In this interview with Peter Uzoho, one of Nigeria’s emerging entrepreneurs in the fashion industry, Tolu Akinola, speaks on his brands: Tsignature Bespoke and Sceptre Apparel, and how he burns with passion to solve Nigeria’s unemployment problems, among other issues. Excerpts:
Tell us more about yourself
My name is Tolu Abaoluwase Akinola. I’m a fashionpreneur, an empire builder, worshipper and saxophonist, born to the royal family of Akinola in Ondo State. I am the 11th of 14 children from a polygamous home. I studied Biochemistry at Redeemers University, one of the first set of students of the university and graduated in 2009. After graduation I proceeded for my National Youth Service in Abia State where I served in the state’s Ministry of Works between 2009 and 2010. After service I did my post-graduate studies in Business Administration at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. I was going to do my MBA but had to stop it so as to come to Lagos to register my business. I run a fashion production company of two separate brands –Tsignature Bespoke and Sceptre Apparel, located in Ogba, Lagos. Although my fashion business started when I was in school, it was in 2011, immediately after my service that the business actually started.
So as I said earlier, being an empire builder, I’m looking to solve the issue of unemployment in Nigeria; strengthen the economy; and ensure that the next person to me has the chance to live their dreams. Also, as a worshipper and saxophonist, I minister from church to church and help bring the presence of God and lift the spirit.
Tell us more about your brands
As I said before, I have two brands – Tsignature Bespoke and Sceptre Apparel. I started with Tsignature clothing company which was a bespoke brand for men’s clothing – suit, shirt and top. And recently, after I left the Next Titan, an entrepreneurial reality TV contest held last year, I started a ready-to-wear brand – Sceptre Apparel. I partnered my wife, so we make caftan and dresses for men, women and children. So instead of waiting for customers to come and order for clothes we make designs in different sizes and then we sell to these customers. And this was in response to the need in the fashion industry in Nigeria since the increase in dollar rate. Nigerians began to look inward for fashion instead of going abroad to buy. We realised that more people were beginning to wear made-in-Nigeria products and there was high demand for that. So waiting for orders from customers were becoming too much and again customers wanted the clothes on the go. They want a cloth now that they can wear to an event tomorrow which gives little time for production. So we decided to go into a ready-to-wear brand where we produce clothes down; where customers can come and see what they like, buy it and wear it immediately. Sceptre Apparel which I started few months ago is located in Ogba-Ikeja where we do our production.
Do you sew?
I know how to sew but I don’t. Right now I have four tailors that work for me and I pay them salary monthly. But what I do is that I draw the design, communicate with tailors; if it’s a complicated design I show them how to cut it. Of course, we do patterns for male
and female, then they cut, after cutting them, they start to sew.
What drove you into fashion?
Fashion for me started really early. I grew up in a home where my dad will call me in the morning when he’s going out. I am from a Yoruba family and my dad wears aso-oke, alari, all of those things. So every time he’s going out, whether for palace meeting, having a meeting with the governor or whatever it is, he would call me to put stuff together for him. Although, he didn’t know that he was preparing me for this journey. My father actually wanted me to be a medical doctor but unconsciously, he prepared me for my journey into the fashion industry. I was on a journey to being a medical doctor, studied Biochemistry but from there I learnt colour combination – how to combine red, green with yellow. If you know aso-oke very well, they are multi-colour clothings. All those Yoruba attires have multi-colours. So I learnt how to put all those colours together. So from there to secondary school to the university I began to tell my friends how to wear cloths – look at the kind of shirt to wear, the kind of tie to wear, all those things. I know how to draw a little bit, so I just thought about it and said, why not begin to draw my own designs because I have ideas come into me. Then I started drawing my ideas. And before I learnt how to sew I started looking for tailors who produce those clothes for me and that’s how the journey started.
Are your tailors Nigerians?
Yes, they are all from Nigeria. The idea of the business is not only to make clothes but also to strengthen the economy. I did a research sometime last year and I realised that Nigeria spends about $4billion annually on importation of clothing. And the reason why we set up this business is to bring down that number to the barest minimum; to produce enough clothings that Nigerians can use and wear, and also to export to Africa and export to other Nigerians in the Diaspora.
How has the patronage been like?
The most difficult part of anything is starting. We just launched and sales are beginning to pick up little by little. We’re selling to friends who know us as a bespoke brand, who want ready-to-wear clothing. We have put a call through to those who we couldn’t provide the ready-to-wear clothings before for, to tell them that we’re now offering such services. We have sent out text messages and stuffs to them; then, the social media marketing as well. So the sales are beginning to pick up little by little because the market is actually there. We just have to put ourselves out there more so that they can know that we are here to solve this problem. This year alone I have customers from U.S. who ordered for suits for wedding who are Nigerians. And we did a test run of Sceptre Apparel sometimes last year. We made about 25 natives and sponsored posts on Instagram, and most of our patronage came from the U.S, Dubai and London. It means that Nigerians and other African indigenes in diaspora are looking to wear things from home. So that means there’s a market there and also there’s a market here at home. The plan is to broaden our production capacity enough to be able to produce what Nigeria can consume and again what we can export outside the country.
Are you also looking at partnering an online marketing hub, say Jumia to reach out to the larger market?
Yes and No. Although Jumia, Konga or any of these platforms have a marketplace but the idea is to enter into the market as quality, functional and affordable clothing. So putting ourselves on these platforms will increase our cost, because of course, they have to take their cost for providing the platform. We thought about selling on those platforms but it will increase our price, and if our price increases it will definitely bring down our target market. So the idea is to grow our own brand, grow our own market, leverage on celebrities who have large followers on Instagram and all of that; and sponsor posts on Instagram, Facebook and other social media, e-marketing; and then grow our own market. We might still get on those platforms but for now we’re trying to grow our brand and market it in the most cost effective manner. We’re trying as much as possible to make what we have invested in the business back by reducing our cost over-head.
Do you patronise your company?
Definitely; I stopped wearing another brand’s clothing since 2008. I don’t wear any cloth made by any other brand except the things I don’t produce. If I can make it then I’ll wear it.
What’s your assessment of the Nigerian fashion industry compared to what obtains abroad?
The fashion industry in Nigeria for me is the new oil and gas. I say this because if you look at the first five top richest people in the world we have two fashion designers there. One owns a conglomerate, I can’t remember the name now and another one is the owner of Zara. Zara is a fashion brand that sells clothes and shoes and they are among the first five people in the world. This is to show you that there’s a huge market in the fashion industry. I know that Nigeria is yet to see that, if not, investment in places like Aba where production is a major thing would have been done so that Nigeria can be a production hub for Africa the way China is the production hub for Europe. Nigeria can be a production hub for Africa if government can invest in a place like Aba and have a production outfit. But since that is not done, that’s why we have decided to start our own production; so we produce and then sell. Usually abroad, what all these great brands do is to sub-contract their production outfits. But what we have decided to do is to produce so that we can help reduce the unemployment rate in the country and also help boost the national revenue through earning more foreign exchange.
Nigerians most times see things produced here as inferior and look down on them; does that discourage you?
The truth is that that has reduced to a certain extent. Even those who can afford to buy abroad before now can no longer do that because there’s an increase in dollar rate. But then again, it can be very discouraging when you sit down, put up a design and then produce and you walk into a customer’s office or you walk into a building and the next thing you hear is: I don’t wear a made-in-Nigeria product. We still get that till now. But two things for me: I don’t totally get discouraged, I see that as an avenue to push myself further. Why because if there’s something in the brand that he’s going to buy outside, that means I must go and study that brand and ensure that I put my product in that level. For example, there’s something that’s called global relevance. One of the mentors of my youth used to say that a lizard in Lagos should be a lizard in London. So if a clothing is produced here in Nigeria it should be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with any clothing brand in a store in London. So that is the dream – to produce clothings here in Nigeria that can be worn by anybody either here or outside the country.
Where do you get your fabrics?
I buy my materials here in Lagos. Although, our fabric merchants import them either from Turkey, China, France or Egypt and all of
those places where fabrics are sold but of course I buy them here in Lagos Island and they are fantastic products.
Clothes and other wears are in their best with excellent finishing. So how do you ensure your tailors churn out clothes that meet this standard?
Finishing is the crown of a cloth; no matter how perfect it is sewn, if it is not properly finished, then it’s not saleable. What I
did personally was to go for training – online trainings with top fashion schools and all of that. I learnt how all these things are done. Then, I sat my workers down and trained them. That’s why we have quality control in our production process; when there is an issue, we must ensure that correction is made. If the cloth is not sewn properly straight, you have to loosen it and ensure that it’s on a straight line. Because all of these things matter in ensuring that products are at the same level with the global brands.
Who are your target markets here in Nigeria?
My target market are the middle class; because I’ve learnt that there’s a huge market in the middle class. Sceptre Apparel is not targeting the upper or luxury class, so for now we’re focused on catering to the demands of the middle class.
How do you ensure prompt delivery of products to your customers?
Actually, this is one major issue militating against the fashion industry in Nigeria; there are many factors that can lead to delay in the delivery process. You talk about lack of power, inexperienced tailors, and so many issues like that. But for us, what we’ve done is to first master our production process. When you master your production process and you know your capacity you will not run into such problem. So for our bespoke brand, we don’t take more than we can produce. But for the ready-to-wear brand – Sceptre Apparel, we produce what we can and sell to customers. So having studied and understood our production capacity, once we get orders, we take it and stick with it. That’s how we keep to time.
How did you get funding for your business?
I got investment from friends and family. This is one of the things we learnt at the Next Titan house. When we had to raise money in few hours for a project the only people you could call were friends and family. I sat down and drafted a short business plan since I’m vast in the fashion industry – know the numbers, cost of production, all of those things. So I put everything down on paper, sent it out for editing, checked the numbers with an accountant, and put the whole thing together. I got some notes here and there but at the end of the day, a lot of people were interested, and the rest is history.
What’s the future plan for your business?
The future plan for Tsignature Bespoke and Sceptre Apparel is to gain market share in Nigeria as a leading ready-to-wear brand in the country and then to be able to export our clothings to other African countries, even to Europe and the rest. To have stores in major cities of the world and export the culture and tradition of Nigeria to the world in the form of ready-to-wear clothings in different sizes for both male and female including children.
Finally, what is the perception of foreigners about African fashion?
The truth is that the world is turning towards Africa. Celebrities and designers are beginning to look to Africa and see how they can collaborate; how they can get African designers and or African wears out there. So the world is turning to Africa; they are putting us on the spotlight. Ankara for example has gone far and wide into every space that they need to be in the world. Top celebrities like Beyonce and all of them have worn Ankara as different things, as accessories and all of them. So Africa is taking the spotlight; we just need to ensure that all our entrepreneurs are ready to beam their light now that the whole world is turning towards them.