Josephine Idonigie: Developing Fashion Brands
By Jemi Ekunkunbor
When in 1991, Josephine Idonigie along with her partner and husband, Oyanabui launched the Dornanjosfyn brand, they envisioned a one-stop brand that will produce garments, leather accessories as well as a training academy that will provide craftsmen for the fashion industry.
From a humble beginning, they pioneered the designing of shoe and bag set with Ankara; at a time when the inexpensive, colourful print didn’t earn the prestige it earns today amongst fabrics. Twenty eight years on, not only have they realized their dreams and vision, they have again pioneered the use of cane and leather and wood and leather in the production of their bag line.
In this interview, Josephine, an Accountancy graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Executive Director, Dornanjosfyn, talks about the various strides her brand has taken, including export to other countries and training other brand owners from her wealth of experience in designing, production and marketing.
Your journey into shoe and garment production started in the 90s. How has the journey been all these years?
It has been great, good, with challenges here and there but we thank God we’re still standing. It’s been a long journey but we’ve reached the point where our products can stand anywhere and people see and wonder if it is from Nigeria. Right now, our products can compete with any international product.
When you started, you pioneered the production of shoe and bag with local fabrics and you moved front there to other materials. Could you take us through that journey to where you are now?
We started making bags with leather and skin, then we met with a company weaving Aso oke and we were encouraged into making shoes and bags with aso oke as well. It was a very successful experience at that time.
Then Zizi Cardow brought excitement into the use of Ankara fabric, and we were inspired to use Ankara to make shoes and bags. We were on the runway with Ankara shoes and bags at the openning of Tinapa in Calabar. We have pioneered in recent times the use of cane and leather for exotic bag designs and come up with bag concepts with the use of wood while still retaining flexibility.
I must say though that when we started, people didn’t really understand what we were doing until Aldo did it. I remember taking the shoe and bag somewhere and someone said, “I can’t wear Ankara shoe and then, when I go out, I’ll see one driver wearing that same Ankara”. But all that has changed now. Although we don’t wear shoe and bag Ankara anymore, but Ankara accessories is still in vogue.
From the beginning, you were focused on producing for export. How were you able to break into the international market?
We have a lot of Nigerians abroad, who still love their African items. And social media has made everything easy. You can reach out to anyone from anywhere. Most of my customers live outside Nigeria. Many of them met me through social media. I have customers in Canada, Boston, California, NewYork and so on. They are the ones who see our products on social media and order. We also have customers from other countries but you know how careful people are when it comes to online business.
How have you been able to deal with the issues of trust and fraud associated with online business?
The truth is, when they place their orders, they make a deposit. So before sending the goods down, they pay the balance. So I don’t have any issue of fraud. It’s on my part to be straight forward because I have my integrity to protect. So I make sure what they order is what they get.
How would you say social media has enhanced the work that you do?
Fantastic! Before social media, marketing wasn’t that easy. We have to place adverts in magazines and all that; but now, with social media, you can reach ten million people in a day. Most of the people who like and comment on our products are not even Nigerians; some are from Russia, Australia and people who are also into leather works.
How do you source for materials?
The leather we use is actually from Italy. Leather is produced in Kaduna but taken to Italy to process. That’s the only way you can get the quality that we want. But this is just to say that there’s no kind of leather you can’t get. The highest quality of leather you have them in Nigeria and we have more than enough leather in Nigeria.
If we have real leather here, why do Nigerian women still covet bags coming from abroad?
Some people just like names and name doesn’t mean that the bag is made with real leather. What most of these people do is, they produce and spray it for it to smell like leather. There’s a spray they use that smells like leather, so when they spray and you perceive, you’ll think its leather but it isn’t.
What are the production challenges you face?
Number one is electricity. Another is human resource because a lot of people don’t like to work. We have a challenge of workers being unfaithful. If we can get faithful and dedicated workers like Senegalese tailors, Nigeria will be better for all. Nigerian tailors move from one place to another. This is worse for us, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing. Before you enter any business or profession, you have to understand what you’re doing, if not, you’ll be stranded when they just decide to leave you suddenly.
So what do you look forward to now? You’ve done shoe and clothes…
We’re into furniture as well, we make Ankara chairs, and I made a lot for Nikki Arts Gallery. There’s nothing we can’t do here. Right now, we are into caps; all kinds of caps. Creative work is related somehow. If you are not sewing, you are nailing and hammering. We are also into training now. We have two aspects of training; we have commercial and social support. With social support, we have done a lot. We have trained over two hundred people at zero cost.
How do you get the people?
We worked with Redeem for 10 years and every year they send their people. We also have people they bring from the less privileged homes; people whom their parents can’t send to school.
How often do you admit people?
It’s a regular exercise but for now, we are not in session. Externally, we have an outreach work we do on the island. We go there every Wednesday to train street boys. After a season, we identify the ones that have genuine passion for the work, bring them into our factory and give them extensive training. After a year, we give them equipment to go start their own. Some remain with us and we put them on salary. It comes under a project we call ‘craft men’. The whole idea is for them to be independent afterwards.
We also recognize that there are a lot of brands who don’t have workers to power them. It’s a huge gap. We have a lot of brands that we’re working for. So we don’t even have space even for ourselves. Between now and the end of next month, we have at least five hundred bags to produce. So there is a huge gap and we need to train more people for the industry.
Don’t you think it’s time to set up a proper training school?
That’s the direction we’re headed for. For now, we train brand owners and the people that will work for them. So, behind those brands that you see are people that we trained and some that we produce for.
How do think Nigerian women have evolved with fashion?
Nigerian women are very loud when it comes to fashion. They like it to be all the way loud. And when they come in, they’re looking for things that’ll make them stand out on any occasion they attend.
Nigerians like customized items; how challenging is that for you trying to produce en masse?
I don’t do that because they cannot pay the fees. Even designers don’t produce just one. So I tell them I can’t do that because how much are you paying for the blouse that I’ll produce for only you? If you bring your design, I can produce it for you but, if it’s my design, I can’t do that.
Some of Josephine Idonigie Fashion Brands