This is the story of a fashion designer who is building a major fashion brand for Africa, and bringing her unique vision, wow factor approach, and design philosophy to her clothing label.
The name of my fashion company, Tae, is an unusual one - it comes from the Yoruba word ‘Talwo’ meaning ‘taster of life’. It is the name given to the first born twin by the people of South Western Nigeria. So when we first started the business, I had a partner at that time and she was a twin and her name was Tae, so we thought that would be an interesting name for the business. The brand continues to this day with the name Tae, and the literal translation of the word probably has more of a connection today with the company’s brand essence as it also means ‘the first to taste life’. Our brand Tae is full of life, full of confidence, and the women who wear our clothes also love life and live it to the full. Tae really is our brand spirit.
"As a woman entrepreneur, you have to maintain a certain level of hunger, as it shows in the quality of work you produce, and the level of resilience you have to fight any challenges."
When it comes to how I got started as an entrepreneur, I always say to others “don’t start the way I did”, because I originally had a partner, and when we started I was actually working in finance, and by the time she pulled out to move outside Nigeria, I realised I needed to do this on my own. So I quit my job in stockbroking, put together a business plan, and because my partner and I had tried for two years to raise some finance and couldn’t, by the time I tried to start the business I was able to raise the initial money needed over three months. In that time, no-one told me I was crazy, everyone was supportive telling me “you are quitting your job to pursue your dreams, we are so happy for you”, which was all great, but I had no actual clue initially about the fashion business - I only knew it was something I had always wanted to do. I was much younger then and more adventurous, not afraid of anything - that was eleven years ago when I first started the business. If I started again today, I probably wouldn't have approached things in quite the same fearless way. Instead, I just told myself that I wanted to start the business, I wasn’t afraid of anything, and I was going to succeed as an entrepreneur.
So, having quit my job and starting the business, I was fortunate to have the support of my family. My father provided some initial startup finance, together with some rooms in the family home that I could convert into a small factory and from where I could start my company. In fact, we worked out of that house for around 9 or 10 years, with the factory eventually encroaching into other rooms, into garages, and any other available space. Eventually, it was time to move to bigger premises and now we have moved to our own factory in Lagos and we have a separate store in another part of the city. Hopefully by this time next year, we will also have our e-commerce business running through our website platform - www.taeafrika.com So, this is a major part of our growth strategy and an exciting time for the business.
For Tae, being an exhibitor at the Sanlam Contemporary Handmade Fair in Johannesburg in November this year, gave me the opportunity to try and break into the South African market. I always said that there wasn’t a single clothing brand that was known Africa-wide, in the way that you have the Western brands such as Zara, Tory Birch, etc, so I want Tae to be that type of brand. We have already done pretty well in Nigeria, so South Africa is next on our target market list, after which we can look at East Africa, maybe Kenya or Uganda, and we will build the brand around Africa in that way. Tae is a brand on the move.
"You should not see failure in your business journey as the end, you may fail in some ways and that is fine, you may have to pivot from the original plan, and that is fine, but ultimately you have to have grit and determination. You have to have staying power, that determination to just keep going no matter what, and to have supreme confidence."
In terms of challenges experienced in the business over the years, one of them has been funding, although my approach has always been to not take no for an answer, no matter what. Everyone will tell you that the main challenge for any entrepreneur is always funding, especially in Nigeria, but if I was to be fair, I have harassed and harangued my accounts officers into getting the necessary funding over the years, but I have to say that the right type of funding for this type of business is still not available. Another challenge in Nigeria is the issue of technical know-how in the clothing business. The skills needed are in short supply. For example, if you want to be a fashion designer in Nigeria, the chances are you have to set up a factory, and no-one does that. Factories are seen as a completely different business. But, in Nigeria, even if you have only one tailor, you must have a factory. The availability of raw materials is also a challenge because we are all buying our materials from the same place, so we cannot negotiate discounts for buying wholesale. There are no wholesale textile manufacturers in the country. The lack of support in so many ways is a challenge, for example, you have to travel a long way to get your machinery. So the process of making the transition from simply being a fashion designer, to becoming a clothing manufacturer is a difficult one, and scaling up is a real challenge.
Entrepreneurial Advice: "I always say, and I teach young entrepreneurs, I say just start. You are never going to have all your ducks lined up in a perfect row. If you are ignorant of all the challenges that you are facing, then when you start, your creativity kicks in and you will naturally find ways of overcoming those obstacles. So, just start."
However, over the past eleven years being in business, there have been so many highlights - for me, the challenges and obstacles that I have been able to overcome have really been the highlights of my entrepreneurial journey. So for example, each time I am able to get new financing for my business from the bank or from the industry, which a lot of people have been sceptical about over the years, proving them wrong and getting that finance has been a highlight. There was also a particular time when I first started out in the fashion industry that I didn't really know about the skills required to do cutting, pattern making, etc, and in Nigeria, in those circumstances, you are at the mercy of your staff. So having been let down by my one pattern maker one day, I was left in the lurch for three months without any specialist cutter or pattern maker in the business - I therefore sat down with all my books, and I started to learn how to make the patterns myself. Basically, I rolled with the punches, I took on the challenge, and as a result, I achieved a whole new level of confidence in the business. It was the most difficult of times, but the end result was worth it. I have hired again in the meantime, but I will never forget the lessons learned during that time. All of these things have ultimately represented highlights of my entrepreneurial journey. They have made Tae what it is today.
Tel: +234 706 099 9631
Why LoA loves it....
Bisola is the epitome of the gutsy, visionary and highly talented women entrepreneur of Africa. She is building a new fashion brand, creating a company that can grow into a major success story for the future, and in the process building her name and reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the fashion business. In the tough and highly competitive fashion business, Bisola is a real lioness of africa. --- Melanie