Kunmi Otitoju is a fashion designer based in Spain from Ekiti, South-West Nigeria. As a much younger woman, Otitoju harbored a strong desire and interest in the fine arts. Equally strong, however, was her passion for computers and the way they worked. After high school, Otitoju subsequently enrolled at Howard University in Washington D.C where she earned her Bachelor of Science Degree, Summa Cum Laude, in Systems & Computer Science.
While at Howard University, however, she yearned for a way to merge her two passions (the arts and sciences), and in fact continued to nurture her love for the arts by taking art courses while simultaneously completing courses towards her degree in Computer Science. After Howard and a graduate studies at Virginia Tech, where she obtained her masters in Computer science; and a brief stint as an IT consultant, it finally all clicked for Otitoju.
In 2011, Otitoju launched her design label Minku, a subsidiary of Minku Leather Goods, Limited. The brand, although very new, has been gaining the attention of many within and outside the fashion industry, including the endorsement of Nigerian-German singer/songwriter Nneka.
“Minku co-directors Kunmi Otitoju and Juan Gonzalez-Vallinas met up with (N)neka for a photo shoot collaboration earlier this month. Nneka was in Barcelona as part of the European promotional tour for her new album ‘Soul is Heavy’.
In a photo shoot that was lively and informal, Nneka modeled some bags from the Minku Autumn/Winter 2012 Collection, that included a five-compartment, red leather travel bag lined with green contrast aso-oke fabric. The collection, ‘Folklorist Reloaded’, expands on the theme of the Minku AW2011 collection — the power of folklorists to unveil old ways and help us imagine new possibilities through their colourful folktales.
Named after prominent folklorists, the bags explore color through what has become a Minku trademark of combining Sapnish-sourced leathers on the exteriors, and fabrics like aso-oke on the bag interiors. “
You can check out a few samples of the bags after you read Ladybrille’s Fashion Business Interview with Otitoju. Enjoy.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Tell us, briefly, how and why you decided to strike out on your own as a fashion entrepreneur?
Kunmi O.: I grew up around entrepreneurs and always wanted to be one because I thought it offered flexibility and a truer lifestyle. Also with Minku, in addition to bag designing, I get to use my computer science education – I designed, maintain, and generate the content for the Minku web site and some clients’ sites.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (That’s quite impressive, you must be saving a lot of money by managing your own website). Describe the exact products and services you provide?
Kunmi O.: Minku is a fine leather goods brand. We design and hand-make leather goods, for men and women, that speak to a fresh Nigerian aesthetic. We also offer a customization service. Our atelier is in Barcelona and our clients so far come from about 15 different countries spread across five continents.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Fantastic and a very good start for a young brand.) What is the core mission of your business?
Kunmi O.: Our mission is to make people smile through the leather goods we make for them, and the personalized buying experience we strive to offer them.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (It sounds noble and pragmatic.) What clearly defined business goals do you have for your brand within the next two years?
Kunmi O.: We want to continue making leather goods that remain true to a sophisticated Nigerian aesthetic and a culture of quality and hand-craftsmanship.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: For your products/services, what is the distribution system you have in place to make sure customers get your products when and where they want it?
Kunmi O.: We sell our bags through our web store, www.shop.minkudesign.com and offer worldwide shipping. Still, our clients in Lagos, Nigeria may prefer to go to Nike Art Gallery in Lekki, where they can see and buy items from the brand. We also attend fairs and shows. Some recent ones being the 1st Lagos Accessories Fair held at Terra Kulture, and the Colors and Creativity exhibition held at the National Museum, Onikan.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What has been your biggest business success to date?
Kunmi O.: We have been blessed in many ways since starting in early 2011. A recent success would have to be collaborating with musician Nneka on a photo shoot that was a lot of fun for everyone involved. Some of the photos are on our web site, the full set will be unveiled there soon.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Getting Nneka to be involved in your brand is pretty big deal. Way to go!) What has been your biggest business mistake so far?
Kunmi O.: Sometimes I buy too many metal finishings then I stop making that type of bag and I am stuck with metal hoops or buttons I probably won’t use.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs) What have you learnt from that mistake?
Kunmi O.: I have learnt how to count (j/k).
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Laughs) As a business, what is the customer experience you want each customer to take away every time they experience your fashion brand?
Kunmi O.: Our tagline is ‘handmade leather goods for a happier life.’ I currently make all the bags myself and I want this to come through in the finished product, because I think knowing this makes people happier to be wearing Minku. I used to live in the United States, where it’s incredibly difficult to find something that is hand-made and cool and doesn’t cost a fortune to own. In a lot of European and African countries, the culture of the hand-made still exists, and I want to add positively to it.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (It is very tedious though to hand-make everything yourself. That is impressive. Your point on the difficulty in finding hand made cool stuff in the USA is a nice transition for my next question. ) What kind of challenges do you face when it comes to sourcing of materials for your fashion business?
Kunmi O.: No serious challenges – sometimes I want more of a type of leather, but the tannery I buy from is out of stock on it. Recently, I was speaking with Amina of Gidan Nodza Bags and she told me about the challenging process of buying leather in Lagos. So besides some minor spoilt-kid issues like the fact that almost everything in Spain closes daily for 2-3 hours for afternoon siesta, I think I have it easy and I can’t really complain.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Really? I didn’t know Spaniards enjoy such a luxury, I need to move to Spain)...But back to business, what do you believe are the key qualities of a brilliant (Ladybrille) entrepreneur?
Kunmi O.: I believe a brilliant entrepreneur always finds creative ways around challenges. For us at least, we are not a big-budget brand. This means that for example, until I can afford an industrial sewing machine, I use a heavy-duty fabric one and turn the wheel manually so that it can sew the leather properly. I once met a lady who also works with leather and wanted to borrow my machine, but once she heard how I have to work around it, she wasn’t even paying attention to the rest of what I said. She hadn’t made any bags that whole year because her industrial machine was at home in Norway. Yet for her, working around that limitation was an impossibility.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Interesting…) Can you share with our audience some tips on financial management of a fashion business?
Kunmi O.: I would advise that anyone who plans on one day becoming an entrepreneur should take some maths, business management and accounting classes because you never know when the things you learned will help you. Now I am using sewing, web design, sketching, PR/communication, language, writing, and others skills I acquired mostly from school (thanks to all my awesome teachers) which all come together to help me in managing my business efficiently.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: How have you been able to integrate new technologies into your business to make it successful?
Kunmi O.: I studied computer science at bachelor’s and master’s levels and also worked in IT consulting before starting Minku, so I enjoy working with computers. I am constantly testing things out, and there are people who think Minku should be on the wagon of all new technologies, but technology has to work with marketing strategy, and the real challenge has been knowing which technologies to go with and which ones to say ‘no’ to.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: (Interesting and insightful.) Tell us three ways you have used social media to increase brand awareness and gain recognition for your brand?
Kunmi O.: Clients and stakeholders stay informed of our progress and activities through the facebook page. They also gain knowledge about working with leather or about a Minku giveaway through the Minku blog. If they see something they like in the Minku online store, there are social media buttons below every item to let them pin it, like it or tweet it. So facebook, twitter and blogging have all been instrumental to our growth thus far.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: In your opinion, why do fashion businesses, especially African fashion businesses, fail?
Kunmi O.: I don’t think African fashion businesses fail at a higher rate than say, European or American ones. Keeping a business running is always a challenge.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What do you look for when you hire employees?
Kunmi O.: Honesty, genuine interest, creativity and intelligence.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What drives you as a business owner?
Kunmi O.: I love the process of creating. I am lucky to have the know-how and the time/schedule to make my own products from scratch, and I am enjoying every moment of it.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: What makes you get up to do what you do everyday instead of throwing in the towel and getting a 9-5?
Kunmi O.: I enjoy this work. If I didn’t find it, I would probably have gone to more school to keep learning until I discovered something that held my interest for long enough. Minku helped me break that cycle, though I am still always reading and learning and trying to research new things to do to leather.
Minku bags are sold exclusively at Nike Center for the Arts in Lekki Lagos and online at shop.minkudesign.com (with worldwide shipping). Customization services are also available.
*** The “Ladybrille® Fashion Business With . . .” is a feature on Ladybrille® Magazine that is focused on entrepreneurs in Africa’s fashion industry, with a heavy emphasis on fashion designers. This feature highlights business principles, business practices, follows the money, discusses the challenges faced by fashion startups as well as offers pragmatic tips that should help stir the Ladybrille fashion entrepreneur towards success. If you would like to be featured, send an email to our Associate Editor at ([email protected]), indicate the kind of fashion business you operate and what you intend to share with our audience that you feel will be beneficial to them.
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