I recently spoke to Ethnik founder and creative director, Tunde Owolabi about the brand’s conception and emerging shape since he did the AsoOke: The Woven Beauty exhibition in Lagos, Nigeria. The response to that exhibition seemed to point him in an entirely new and exciting direction in the fashion and design landscape, and so I wanted to know more.
LM: For those of us who don’t know what it means, and may know the term as Nigerian, what is Aso Oke and what is its importance in Nigerian culture and style?
TO: Aso-Oke is short for Aso Ilu Oke, which means clothes from the up-country. It is also sometimes referred to as Aso-Ofi woven cloth made mostly by the Yoruba of south-west Nigeria. The cloth is produced mainly in Iseyin (Oyo state), Ede (Osun state) and Okene (Kogi state). Aso oke is an important part of the Nigerian culture and fashion landscape. It is fabric that is so important, there is hardly a ceremony without its use. It has become so popular and synonymous with ceremonies that other cultures in Nigeria are beginning to borrow from its use. There is hardly a Yoruba wedding without the use of Aso oke, even if the wedding is outside of Nigeria. The importance of the fabric dates as far back as over 200 years ago, when it started as fabric tough enough to wear to the farm. It later went from a farm clothing to ceremonial. People go as far as having to borrow if they don’t have it . It is an expensive and luxurious fabric that was worn by kings and the rich.
LM: What was it about AsoOke: The Woven Beauty that made you decide you could go full cultural and look to sustain the craft and art form? Especially at a time when hardly anyone is doing this kind of thing?
TO: Firstly the Woven Beauty Exhibition threw more light into the mystery of the fabric, and that got me more excited about it. Meeting the weavers and speaking to past generations who have now passed it onto their younger ones further gave the drive to work on sustaining the art and the continuous production of the fabric. When you encounter the fabric and the genius of those weaving it, you will realize how beautiful it is, especially the ones made in the olden days, and the many possibilities of what can be done with the fabric.
LM: How then does it translate for those of us who aren’t Nigerian? Are we allowed to feel Yoruba too?
TO: The truth is the fabric is for anyone and everyone who appreciates art and beautiful things. You don’t have to be Yoruba or Nigerian to enjoy aso oke. Our sneakers, for example, may be made from aso oke, but can be worn by an Asian or a Swahili person, without being in your face that this is Yoruba. It reflects the culture but it is also fresh and modern.
LM: I like that it’s a brand that focuses on other accessories not just sneakers. It’s like a lifestyle brand. What made you decide to branch into different items?
TO: It was easy to branch into other accessories other than sneakers because of the versatility of the fabric. I am an artist and without sounding corky, I can say it is easy for me to see differently from other people. Aso oke itself is a lifestyle, when people wear aso oke in the Yoruba land, you see them looking regal, then you know there must be an important ceremony going on. So creating other accessories and a lifestyle out of aso oke for me was easy because of what the fabric itself represent.
LM: What are some of the challenges in presenting Aso Oke in this way? As sneakers, bags or cushion covers?
TO: The challenges are faced on different aspects. There is the challenge of finding good hands that are ready to work. There is the challenge of some of the raw materials used. Logistics, finance and again artisans. There are no real challenges in presenting the fabric as interpreted in shoes or bags, the listed challenges are the real deal.
LM: Did you need partners to finance your vision? How tough is it to launch a lifestyle and clothing brand in Nigeria, and especially one that uses local artisans?
TO: It has been a bootstrapping experience for me and I’m still self-financing the brand from what the brand makes and sometimes having to inject money from my photography, fine art or other design jobs. Now the brand is picking up gradually and will soon be self-sufficient. As for artisans, it is the number one problem we have but we will overcome it. We have plans to have people train to become seasoned cobblers or weavers. That is one of our sustainability plans. We want it to remain ethical, so we won’t be getting the Chinese nor any other foreigner involved in production. We want it to be Made in Nigeria by Nigerians. It is achievable and we will make it happen.
LM: What can you tell those interested in preserving their cultural heritage in this manner? What about the cloth for you makes it a sound investment socially and also for the buyer?
TO: Our culture is our identity, if we don’t preserve it, we will lose it like we have lost some of our prized artifacts and we will never be able to tell our kids about who they really are. The more we work towards the preservation of our cultural heritage, the better for us, and those coming after us. As for aso oke, it is a fabric worth investing in. It is economically viable and export-worthy because of its beauty, versatility and the durability. It is a part of our culture that should not be thrown away.
LM: Where can people find your products?
Folks can order on the website at present and can also send messages via whatsapp.