#Interview: Tsemaye Binitie and Nkwo Onwuka on Fashion, Production and Everything in Between


 ‍Tsemaye Binitie, Nkwo

Off the cuffs of the Lagos Fashion Weeks of  2019 for SS2020,  Hellurrrandom interviews Top Designers in the Nigerian Fashion Industry, Tsemaye Binitie and Nkwo Onwuka.

Tsemaye Binitie is an eponymous luxury brand that focuses on sophisticated pieces with chic cuts and impeccable tailoring that accentuate and enhance the feminine form. It utilises indulgent fabrics, primarily silk, to create sophisticated pieces for  the modern woman.  Additionally, it has gained mastery in optimising the advanced silk milling process to create amazing Aso Oke pieces. It therefore utilises both modern  and traditional fabrics to achieve its aim. Focusing on the modern woman who knows herself, this fashion brand creates classy, sophisticated and refined pieces that would appeal to her.

Tsemaye Binitie London
Image Credit: tumblr.com

‘Nkwo’, founded by Nkwo Onwuka, is a sustainable clothing brand that digs deep into indigeous fabrics and works closely with local artisans to make home grown pieces that have a nomadic and earthy feel. This brand is super passionate about the preservation of the traditional ways of making fabrics from different tribes in Nigeria, as well as looks into the gradual optimisation of these processes for mass production as the future beckons. Its pieces are superbly original and fiercely conceptual, both off the rack and in their expression on the runway. I thoroughly enjoyed Nkwo’s showcase at Lagos Fashion Week 2018.  

Nkwo, Lagos Fashion Week 2018
Image Credit: bellanaija.com

With its head designer having trained at Burbery, Stella McCartney and John Richmond and its designs worn by famous people including Angela Simmons and Alicia Keys, not counting its numerous showcases  at New York Fashion Week,  Fashion Lagos Fashion Week, GT Fashion Weekend, Arise Fashion Week and so forth, the Tsemaye Binitie brand is poised to take over the world.  In terms of tailoring, Tsemaye Binitie London pieces are impeccable, featuring on the Italian Vogue as well as other magazines. Nkwo Onwuka won the Phoenix Award presented by the Mayor of London’s office in conjunction with the V&A museum, and  featured pieces at the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, in Buckingham Palace.

Though both brands were launched in the UK,  these ones have not forgotten the home base, gaining substantial grounds representing Nigeria both on the local and international fronts. Expanding their brands to Nigeria, these icons are well versed on the structure and challenges of the burgeoning Nigerian Fashion Industry.

I ask Nkwo Onwuka how she developed her passion for fashion and she says this, ‘I didn’t discover it. It has always been in my blood. My mum used to sew, so I learnt how to. We were always sewing. We had to make our own clothes. When I was young, I had about 20 dolls. So I used to make doll clothes. It’s not like I discovered it. It was always there.’

I then ask where she draws inspiration for her fashion collections and she says,
‘You know something? I make up stuff in my head. I live inside my head. Sometimes I go somewhere and I’m smiling, but my mind is far away designing pieces.’

I ask her how she came up with the name Nkwo for fashion line, and she narrates,
‘It’s my name. I was named after my mother. Unfortunately, she is late and she didn’t live to see all of this, so I named it after her. Nkwo is an igbo name. The ancient igbo week was made up of 4 days: Eke, Orie, Afo and Nkwo, and each day was a market day. It’s not really a common name. It’s unique.’

On her most memorable fashion piece ever created, she says,
‘It is not one of the regular ones. It would be one of the exhibition pieces made for the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange, because it took me to Buckingham Palace. The piece got to Australia House, Ascots and New York, and we later donated it to the FIT. The dress is called the ‘Spirit of the Dance’, inspired by the countries of the Commonwealth that were paired with each other. My paired country was Malawi and Malawi has a heritage in wooden masks and costumes. So that’s where the inspiration came from.’

Image Credit: zinkata.com

I ask Nkwo about the challenges of running a fashion business in Nigeria, and she laments,

‘In Nigeria, there is one problem, from the makers to the weavers-consistency. I might get my cotton fabric from a dealer; one season is perfect, and the next season is funny, even with your scarf. They come to work and they are this way one week and another way the next. If you are not 100% in control of the process, you can’t control the efficiency. If I run a vertical business in Nigeria, from the growing of the cotton, to weaving and everything in between, there will always be inconsistensies. It makes things unweildy. For me, it makes me more innovative. I have to think of ways to correct that problem. That’s why I make my own fabric. I use tye dye with strips of denim. We use recycled fabric and I make my own denim jacquards. Wherever I am, I can do it. ‘

On the challenges of running a business in Nigeria, Tsemaye says,

‘The difficulties of working in Nigeria allow you to innovate more because it is so hard to get a tailor, and do everything else, so you have to find a way to make it work for you. So you innovate ways to solve the problem, even like fabric. We used to weave our jacquards in Italy but we decided after doing a couple of brides’ Aso Oke, that it was the same concept. We designed one for a bride,  she didn’t take it, but we made it anyway. The bride cancelled on us halfway, but we had seen samples and it was amazing; so we decided to do it. We came up with our own Aso Oke, and now there’s no turning back. It is Aso Oke, but we use different threads than what they use for traditional ones. We bring threads from London or we buy better threads; real silk and cotton threads.’

On methods of production, Tsemaye says,

‘We have a lot of traditional fabrics and methods. Some of those methods are outdated and can be optimised to scale, so that if you get a production order of 100, you can do it quicker, instead of taking 3 months. One of our counterparts used to get her adire in Abeokuta and it was one woman that did it. The woman fell ill and her whole collection could not be produced.’

On this last point, Nkwo says,

‘So you always have to be many steps ahead. There was a fabric they did from Abeokuta, they had been doing it and it was fine. But the batch they sent me was just hanging in the wardrobe, faded.’

Tsemaye immediately identifies that it meant that the artisans did not set the dial right, with Nkwo echoing the word ‘inconsistency’.

Tsemaye elaborates saying, ‘Inconsistency in sewing, fabricking, tailors’ behaviour- they are good today, tomorrow they are not. All those things in Nigeria are a bigger problem, and these kinds of problems, we don’t face abroad. The tailors come to work and understand what they are meant to do because it is professional. But here, they don’t see it as professional. They just see it as ‘Ise Owo’, meaning ‘work of the hand’, so they can just do it whenever they like. It is the same way with hairdressers, barbers and make up artistes. They are like “It is the work of my hand, I can do it whenever I like, it is my back up and it is good to know”. My tailor is saying the same thing. He is sending his son to school . He says his son wants to be an architect, but “O ti lo k’ose owo sha”. That contingency plan is a very funny idea. It seems like they have tried and tested those plans in their own lives and it worked, so they put those really bad ideas forward to the next generation. ‘

I ask Tsemaye where he draws his inspiration from  and he says,

‘It just came, I’ve always known since I was 13 years old. My thoughts back then were I wanted to be Gianni Versace.’

I ask Tsemaye how his degree in surveying shaped his career in fashion design and he says,

‘It helps you streamline your thoughts and ideas. It helps with order and organisation. So the degrees always help in that sense. It helps in symmetry and design. The symmetry in design is the direct correlation but other than that, the general stuff that any degree will give you is what that degree gave me. Consistency-don’t do it for a bit and give up. We did those degrees for 4 years, even though we hated it, or some parts of it. I finished my surveying degree and went back to do one year of fashion. But I was always with the fashion children at Kingston. Our campus was in the same building and that was how I knew that the Kingston School of Fashion was really good. I was doing fashion courses while I was doing my surveying degree, and then when I finished, I decided I didn’t want to work in surveying. So I went back for one year three months. I did a fashion springboard course.’

On studying fashion, Nkwo says ‘I wasn’t allowed to study fashion. My parents were like, what was that? When I was young, I was obssessed with babies. I always said I was going to be a baby doctor, so they thought I was going to study medicine. But when I was in form 3, chemistry made me upset. I just didn’t get it. But at the same time, I started to win prizes in fine art. So I decided that I was just going to be me. Everyone thought I was mad. I did all the courses.’

Expounding on the dearth of depth in the Nigerian fashion industry, Tsemaye says,

‘Everyone just wants to be a fashion designer and to have a brand, and people are not looking for any other kind of job because of depth in the fashion industry at present. There are other areas that people can consider in the fashion industry. ‘

Nkwo says, ‘The fact that it’s not deep means that all anybody sees are fashion brands. They don’t see anything else, because there isn’t anything else. There are no high street shops and all of that to generate that kind of work. It is until we have things like high street shops or chain stores; how can you tell them about merchandising? Merchandise what? Or tell them about pattern cutting? All that they see are the fashion weeks with the brands. They don’t see what happens behind; the back end. Nobobdy sees it because there is not a lot of it. Of course, with the designers we have, it’s not like they will let the general public come in to see what they do. Until we have more, it’s difficult to teach people that there is more.’

Tsemaye goes on to say this, ‘But I think the industry as it is can do more. We don’t have retail stores that give a 360 view of fashion, but even with the brands as they are, we can still do more. I have an assistant who says he wants to have a ready to wear brand later. He is saying it because that’s all he sees, because that’s what he thinks everybody is doing in fashion; that everybody is going to be a designer. He was supposed to make a pair of trousers. I gave him some fabric that was leftover. He has been with me for 3 months, and he has not finished making the trousers. If you are a serious designer, it can’t take you 3 months. I don’t sew, not because I can’t. I don’t enjoy sewing, so I have people that sew for me. But if I had something to do, he would get it out, cut it and do it decisively, instead of procrastinating. That’s not how it operates. But being an assistant could be great for him. You collect a salary and exercise your creative juices, you help to organise within the company, so there are jobs like that. It’s not like you have to be the designer. You are working closely with the designer. At some point, I would give him something to design and see what his mind can do. That’s why it works differently abroad. I worked at Burberry and they had 1000 jobs for all the things that the designer does. The designer draws only. That’s it. Then they give it to the next person who takes the sketches and makes it real. The designer does not even handle the reality of making the clothes. And that’s how the business is growing and growing. Every part of the design job is broken down. It’s about 10 roles, so the designer is free to design. The seasons are so fast and there are so many collections, and the designer is supposed to design and do the full collection himself, do product development, decide the fabric, colours? No, somebody is picking colours. Even buttons. That was my job at Burberry. I used to pick buttons and threads. You go to different places to look for threads, you gather all the buttons together, and all the little fabric swatches, and then you present it to the Head of Design and they pick the ones they want. You go away and pick the buttons that go with the outfits. They don’t do all that, but  in Nigeria, the designer does all that from start to finish. Plus marketing, selling, customer service, accounting, invoicing etc. But within that, there are so many roles that a person can come and take away from the designer and still feel creative. Because it’s still creative.’

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Tsemaye goes on, ‘At Stella McCartney, we were drawing thread counts. We would literally draw thread counts on how many lines of knit that they want in one square metre. The designer is not going to sit down and do that. She designed the thing and she is giving the inspiration to me. You draw a few options, you bring it to her, show  it to her and they send it to the mink person.’

Nkwo says, ‘When we talk about cutting corners in Nigeria, we are not intentionally cutting corners. It’s just the way it is. You can get away with a lot more things here, than if you are selling or producing abroad. Imagine making Aso Oke and counting how many threads, telling them that in every 5 lines, put another colour of thread. They will do it like that now in this batch, and the next one won’t be the same.’

I ask that since our industry is small and we are only relying on organic growth, with our goal to get our fashion industry to greater heights, what would  the next layer of development be?

Tsemaye says, ‘The level of earnings here is very low. You have to imagine that people who work at MacDonalds can go to it. So here, to be able to get High Street boutiques, you have to think of people that work at KFC. Can they go to a high street boutique and buy those clothes that are being advertised? So the prices have to drop. The high street boutiques only cater to the one percent. We are all part of the one percent. That is one of our biggest hindrances here, and until we can solve that hindrance of how to cater to those people, it will be difficult. They are also delved deep into their lives that in Tejuoso, nobody wants to go inside the new shopping mall. It is only maybe now, 10 years after the mall has been built that people have started taking shops. The high street shops would be a tough call. You would have to get somebody that can produce extremely cheaply.’

Nkwo also adds, ‘It is not really a hindrance. It is just a hindrance to doing fashion the way it is done in the West. We need to do it our way. We can’t copy the West. The industry is very young, but every country has what is peciliar to it, and you can’t bring another system in and say..oooh we have to adapt it to us. Study how the industry is. In Nigeria, people like tailors. There are thousands of tailors in Nigeria. Maybe there’s a person who can have a Primark of Tailors, as opposed to high street shops. The boutiques may not work on the scale that we want, also because of the infrastructure problems. Basically get a big building and everyone pays at a central point. They don’t have to pay the tailors. The tailors get a salary. It is something that can be done.’

Tsemaye goes on to say, ‘Even women at Tastee would sew Aso Ebi before they think of buying a dress. In addition, governmental problems on top of infrastructure, multiple tax charges whenever your business is doing well add to the problems.’

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Nkwo goes on to say, ‘The Nigerian environment is not business friendly. The people who are put in these positions are hungry. They would rather just get get get, so it is tough. We really have to find our own way of working and try not to follow the Western world.’

Tsemaye says, ‘It is an idea, and it is gonna be executed by somebody that has the temperament for business. You have to deal with tailors, government, fabrics etc. ‘

With this discussion morphing into the form of a  textile company, and in light of the defunct textile companies in Nigeria, I ask Nkwo and Tsemaye about the vagaries of maintaining textile companies in Nigeria, and Nkwo says,

‘We had textile companies in Nigeria, but they are all gone. We need to revive them, but it is a maintenance culture issue.’

Tsemaye says, ‘There are too many problems in Nigeria for even the basic things to work. We have the human capacity for the textile industry, but basic problems like electricity have to be solved, or we find alternatives to be able to run business on that scale. There are also safety issues, because those factories were located in the North. The problems with human capacity may seem exponential as well.’

I venture into the opportunity cost of running a Nigerian business with its additional difficulties in contrast to producing abroad, and Tsemaye says, ‘The stress can’t equate to a physical cost, but it is not a monetary cost. Even in London and America, there is also stress that tailors cost. Tailors and factories have requirements, but on the whole, the tailors and factories are more professional abroad than here. But the opportunities here are endless. It’s our local market.’

Nkwo says, ‘In Nigeria, I’m like Stella McCartney. In London, I’m like nobody. This our place, and if we don’t come and make it better, who will? You  can’t put a monetary value on the stress; you have to learn to deal with it. It even helps you. It affords you the opportunity of innovation. I mean, my business wasn’t doing this well in the UK. How? There are too many designers out there already. There’s so much competition. But here, it’s new. I’d rather deal with the stress here than the anonymity there’.

Tsemaye adds, ‘The editor shoots pick designers that look like them and connect with them on that level. Over there, you’re kind of like…you know? There’s no place like home, so. I also think everybody wants to leave Nigeria. It’s actually painful for me to hear, I have to tell you. Its painful to hear that the country that made you is so bad that you want to run away. We can’t all leave Nigeria. We are taking our expectations and all the things that we learnt and all the things that we know to better another man’s country. Canada is great because 20% of the population is Nigerian. Almost all the doctors and pharmacists are Nigerian. So, they are staying healthy and we are wallowing. Canada is standing on its two feet because of Nigeria.’

Nkwo adds, ‘Do you know what we are doing? We are training people for them because they train here and then they go there.’

On distribution, I bring up the Zara’s super efficient  distribution model. Nkwo mentions that originality and creativity are not the strong point of Zara’s business model. It borrows from mainstream dress ideas and reproduces it in bulk.

Tsemaye says though, ‘Yes, you are right. What they have on people is the distribution.  There are systems in place where if something doesn’t sell in Mexico, they will have it shipped out of Mexico and to Singapore where it’s doing better within hours. So they have planes, and it took them years to perfect this system.’

As a sustainabilty brand however, Nkwo says, ‘Ask yourself what damage that company is doing to the environment. It really is important. By 2030, we’ll know whether we would still  be able to live in Nigeria or not.’

Tsemaye adds, ‘That’s why Zara is trying to fix all of that. They are trying to offset the damage that they are doing.’

Nkwo then says, ‘So in a way, for the fact that we are smaller, by default somehow, most businesses are sustainable one way or another. They practise sustainable fashion without knowing it.  The amount of dyes that run off those yards of fabric. Even the people that are working for them, go and see the working conditions. So you have to ask yourself if you really need that kind if profit in one lifetime. Right now there are some fashion colleges in England where you have to do sustainable fashion courses.’

Tsemaye says ‘The waste, all the fabrics that we don’t use. The clothes that remain when they sew, that they burn. Fashion is the 2nd largest waste producer in the world. ‘

With this, I add that it means that we have the resources for sustainable fashion, and Tsemaye says, ‘Of course, but we don’t think about it. The customers don’t think about it. I think its worse abroad, but when we come to Nigeria, do you think of Iya Modinat who is selling yam across the road? When she doesn’t sell all the food, think of the plastic and the coal that she and her customers throw on the ground. Do you think she cares about sustainable fashion? No, so that’s also a problem. Multiply that by 190 million people. ‘


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