In the competitive world of global accessory and handbag design, one Nigerian designer is making the world sit up and take notice, with her unique take on beautiful, bespoke, handcrafted pieces that celebrate the art of craftsmanship combined with a uniquely African touch. Femi Olayebi is talent personified and her great eye for design, together with a deep appreciation for African culture and textiles, has allowed her to create handbags and accessories that have a great story to tell and a wonderful visual appeal.
LoA chatted to the inspirational Femi Olayebi about her personal entrepreneurial journey that took her from a career path in translation to becoming a real creative force in the field of bespoke, luxury handbag and accessory design in Africa.
What does your company do?
My World of Bags is a design and manufacturing company which produces a beautiful range of handcrafted products - a bespoke, leather handbag and accessories line (FEMI HANDBAGS) and a more corporate line (myworldofbags) with products ranging from conference bags and folders to laptop bags and sleeves, tablet cases, and promotional gifts that are tailored to specific client needs. All our pieces are handcrafted at my mini facility in Ibadan, Nigeria, by a small team of craftsmen and women.
"I have always described myself as the accidental entrepreneur as nothing in my background had prepared me for the business world. I got thrust in headlong without a plan."
"My working tools were my passion and a fantastic sense of imagination."
What inspired you to start your company?
It all started in 1992, when I went shopping for baby things just before my first baby was born. When it was time to buy a baby bag, I discovered that not only could I not afford the ones I found in the market, I didn't even like any of the ones on offer. At the time I had just recently returned to Nigeria after my Masters in Translation from Strasbourg, France, and translation jobs were few and far between. I had a lot of time on my hands and being a restless soul, and with a creative streak obviously lurking inside me, I decided to learn how to sew. So, It was only natural that I would head to the market to buy some fabric and make my own. With NO thought of business in mind! Friends and family could hardly believe I had made my handbags myself and started placing orders! One thing led to another and before I knew it I went on to register a company.
Why should anyone use your service or product?
From the beginning, our attention to detail and the quality of our craftsmanship has stood our products apart from similar ones in the market. Although we never attempted to re-invent the wheel, today we experiment a lot with bold colours and different textures. It is this love of texture and colour that drew me to 'aso-oke', a hand-loomed, vibrantly coloured cloth woven mostly by the Yorubas in Western Nigeria, and which we infuse in most of our pieces. But I think that most important is the fact that we have successfully combined modern, sophisticated design elements and silhouettes with an undeniably African touch, by subtly weaving our culture into our products, through the use of traditional fabrics, accessories and hand-stitching techniques.
"From the beginning, our attention to detail and the quality of our craftsmanship has stood our products apart from similar products in the market."
Tell us a little about your team
Being 100% self-taught myself, I started out hiring dressmakers and turning them into bag manufacturers, teaching them what I had taught myself. It was difficult in the early days to get appropriately skilled workers who would be as passionate and as finicky as myself, and also strive to attain the level of excellence which I desired. My standards and my expectations were very high, but once the ground rules were laid down, everyone knew that the rule of thumb was achieving nothing short of the best. I now have a very small but dedicated team of craftsmen and women. The longest serving has been with me for fifteen years, and over time they have honed their skills, gradually acquired amazing technical know-how, and constantly worked together with me on new ideas to develop new products. We also have a team of contract workers that we call upon when we have tight deadlines and huge volumes to produce.
"We have successfully combined modern, sophisticated design elements and silhouettes with an undeniably African touch, by subtly weaving our culture into our products, through the use of traditional fabrics, accessories and hand-stitching techniques."
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
I have always described myself as the accidental entrepreneur as nothing in my background had prepared me for the business world. I got thrust in headlong without a plan. My father was a professor of Classical Philology and my mother was a primary school teacher. I grew up in academic circles and all I ever wanted to be was a translator. With no training whatsoever, and no start-up capital, I started by sewing all the bags myself the best way I knew how, working first out of my spare room with my very first tailor, and then later converting my garage into a workshop when I had to hire more tailors and knew that my dear husband had had just about enough of me and my growing crew. For many years after I registered my company, I was simply having fun creating things and treated the business like a hobby. Once I could imagine it we would make it. My working tools were my passion and a fantastic sense of imagination. We experimented with so many different materials, from denim to cinnamay to rafia. I started getting invited by the international community to do private showings and took part in numerous exhibitions at home and abroad. Apart from the difficulty of finding craftsmen and women armed with the requisite skills, the other major challenge I faced was trying to sell to regular stores. A great percentage of my customers were expatriates who seemed to better appreciate the value of ‘hand-made'. At the time Nigerians unfortunately were more interested in buying foreign designer bags. Gradually we expanded our product line and added corporate items and continued to build on our customer base. Slowly, we built a name for ourselves, a reputation for the quality of our work, and a brand.
In 2008, I received the Goldman Sachs ‘10,000 Women’ scholarship and for the first time ever, acquired much needed entrepreneurial skills. The following year, the Head of Corporate Engagement of Goldman Sachs nominated me to participate in the joint Fortune 500, Vital Voices and Most Powerful Women in America Mentoring Programme in New York. There, I had the opportunity of job-shadowing Lauren Merkin, an American handbag designer, working briefly in an American bag making factory, and visiting the official headquarters of Marc Jacobs. In 2010, we decided to distinguish the leather bags and accessories line from the more corporate and functional line and named the former after myself. In February of that year, I participated in my first stand-alone foreign exhibition, the Autumn/Winter edition of PURE LONDON - London’s premier accessories show to showcase our first ever range of leather handbags. Our products were also on display at the 2012 Olympics. In 2013, I was selected to participate at the AWEP- African Women's Entrepreneurship Programme which took me, along with 30 women from all over Africa, on an instructive trip to Chicago, New Mexico, New York and Washington. Later that year, My World of Bags was one of the four companies selected by the Nigerian Bank of Industry to represent Nigeria at the Nigeria-Brazil Business Forum in Rio de Janeiro. Its been a very steep learning curve with its many highs and lows, and although the business is not quite where I would like it to be - distribution and marketing still pose a major challenge - we are constantly developing, innovating and exploring.
"Having garnered a lot of on-the-job-experience in design, extensive technical know-how, pattern making, and the development of prototypes and production, we decided to offer a manufacturing and consultancy service to startups."
What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?
Having garnered a lot of on-the-job-experience in design, extensive technical know-how, pattern making, and the development of prototypes and production, we decided to offer a manufacturing and consultancy service to startups. My aim is to help them overcome the very challenges and pitfalls I faced starting out without any mentors and act as an adviser and a bridge between their ideas and the finished product. I am also hoping to increase my production capacity by hiring more skilled hands and acquiring tools and machinery still needed to perfect my art. I would also like to play a part in helping to build capacity through collaborations within my own creative industry and help fill the gaps by training and setting up a skill acquisition hub. For my corporate line, I would like to see My World of Bags become the go-to company for exclusive, beautifully made corporate items and gifts. A couple of years ago we were selected to produce 3500 bags for one of the big international oil and gas companies in celebration of their 50th anniversary. The experience certainly came with its challenges but we were able to manage the project and deliver on time. We can do so much more. Once I can gain access to substantial capital, I would like to push FemiHandbags into the regional and international marketplace. Achieving that will definitely go a long way in changing the stereotypical mindset and demonstrate that African brands can indeed fall into the luxury category instead of being merely considered as 'art and craft'. And I plan to finally attend an Academy in Milan next year to 'learn' how to make handbags.
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
It is having the flexibility and the freedom to experiment, take risks, change my mind, design, develop new products and excitedly participate in the process of transforming an idea on paper, a concept in my head, to a beautifully finished product. It is being increasingly asked by younger up-and-coming entrepreneurs and designers for mentoring. It is being invited by organisations or companies to come and share my story in order to inspire. It is having people exclaim: No! You're kidding me! Are these bags really, really made in Nigeria? Then I glow with pride and I know the journey has been well worth it.
#EntrepreneurAdvice: "... more than anything else, you must never stop learning."
- Femi Olayebi, founder of My World of Bags @FemiHandbags
What's the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
Believe in yourself and don't allow the naysayers and discouragers to stop you from living your dream. And passionate you must be, for it is that passion that keeps you going when the going gets tough. You cannot anticipate all the challenges ahead so you must learn to be patient, to persevere and to be tenacious. Connect with people who are interested in your success and never be afraid to ask for help. It's also important to look around you and see what you can do differently. Don't be afraid to push the envelope and like they say, colour outside the lines. But more than anything else, you must never stop learning.
Contact or follow Femi and My World of Bags
Why LoA loves it….
Africa has a long established tradition of beautiful craftsmanship, and the highly creative Femi Olayebi is a wonderful example of an entrepreneur who is taking her inspiration from that tradition, but elevating it to a thing of beauty that the world wants to possess. Her handbags and accessories are captivating the world, not just because they celebrate the art of bespoke hand-craftsmanship, but also because they have integrity and a unique aesthetic appeal. Femi and her company are ones to watch on the global luxury accessory scene and destined for great things! --- Melanie Hawken, founder and editor-in-chief of Lionesses of Africa