Opeyemi Ogunruku, 27, fashion designer and Chief Executive Officer, Opshe Couture and Crafts, in this interview with COMFORT OSEGHALE says progress and money come by adding value
How did you develop interest in fashion designing?
My interest in this line began when I was a child. My mum had a fashion outfit. Even though she didn’t know how to make clothes, she had several tailors in her employment while I was growing up. By the time I got to my teenage years, her business had packed up but we still had one or two machines left at home from that era.
Back then, I would always go to my mum’s shop to pick up patches of clothes, pieces from the dustbin and sew them all together into doll dresses. I continued designing and sewing clothes until I got into the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology to study agronomy, although that was not the course I wanted initially.
Even as an undergraduate, I was still sewing clothes, but it wasn’t until I was in 300 level that I decided to make money from it. I used up my savings to buy a sewing machine and began to sew for other students. I was 22 at that time.
At what point did you decide that this was what you wanted as a career?
It was when I finished my youth service and couldn’t get a job. I graduated from LAUTECH in 2012 and after my National Youth Service Corps in Lagos; I tried to get a job for about six months.
While I was job hunting, I still found time to sew clothes for people. I later discovered that I was doing well and so I gave up on securing paid employment and faced my business squarely. I was getting better clients as a corps member than when I was an undergraduate.
Although I knew that I would later go back to fashion designing, I just thought it would be good to put my university certificate to use in paid employment for a few years. I wanted the experience of being an employee before branching out on my own.
I had always known that I would be self-employed; I never really liked to work within structured hours or with a dress code. When the opportunity never came for paid employment, I decided to continue with what I was already doing and abandoned the idea of getting a job.
Was your mum pleased with your decision?
She was very happy that one of her children went into what she always wanted to do but couldn’t. So she was very supportive even when I was not making money. She would tell me that one day Naomi Campbell would wear my designs.
As an undergraduate, when I posted pictures of my dress designs on Facebook or of clothes that I had sewn, my mum would comment on it and praise me. That was why it was easy for me to know that I had a cheerleader. She would always encourage me when I am down.
Was it difficult growing your clientele base?
I get clients mostly through referrals; I sew for people who then recommend me to their friends. I do home delivery; I come to your house to pick up your clothes and take your measurements, sew the clothes and bring them back. I didn’t really get any client using the social media.
Some of my classmates whom I sewed for as an undergraduate came looking for my service when I decided to face fashion designing full time. One of them contacted me and asked me to sew her sister’s bridesmaids’ dresses. A friend’s mother also took interest in my work and called me and things just went on from there.
What has the experience been like?
It has been bittersweet. There had been moments that I wanted to give up and go into paid employment. There are also moments I am very happy especially when a client commends my work.
My biggest challenge so far has been financial. There have been occasions where I sewed clothes for people who eventually refused to pay my fees. They would tell me that they can’t pay that amount and because it is better than getting nothing, I would have no option but to accept what they had.
There was also a challenge with raising capital to get the kind of sewing machines that I wanted. The start-up capital is not really much since I don’t plan to rent a shop for now. These days business has gone digital. I can work from home and do my deliveries. However, the sewing machines that I need like the interlocking, embroidery and embellishing machines cost quite a lot and I have not been able to get them yet.
At a point last year, I applied for a couple of grants because I don’t believe in getting loans to start a business. I did not want the risk of borrowing money and not being able to pay back. I applied for the YOUWIN grant and Tony Elumelu Foundation also gave out some grants but I was not successful on both counts.
I guess it was because they had so many applications and besides, grants like YOUWIN seem more focused on developing the agricultural sector perhaps because of the fall in oil price. I am not saying they are neglecting the fashion industry, but lots of farmers get more grants than fashion designers or bakers.
How have the challenges affected your business?
When you have sewing machines for interlocking, embroidery and embellishment, it makes your work easier. However, since I don’t have the money to buy them, I have to pay extra to use another person’s machines to do my work and it is not on every occasion that the work turns out well to your taste.
The owners of these sewing machines would not let you use them, so you have to pay them to do it for you. I am not always satisfied with some of the work that they do because they don’t always turn out neat.
Then I noticed that materials that you want are not always readily available. Sometimes you buy a material at Lagos Island to sew a dress. When somebody else sees the finished dress and says she wants the same material; by the time you get to the market, you might not be able to find it.
It is not easy to know when you are buying materials if it is the type that more than one of your clients would like. Since you are uncertain, you would definitely not take the risk of buying so many. It is also the same problem with tailoring accessories; getting good quality tailoring accessories like zips is a problem. They get spoiled within a few months or weeks.
When you see some on designs at London Fashion week, you wonder where they get their accessories from. The materials and accessories used by international celebrities to make clothes are not readily available in Nigeria. It seems we don’t produce anything locally when it comes to textiles, fabrics and embellishments like stones.
Do you think the government can do something to help the industry grow?
Yes it can. The government should encourage our textile industry and the production of tailoring accessories and embellishments in Nigeria. We must not import everything. I have asked around and to my shock, I discovered that we don’t make any of them in Nigeria. There are lots of things that we don’t make that we should be able to do. If these things are made here, they would be readily available and more affordable.
There are precious stones you see on dresses that are purchased from European countries, but you can’t get such stones to buy in Nigeria. We don’t have to make them exactly like the imported ones but we can do something with an African flavour so that when you use such stones on your dress, everyone would know it is made in Nigeria.
Where do you see your business in the next five years?
I hope to have a clothing line of ready-to-wear dresses. They are a lot faster and less stressful to make than custom-made dresses. If you put them on the likes of Jumia and Konga, you can quickly get them sold.
My ready-to-wear line would be affordable for the public but the custom-made clothes would be for people that can afford to be charged more. I really look forward though to having my own clothing line where people can pick a design at an affordable price.
Any plans to use the knowledge you acquired in the university?
Agriculture is life; so when I have the opportunity to go for a seminar on food security, I attend those functions. I love fashion more than agriculture. Although I did not want to study agriculture but since I found myself doing it, I had to make a conscious effort to enjoy the subject.
I did my youth service in the Ministry of Agriculture Alausa and sometimes, I still get invites about seminars on farming or rice production. No knowledge is lost. I will eventually go into farming but I want to be an established fashion designer first. From the profits I make, I can then set up a farm.
What do you say to aspiring young entrepreneurs?
Money does not start coming in immediately. If money is your driving force, you will run back before you even get there. You need to take your mind off money and add value.
I overheard one photographer say one day that you can make money and not make progress. But when you make progress and add value, money will eventually come. The driving force should not be money but if you keep adding value, money will come. Then put God first in all you do; make time for God. Things just fall in place when you do.