Femi Olayebi is the Chief Creative Director at My World of Bags, a handbag design and manufacturing company producing an eponymous leather handbag and accessories line, FemiHandbags. She is very passionate about mentoring designers operating in an environment where there are no proper training institutes or road maps to follow. In this interview, she explains her continued push for excellence to prove that African brands can indeed compete in the international marketplace.
THE second edition of the Lagos Leather Fair coming just ended. What inspired the creation of the fair and what did you hope to achieve?
I started the fair because of the host of challenges I faced along with other leather designers. Being one of the pioneers in the business – I have been running my business for 25 years – I still faced the same challenges as a two-year-old business. Finding the right workmen and women with the right skill sets, inadequate capacity, quality control issues, funding, lack of proper infrastructural support, constantly running the business on generators, and so on. It seemed to me that as a pioneer in the field, I was well positioned to act. I felt a strong urge to do something impactful, and believed strongly that I could be part of the solution. Another factor that pushed me to act was reading the findings of a World Bank report that concluded that leather and allied leather products could easily constitute the second largest earner of foreign exchange after oil and gas. It seemed that one way in which we could grab the attention of stakeholders and policy makers and bring the challenges to their notice would be to create a platform which would bring together under one roof, the major players along the leather value chain. My hope was that the event would bring to light the sheer numbers of designers in the leather industry, give exposure to leather designers and start a necessary conversation to change the narrative within the industry. We brought together leather designers, manufacturers, suppliers of machinery, trainers, retailers, and marketing professionals so that we could begin to connect the dots and find workable and sustainable solutions. We also invited representatives of the Aba Cluster, a very important factor in the ecosystem. The Fair also featured masterclasses and creative workshops which were hosted by local and international industry experts. It was extremely well attended and we immediately had both the private and public sectors key into the vision.
It seems to me that promoting Nigerian leather brands/designers is something you’re passionate about. Why is that?
I think I’m simply passionate about what I do. Period. However, I found that there was no well-structured platform where leather designers could come together and showcase their work. The fashion and garment industry was inundated with so many fora to showcase talent, yet it seemed as if leather designers were always sidelined. The sector is a very niche one which we believed could stand on its own, independently of other events, as has been proven by the Lagos Leather Fair, so we decided to give it a shot and begin to build a community of Nigerian leather designers.
What is it about Nigerian leather that speaks to the rest of the world?
Interestingly, Nigerian goat and sheep skins are reputed to be one of the best in the world, but most of the functioning Nigerian tanneries export all their leather and are major suppliers to the big international brands. What is also interesting is that leather and allied products have been described as the next gold mine, and easily the second earner of foreign exchange after oil and gas. We have the human capital. The truth is Nigeria’s leather goods industry holds an amazing potential to succeed once the challenges of the sector are tackled and if support initiatives are put in place to facilitate its growth.
Let’s talk about My World of bags for a bit. Tell me the story. What’s the inspiration for starting a bag manufacturing company? I am assuming your line FemiHandbags was created from My World of Bags?
You are correct. The company, My World of Bags was established in 1994 and it was dedicated to the design and manufacturing of a wide range of bags. However, in 2010, we decided to rebrand and distinguish our corporate items from our leather goods because the products were targeted at different segments of the market. It was important to build a different brand ethos for the leather line and even though it was a bit confusing at the time, our handbag brand had suddenly taken on a life of its own and so became a sub-brand under its parent company.
In over 25 years of being in the leather business, what are the moments that inspire you to keep going?
I think for me it is being recognised for the work that I do and knowing a certain discerning target market that are ready to pay for my pieces. This is extremely humbling and rewarding and it’s something I do not take for granted. It’s also gratifying to hear people remark that our products are too well made to have been made in Ibadan. Which is a shame really as the general perception is that not a lot of good can come from a Nigerian handmade product. This only propels me to never settle for less than the best and raise the bar higher and higher at every turn.
And what would you like to see changed as your move forward?
The Leather industry in Nigeria has been struggling to survive and has been greatly neglected in the recent past. I would love to see technological and infrastructural advances within the industry. I would like to see the activities along the entire value chain well structured, from the slaughterhouse to the actual processing of hides and the production of leather goods. I would like to see appropriate machinery in place and made available to us, good quality hardware (eg. zips, buckles, and magnetic clasps), components and accessories for the final production of FLGs (Finished Leather Goods). With all this in place, the industry will move forward and become a force to be reckoned with.
You referred to yourself as an ‘accidental entrepreneur’. Tell me that story. What happened to change the trajectory of your life?
I also call myself a child of serendipity. It all started in 1992 when I was expecting my first baby, went baby shopping and couldn’t find a diaper bag I liked or could afford. I had only just learnt how to use a sewing machine, and felt I could try my hands at making my own. So I went ahead and bought some pretty fabric and proceeded to cut and sew. It seemed pretty logical at the time – but looking back, although it was a casual act, it was indeed one of the pieces in the puzzle of my life that God was slowly putting together. Little did I know that I was sowing the seed that would become the company that I run today. Nothing in my background had prepared me for the world of business, but the creative streak in me had sparked off something and before I knew it I was running a bag manufacturing company.
Let’s go back to the leather fair. You once said that you founded LLF to bring together major players and stakeholders in the leather value chain in order to start a necessary conversation to move the sector forward. I know this just started but are you seeing any indicators that your visions/goals for the fair are coming shaping up?
Yes, without the faintest doubt. The first edition surprised us all, even we the conveners of the event. The Fair brought together leather designers, both established and start-ups, producers of finished goods and an amazing audience that was shocked by the high level of activity and the quality of the goods on display. It was a great shopping experience for the public and the primary goal of creating exposure for brands and promoting Made-in-Nigeria was certainly achieved. It was also a great networking platform for stakeholders, and collaborations were formed at different levels. The Fair also succeeded in highlighting the importance of the leather industry as a major part of the non-oil initiative.
What were your expectations of this year’s fair?
Last year’s edition was themed ‘Changing the Narrative’ and the Fair did just that in terms of bringing back to the table a neglected sector and introducing a totally new dimension in the Leather sector, opening the eyes of the public to the fact that there were Nigerian designers out there doing amazing work. This year, our theme was ‘The New Possible’, particularly highlighting the fact that the possibilities within the industry are immense. So much is possible if collaborations happen between players along the value chain. For example, we brought in an expert in laser technology and the idea was to introduce designers to different processes and speedier ways of doing things. We invited the tanneries from Kano to come and experience the sector down south and have a feel of the level of activity in order to create a fuller understanding between the parties and ensure more inclusiveness. We also had an Emerging Designers Competition where six winners, all young, up-and- coming designers were selected for their innovative designs.
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