This article is the second in our ‘2020: Also the year for innovation’ series.
In Lagos state, Nigeria’s party ‘headquarters’ and Aso Ebi hub, credible tailors are nearly impossible to find. This is due to the regular need for tailoring Aso Ebi (a special local attire that is sold to guests ahead of a celebration). In many instances, the tailors either have a story about why clothing items aren’t ready on the agreed date or they present a completely different design while forcing clients to compromise on their styling at the last minute.
During a recent encounter, I had requested for my clothes to be ready ahead of an event, but instead, it was delivered 2 weeks after the agreed date. This led me to the conclusion that although certain tailors create world class outfits, they lose clients due to such delays; an age-long trend which accounts for why people opt for ready-made clothing or multiple tailors at a time. However, not all tailors in Lagos lack integrity.
Ventures Africa recently discovered EBlack Jewel, a unique men’s tailoring brand in Ogudu, Lagos, dedicated to changing he narrative about tailoring in Nigeria. During a chat with Ebieritei Itaita, the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of the startup, he emphasized that the brand seeks to establish trust and effective communication with customers while paying detailed attention to tailoring customers thoughts to life. Although tailoring was not his first love, the need to drive an ethical change in the industry has created a new passion in his heart.
I realized that one of the major challenges was, basically, people trusting us -Nigerian designers- to pay attention to details. Like, giving them what they want. Another challenge was helping people to stitch or tailor their imagination to life and bring it to reality. So I found very early that one of the things I have to do was to pay attention to details.
Ventures Africa (VA): How did you get into the business of bespoke tailoring for men given your non-tailoring background?
Ebieritei Itaita (EI): Well. fashion is something I’ve always liked. I’ve always liked the concept of looking good, you know. Finding the right balance between comfort and finesse has always been my way of doing things. Fashion wasn’t something I actually planned to do from the onset. It was something that happened to me. I just realized that it was an avenue to first, make money and then help people to meet their wardrobe needs. So it wasn’t something that was planned. It’s a funny story. It was just me being in a place where someone trusted me enough to style them. To design something for them. After that trial, I just decided “you know what, I can do this for a whole lot of people” and that was how I started.
VA: How long have you been in the business and what has been a major challenge?
EI: I’ve been in the business for 8 calendar years now. Like every business, there will be the challenge of having the capital to do your business, you know. Trying to build a customer base over time. Having a defined direction for the business, knowing exactly what you want per time and all of that. But, I think in all, I have been a positive person. I actually don’t see challenges as a problem. I’ve seen them as motivation in knowing better. I wouldn’t say there’s been anything that really held me back. Instead, they inspired me to try and get better at what I do.
VA: We all know that Lagos has a lot of fashion designers, what problem is your business determined to solve?
EI: Well, you know, for every field of life or any kind of business there would be peculiar problems. So for me, when I decided to do fashion fully, I realized that one of the major challenges was, basically, people trusting us -Nigerian designers- to pay attention to details. Like, giving them what they want. Another challenge was helping people to stitch or tailor their imagination to life and bring it to reality. So I discovered early that one of the things I have to do was to pay attention to details. That way we don’t make assumptions that someone that wants his clothes free should wear what’s in vogue on the event that slim-fit clothes are in vogue. Basically, it’s just paying attention to details.
Then another challenge the Nigerian tailoring space has always had is “keeping to time.” So I realized early that if am going to do this, I have to eliminate that shortcoming in my business to enable people to trust me. So the primary solution I provide is ‘people get what they need when they want it’ and they can trust your end on what they ordered for.
VA: Keeping to time is a major problem among tailors in Nigeria. What is your take on this and how can this be avoided?
EI: It’s actually an African thing. Beyond fashion, as I say, there are certain principles that can work across all kinds of professions and spheres of life. So, beyond fashion, it’s even a Nigerian or an African thing to not be punctual. So one of the things I decided to do is to work against that school of thought, its cliché. So that’s what I’m trying to solve in my little space.
VA: When floating a business in an economy like Nigeria, the first 6 months is said to be the deciding factor about whether your business will survive or not. In October last year, Nigeria rose 15 steps higher to number 131 on the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Index. Was there a major difference in your revenue in 2019 compared to previous years?
EI: On a personal note, I would say 2019 was better than the previous year. You know, for every situation that comes on the ground, there would be exceptions. I think, maybe I had an exception for different reasons. I can’t really point my fingers to why I made more sales than previous years. But I always try to do an analysis of what am making, when am making the most sales, when am not making sales at all and when am making average sales. In 2019, as against 2018, I actually made more sales.
VA: If your business has accounted for more sales in 2019 than in previous years, that means the World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Index about Nigeria is actually correct. So, on the average how much was your annual revenue in your first 2 years of business and how much do you make now?
EI: So, for the first 2 years of doing businesses, it was around the time when I was doing my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and just trying to get into the fashion business fully. I was still undecided on whether or not it was something I was going to go on with or I was still going to branch into something else. Something I was more passionate about. But as time went on I realized that this is actually paying my bills, I have some love for it. I needed to then develop a passion for it because it was paying my bills, you know. So, I think for the first 2 years, the challenge basically as it was a new business people don’t trust you to deliver the mandate, there’s a little client base to work with and all of that. So, revenue was quite low. I think by the end of the second year when I checked what I had generated for the whole year, it was something in the region of N2,8 million or thereabout, in the space of 12 months.
VA: Compared to now, what is the average?
EI: There is a big difference and I think it is because of a lot of factors. The brand has grown, I’m known by more people, then I’ve conquered more spaces Lagos, Nigeria and of course some other parts of the world. Then, location is also key and I think social media has played its part because I am able to reach a whole lot of people across the world even without going to them. They constantly see your products online and all of that. So, people trust that you can deliver it. People trust that you are not a fraud. People trust that they can send you monies and you will deliver their mandate. So that has also been a factor.
Putting all of these together I’ll just say my business revenue has grown by over 3 to 4 times than it was in the first two years.
VA: What would you say was the gamechanger for you?
EI: Basically, I think the time factor was always there. It’s like planting seeds, I think they would always take time to grow. The business just needed time to grow. So I think the first 2 years compared to now was the time that was needed to for the business to grow. Besides that, other factors that come to play include location, people trusting you enough to deliver mandate, then, of course, staff strength has increased, us being able to meet up with higher demands. You know, when you keep doing something you’ll get batter at it. We’ve gotten better over the years, you know. There have just been all those little dots that have been put together to help revenue get better.
VA: Lagos is Nigeria’s hub for parties and Aso Ebi. However, the COVID-19 pandemic which hit the globe restricted movement and moved most celebrations to close-knit affairs or online gatherings. No doubt this has affected your business, but how much revenue can you say you missed out on given the pandemic?
EI: Well, I haven’t given it a thought. One thing I try to do in life, generally, and of course I apply it to my business is not to disturb myself about the things I can’t control. The things that are beyond me. So, if I was shutout for a few months because of the COVID-19 pandemic then I’m not bothering myself on what could have been, what I could have gotten within that time frame. But, I’ve only tried to improve on my services and expand the sphere of my customers so that I can make up for what seems to have been lost. Although I don’t think so because, I mean, there’s nothing I could have done about the pandemic. It’s beyond me. It’s like sleeping, you know. I can’t work when am sleeping. I can’t work when am sleeping. Nature calls me to sleep. So, If by default, I have to stop working for X, Y and Z time, then I didn’t just think it was nice to disturb myself.
However, after the lockdowns were lifted, it didn’t take too long to get back on track because all the time we were on the lockdown, I was actually putting facilities together to ensure that sales pick up on time. It didn’t take too long for that to click. So, I didn’t give losses a thought.
VA: Does that mean the pandemic lockdown was an adequate time for you to make more plans to start off your business on a different note entirely?
EI: Yes, it was planning time. I was creating designs, planning for shoots, you know, just saving up money to do adverts on Instagram, Facebook and all social platforms so that as soon as the government say “you guys can go back to work or you guys can go back and party” I’ll be better placed.
VA: And it worked.
EI: Yeah, it did work to a large extent.
VA: How would you say your business is changing the outward outlook of African Fashion?
EI: Personally, I am a fan of blending cultures. I love to put a touch of the African style in anything that I do. So, even if it was a modern-day English outfit I am making, I put a touch of Africa. That’s why the name of my brand is EBlack Jewel. So, this is black fashion, black clothing. This is black tailoring and it is priceless. So, whatever piece we make for you, it’s a jewel and it’s purely African. Basically, the concept of my brand is to give customers some sense of confidence putting on the African brand anywhere they are. So, they rock the African attire with pride because they know that what they are wearing is priceless. It’s not an ordinary piece. It’s not a piece that is inferior to any other attire from other parts of the world. What I’ve always tried to do is to propagate that message in the production of my attires. So a lot of times you see a lot of the cultural mix that has a touch of the Aso Oke, the Ibo fabrics or Adire. That’s it basically.
VA: What is one unique thing about your business that ensures returning customers?
EI: Well, I don’t know if this is Unique. But I know that across sectors, people who apply defined principles would achieve results too. So, I have come to understand that in any business you do, a lot of times how you treat people is really important. Regardless of how well you know how to do what you do. A lot of times, people will come back to patronize your business because of the good relationship they’ve had with you personally. So, what I try to do beyond tailoring good clothes, getting new designs, ensuring that customers get their orders in time -which, of course, when put together is how you treat them- is relating with people respectfully. Because at the end of the day, relationships will grow a brand. Relationships are what has helped you moved from point A to point B because you’ll grow on referrals. You’ll grow on positive feedbacks. I think over the years, that’s what I’ve tried to do. I try to ensure that people are happy when they have conversations with me as it relates to my business.