#GirlBossesofGreatBritain – The One with the Bootstrapping Designer

House of Coco chatted with fashion designer Elizabeth-Yemi Akingbade about her fashion brand Yemzi, the importance of bootstrapping and pursuing your dreams. (Photo credit: ©www.jamesperrin.com 2016)

HOC: Hey Elizabeth, tell us about Yemzi and where we can find your products?

EA: Hello House Of Coco! All Yemzi pieces are made in London with Africa inspired hand-illustrated digitally printed premium silk. The brand is stocked in the GoodPlace boutique in Chelsea and my ultimate dream is to be stocked in similar boutiques worldwide Alara (Lagos), Browns (London), Collette (Paris). In Nigeria they respect good quality European design and I plan to approach stockists there over the next season or two. Until recently I have been selling my Black Label, a more affordable segment of the brand, on ASOS Marketplace but I’ve made the decision to solely focus on my high-end items in the Gold Label.

I’ve been approached to showcase my work at a number of small fashion and trade shows but my target is on the British Fashion Council’s official London Fashion Week schedule. I hosted my own fashion show last year on Dalston Roof Park, which was great and I’m planning another for this September in a World War 2 bunker! It’s all about stepping stones and building up; nothing happens overnight.

HOC: How did you come to running your own brand?

EA: After completing my undergrad degree in Surface Design at London College of Communication I took some short courses in Garment Construction, Bespoke Tailoring, and Pattern Cutting. I’m currently studying MA African Studies at SOAS which also informs my creative direction. I started working with sustainable printed t-shirts after I graduated in 2013 and had them stocked in one of the top 3 African boutiques.

From my presence in this store a fashion talent scout and strategist invited to show in Paris at Labo Ethnik. I really didn’t want to be going to Paris with just t-shirts so I applied my prints to cut and sewn styles. My first success was my silk kimonos, they sold so well and propelled me to create my first all silk 13 look ready-to-wear collection, ‘Straight Out Of The City Via The Motherland’ (SS16). My work explores British-Nigerian identity, fusing the fast pace of the city with the chilled vibe of the sea-side and often touches on politics as well as culture. I’m like Yinka Shonibare’s love-child with Vivienne Westwood.

HOC: Do you feel you get to be creative with your brand, is that one of your reasons for running this business?

EA: Absolutely! I’ve just started working on my new collection and I’ve been sketching and painting loads. In fact, I need to focus more on the numbers but my business is proof that you can carve a career doing exactly what you love. At the moment I’m so excited about Spring/Summer 17 (SS17), the Nigerian influence is stronger this season. After reading ‘Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba See Themselves’ by Stephen F. Sprague for class ‘Ibeji’ (Yoruba twins) are a theme within the collection. Nigerians are most likely to have twins and I plan to play on this in the lookbook. The fashion prints that I’m working on are reminiscent of scarification and I’d love to book a stunning Nigerian model called Paula who has tribal markings on her stomach.

HOC: In the fashion industry we feel that it’s important who you know and where you are seen? How do you find the right people and places?

EA: It is important to sustain relationships and seek valuable connections. If you keep in touch with your fashion network you’ll hear about industry news, events and parties.

I also have a few mentors that I’ve met in various places. There’s a coach called Kofi who I met through Bootstrap company’s enterprise bootcamp, who I often go to as a sounding board. I always keep him in the loop and ask for his advice. I recently went to the The StartUp Kitchen to meet with well-established entrepreneurs who are willing to give gidance. These types of events are great forums to talk about new ideas and get your feedback from experts in other industries. We all have different approaches to business; for instance I met a lady who was all about picking up the phone, chasing for sales and making money. It’s different from how I operate but it’s interesting to see a different perspective. You can learn a lot from other people’s experiences and take aspects to shape your direction.

HOC: There’s a lot of work that goes into having your own fashion brand and you work and study alongside! How do you manage it all?

EA: My savings have given my business life and I do work when I can to top it up. I’m lucky to have a committed intern, Krezsend, who comes to the Yemzi HQ in Dalston to help out with whatever is on the agenda.

For blogger outreach I was working with a friend with a PR company but it is all in-house again. Outside of contacting bloggers I reach out to photographers, models and musicians who may want to collaborate. A big part of the search is for the ‘Yemzi Girl’; the girl that embodies my brand and can influence others on social media. For instance, I connected with a model from NYC who I had been fangirling for a minute and sent her a ‘Spbra’ bralet which she showcased on her Instagram.

I’m not shy to get exposure. Sadiq Khan visited my studio the other month and he said he was heading to Ben TV next and would shout me out. I held him to it and sure enough he co-signed me on international television. I’m all over my google analytics so I know what generates traffic to Yemzi.com so I always keep and eye on activity and plan accordingly.

HOC: You mention the Yemzi girl influencer, tell us more about her and how you find her?

EA: As I mentioned earlier I do a lot of tracking through analytics, I find the girls that have influence through looking at their follower to interaction ratio, who are the kinds of people who follow them and like their content. Yemzi girls have natural hairstyles, they tend to be creative and positive. I’ve got a #GirlBoss tip for you actually, check out Talia Wolf (Taliagw) and Mark Suster (msuster) on snapchat for snapstorms where they gives quick strategies on how to get more engagement online and other killer marketing and business tips.

HOC: So it sounds like social media is incredibly important to Yemzi at the moment?

EA: Absolutely, although I have had some not so great experiences. The other month a photographer was indirectly trashing me on twitter to his few thousand following. It was really unfair as I respectfully approached him about a shoot with an influencer (a beautiful model with 45k followers and 3k likes per post) but because there was no budget he was airing our direct message conversation in his public timeline rather than politely declining. I don’t care though, we all have to start somewhere and the most successful hustle hard to get things popping. If in 2016 Kanye West can ask for a billion dollars for his ideas then I can ask for a TFP (time for print) photoshoot from a local photographer!

The fashion industry in London is small, you really have to be aware of this.

I successfully approached a fashion photography graduate a few years ago via Twitter, we’ve done some amazing (unpaid and paid) collaborations, and she currently works at Net-A-Porter. The creative team are an important part of any shoot and the photographer needs to be as excited about your work as you otherwise the passion won’t be translated to the consumers.

HOC: You’re achieving so much, is there anything you wish you could spend more time and energy on?

EA: Visiting the spa? Jokes aside, networking more, my schedule does not priorities it. It’s on my list of activities to make regular but I have very little spare time. I need to just dedicate some time to finding events through friends, eventbrite and twitter and go. You can make some amazing contacts and even if you just walk away from an event with one decent contact it’s worthwhile.

Thank you Elizabeth for a whirlwind tour of your world and we cannot wait for your new SS17 collection. If you, dear reader, like what you’ve read do check out Yemzi. This #TeamCoco writer can vouch for how awesome they are, our hubby wants to nick our unisex green/blue print silk sweater!

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