assistant or an intern comes up with a good idea, we are happy to run with it and give credit where it is due. I guess that is one element of FAB that has helped us introduce so many new names and creative talents into the industry in the two years since our inception.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I am starting to see Sinem evolve once again, this time into the field of Public Relations. Describe your added new hat as a Publicist?
Sinem:Those who know me will know the one thing I detest is seeing people as jacks of all trades with business cards bursting around the edges under the weight of many titles they hold, so I am keen to ensure I stick to what I know best. However, myself and Suby have been in the fashion industry as both suppliers (fashion photography and freelance writing) and as media (FAB Magazine) for so long that we have seen numerous horror stories of inefficiency and ineptitude to last us a lifetime and beyond.
It was probably after the millionth (do excuse the exaggeration) badly written press release coupled with the frustration that most people who come into the fashion industry often come in with little to no experience and give themselves titles hoping to make a quick name or quick cash with very little input, we came up with STwo PR. It was an organic step in the evolution of the SubySinem brand – we finally came up with a brand name to what we had been quietly doing for years, connecting creatives and businesses, creating publicity, offering advice to emerging and other professional services to more established brands.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let me come back to your love for photography. When you shoot whether it be for a featured editorial or just part of exploring and telling Africa’s stories through nature, people and it beautiful landscapes, what inspires you to shoot with the passion that you do?
Sinem: Whether it is the beauty of a model in an African designer’s creations, or the crimson Mediterranean sunset ; a sleepy lion in the African planes or a playful orangutan in the Borneo jungle, an old woman in Turkish coastal village or a street vendor in the Lagos go-slow, it is the innate fascination with the world around me and the people with whom I share it which inspire me to tell the stories that I do, whether it is with my pen or my camera.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You are constantly innovating and delving into new territories. Is that your innate personality?
Sinem:I am pretty sure, if I were not doing what I am doing now, I would either be a psychologist figuring out the complexities of human nature or a theologist figuring out the complexities of our belief systems. Either way, I feel I am a nomad and an explorer. My cousins who are much older than me always joke about how exasperating I was as a kid, constantly asking the same questions, “But why?” In a way, I feel there is still that child in me that constantly asks, “But why?” hungry for new knowledge and fascinating new experiences, whether it is travelling to a far flung destination or meeting yet another fearfully, wonderfully made person. I’d be very very worried the day I did not feel excited about galloping – not tiptoeing, mind! – into undiscovered territories.
SINEM ON AFRICAN FASHION
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Let me move your attention a different direction. Let’s talk African fashion. First, in today’s 21st century, how do you define “African?”
Sinem: Although I can’t call myself an authority, I feel I have had quite a bit life experience in different parts of the world with people from different walks of life to know that there is not one thing on this earth that is not multi-faceted, so any one single definition of ‘African’ frustrates me to no end. I guess, when it comes to defining anything, I heed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wise words about the dangers of a ‘single story’. There is a need to be respectful of how Africans define ‘African’ – a Nigerian’s definition will never be the same as a South African’s and vice versa, and it does not have to be. I guess the common denominator is the passion for the Continent.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Indeed. Nevertheless, I will ask the following question,)how do you define African fashion?
Sinem: Once again one-dimensional or one-directional definitions frustrate me; much like it frustrates me to see anything ‘tribal’ or ‘print’ being celebrated as ‘African fashion’ as this is reducing the diversity of a continent and its cultures to a single frame.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How do you define an African designer?
Sinem: In my opinion, an ‘African designer’ is one who draws on their culture and roots in their creations. Regardless of where they are based in the world and who their clientele is, a designer of African descent, is an African designer, much like a designer of Turkish descent, even if they were born in Canada as in the case of Erdem, or live in the UK, as in the case Hussein Chalayan, is a Turkish designer.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What are some of the strengths within the African fashion markets, particularly its key markets like South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana?
Sinem: The key strength of the South African market is the quality of production and marketing, so not only the finish of garments is of good quality but the overall presentation of the brand and its publicity are done in a professional way. While Nigeria’s and Ghana’s main strengths are enthusiasm and creative energy and both countries have been making huge strides in the fashion industry (not only design, but also styling, photography and of course media), I feel there is still some way to go in terms of achieving production quality and branding of international standards, and this is not strictly down to the designers, but also the teams they work with. If a fashion photographer does not provide professionally retouched images, or a fashion PR thinks their job is limited to merely tweeting a Follow Friday for the brand or placing them on a single website, the branding will fail to reach international standards.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Are there some more added weaknesses?
Sinem: I guess another weakness, through no fault of the designers, is the cost of production involved especially with the overhead expenses of a retail space, challenges of unreliable power and lack of governmental or private funding or initiatives to encourage emerging designers.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What is your projection for Africa’s fashion industries as a whole, say 2-3years from now?
Sinem: Not as much a projection, but the hope, also expressed via FAB Magazine over the years, is that some day soon African fashion could become a business in its own right – much like entertainment has become – which garners not only support from all sectors but also international recognition at a global scale. It took what is now globally recognised as Afrobeats over a decade to make a dent in global consciousness, and I feel with the Western media and design houses turning to Africa more and more for inspiration, African fashion will soon be on the same page. I was saying to Suby only a few days ago, “We were shooting and writing about African fashion and entertainment before they were hot commodities; and now five years on everyone has discovered their power and scope.”
SINEM’S AFRICAN CHOICES
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Okay Sinem, I think we have been quite serious in this interview. Let’s keep it light all the way to finish it out. But first, how do you define a ‘Ladybrille (brilliant) Woman?’
Sinem: The name itself already defines the ‘Ladybrille woman’ – a woman who is brilliant in what she does and lets her brilliance light the path for others in her wake, whatever field she excels at. I would also add, a woman confident in her own skin and supportive of other women.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How do you relieve stress?
Sinem: I hit the gym, or take on flat pack furniture (not kidding!) or a puzzle, or settle down somewhere comfy with a good read and a cup of tea.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Who is the most famous African person you ever met?
Sinem: It would have to be Wole Soyinka – I wasn’t quite star-struck but I stalked him like a fan girl at the launch of Ben Bosah’s 101 Nigerian Artists publication at The Civic Centre in Lagos in December 2010. I am grateful to Ben for making an introduction before anyone could get a chance to throw me out of the venue for stalking The Professor.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What is your favourite daily routine?
Sinem: In my line of work no two days are alike, but I’d have to say, nothing beats the first coffee of the day, no matter what time I get around to having it – be it en route to an interview at 7am or some time around 10am as is the case most days.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What is your favourite African food to cook?
Sinem: Oh it has to be jollof rice, especially if I get to make it taste like ‘party rice’. The favourite one to eat, on the other hand, has to be ikokore; sadly I have not got around to learning how to make it yet despite numerous Ijebu ladies offering to teach me.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Do you have a favorite African Restaurant?
Sinem: About 10 minutes drive away from where I live, I stumbled upon ‘A Little Taste of Africa’ – don’t let the name fool you though, it is more like ‘A Little Taste of Nigeria’. They make mean pepper soup, and it helps that it is my little thus far undiscovered gem and on FourSquare I am still the mayor!
LADYBRILLEmag.com: If you could go on an amazing vacation in Africa for two weeks, all expenses paid, which African country would you choose and why?
Sinem: I am actually working hard to make this happen; although it came about too late, I was approached by an inspirational organisation early on in June and they are planning to take on Mount Kilimanjaro this September. If I can find the right sponsorship and get in shape, my dream vacation would be 6 days of hiking and hopefully reaching the summit at Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, followed by a few days of relaxation at Zanzibar as I have been told the plan is – all the while raising money for a charity of my choice. If I cannot get the sponsorship to make this happen this year, watch this space, as I sure intend to make it happen next year.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs) Who is your favorite African Fashion designer?
Sinem: Oooooh! This is putting me on the spot as there are so many amazing names to choose from. I will cheat, if that’s okay, and name my favourite jewellery designer, who has to be Anita Quansah renowned for her exquisite bespoke pieces.
LADYBRILLEmag.com:(Laughs). What is the most important quote/inspiration you live by?
Sinem:One that motivates me and carries me through challenging times is “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”; another I live by and advise other to do so is one of my own – the toes you step on your way up may be connected to the ass you may have to kiss on the way down, so in essence I can say I believe in karma but also good manners no matter who you are dealing with.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Thank you Sinem for passion and dedication, especially as a non-African, in telling the beautiful and positive stories of African. We celebrate and salute you for all of your contributions.
Sinem: You’re most welcome; glad to be able to tell stories that are not my own but that continue to inspire me daily and give inspiration to others. Thank you too for sharing my story.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: My Pleasure.
~Copyright 2012 Ladybrille Magazine. All Rights Reserved.
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].