Typically, when you think of aso oke; you think of weddings. For hundreds of years, this fabric has been used as the traditional attire for ceremonial events and not much else – until Ethnik by Tunde Owolabi. Tunde Owolabi has managed to make aso oke trendy by creating an accessories brand of bags, belts, home accessories and most notably – shoes. Just today, the designer released his latest collection featuring aso oke boots that are probably the coolest shoes we’ve ever seen.
In our interview with Tunde, he describes himself as an ‘accidental designer’ and explains his unexpected journey into fashion, his desire to promote sustainability in the industry by empowering his workers; which he calls ‘collaborators’ and his vision for taking the Ethnik brand, global.
“We all wear sneakers and sneakers are made out of fabric. I felt like we could do something better than Converses and Vans which are made out of plain brown fabric. Aso oke is also a durable fabric, woven and incredibly beautiful” – Tunde Owolabi
Tell us how you started your label
My label started by accident. I didn’t set out to do anything in fashion because it was never really my thing. The label was born out of my passion for design and the passion to see my culture sustained. Basically, about six years ago, I started researching on the fabric aso oke for a documentary I wanted to do. My mum pointed me to the village where it originated from in Oyo state so I took a drive, met the weavers and I think I got more interested because of the stories they told me and seeing them do it live I have always seen them in pictures and on TV but it was my first time seeing them actually do the weaving. This got me more into it and in 2014 I had the exhibition, ‘Asooke, the woven beauty’ it was my solo exhibition and it was a huge success in terms of how people received it.“After the exhibition, I just sat down and was looking at all the tons of fabric I had accumulated during the course of my work and I was thinking to myself, what am I to do with all this cloth?”
And then it struck me. We all wear sneakers and sneakers are made out of fabric. I felt like we could do something better than Sneakers and Vans which are made out of plain brown fabric. Aso oke is also a durable fabric, woven and incredibly beautiful. I started doing my research – my firs attempt wasn’t great but it was good. I watched countless videos of how sneakers were made, asked questions and improved on what I had done. I also thought to myself that if I want to sustain this, then I have to empower the weavers. That is where the whole sustainability idea of the brand comes from.
How do you find such unique looking aso oke prints?
I design my own fabric. Most of the aso oke out there have regular straight lines and I wanted something more intricate. I went to the weavers and showed them my designs and asked them if it was pssoble. They said it would take more time and I asked them again if it was possible and they said yes. That’s all I needed to hear. We started with small patterns and little details from there we started getting more intricate with our designs and I think that for me has been our unique selling point.
What is your background?
I am an art director, but I studied graphic design and photography. I worked as a graphic designer for sometime in London, worked in advertising here in Nigeria too. I got tired of a 9-5 work schedule, and at some point got tired of advertising. I was not coping with the waking up and going to work routine. I needed to be able to do different things. So I resigned, got broke and decided to travel for a bit, just to clear my head. I’ve been doing my photography and design since then.“I don’t like to use the word local because if Gucci doesn’t call themselves local no matter where they are from, I do not think we should call ourselves local here. We are local in the context of where we are but any brand can be an International brand irrespective of where they are made” – Tunde Owolabi
What is your vision for the brand?
I want to see a local brand that is truly international. A brand that is locally made though I don’t like to use the word local because if Gucci doesn’t call themselves local no matter where they are from, I do not think we should call ourselves local here. We are local in the context of where we are but any brand can be an International brand irrespective of where they are made. It is all about the passion, great design and quality products and how you position the brand. For me, I want to see a brand that every Nigerian can be proud of and a brand that produces something that anybody in any part of the world would want to wear.
What are your challenges with locally producing?
The main challenge we have is people. Getting people with the right attitude. It is not all about the craftsmanship. You can get people to the level you want them to be. Those people can only learn if they have the right attitude and they are ready to work. I don’t see myself as a boss. But as a leader, it is a case of this is what I am good at. Let me do my part, you play your part. I will prefer to learn from you, and you learn from me. Not having anybody boss anybody around. It has to be a mutual collaboration. I see my staff as collaborators not workers. We try to make sure that everything we need is sourced locally, but you know the people we buy from buy from somewhere so the exchange rate is causing an increase in the prices but we still cannot increase the price at which we are selling. Even if the brand has done really well, we still want to get people to know more about the brand. Increasing our own prices will chase people away. Those are the basic challenges we face here.
Any advice to aspiring designers?
I will just say start. Just start doing something. Mine was just experimental. It was just me playing around with aso oke and I was able to bring something out of it. So, anybody has any ideas, I mean now is the time. You have to start doing it. If you fail, you know you have tried then you would have learnt something, learn your lessons, correct your mistakes and do not stop trying. Africa is now, Nigeria is now, and everyone is interested in Made in Nigeria brands now. The awareness is a lot more because people seem to appreciate quality. So if you are a designer, design properly, design well. If you are a shoe maker, make your shoes well. Get some training and really make them well. But I think Nigerian designers are really doing well these days, I am really proud of what I am seeing.
To shop Ethnik by Tunde Owolabi – click here. View photos of the new collection that dropped today here. Christmas gifts – sorted.
Photography: @tundeowolabistudios Instagram: @ethnikbytundeowolabi Website: www.ethnik.com.ng www.tundeowolabistudios.com