This week I had an interview with Evalsam Okoli, the founder of FOLKSHELF, a clothing brand inspired by African prints. We talked about the highs and lows of her role, from the idea conception to the launch of FOLKSHELF. Grab a cup of tea and let’s get stuck in.
Vicky: Can you please tell me about your professional background?
Eva: My professional background is in Information and Communication Technology. I went on to do further studies in Corporate Communications. Initially, I was not sure what path I wanted to take in Corporate Communications but one good thing about it is the possibility to work in different industries. I think what pushed me into business was the move back to Scotland and the challenge of working in the oil industry whilst living in an oil city.
Vicky: How has your professional background prepared you for your role in FOLKSHELF?
Eva: My role in FOLKSHELF is Strategy, Communications and Operations, In other words, everything. Interestingly what has helped me in the development of FOLKSHELF apart from my personal development skills are my previous volunteering experiences within different organisations. I was not thinking about money at the time, just being responsible and committed to gaining experiences.
Vicky: Have you always been interested in fashion?
Eva: I have a quirky sense of style. I have an older sister whom I still wear her clothes, younger sister habit I guess. I would always wear them differently from her, in a very unusual way that would be of interest to her and people around. I have never considered myself a “fashionista” but I love colours, I don’t feel like we wear enough colours in this country. I have always known my strengths when it comes to my physical appearance and I use that to my advantage. You should just own your style!!!
“You should just own your style”
Vicky: What was your inspiration for the FOLKSHELF brand?
Eva: The idea for FOLKSHELF came last year when I and a few friends needed access to African inspired clothing for an event but we struggled to find something suitable for our style which is more youthful. We noticed that businesses that offered this service were mainly based in the US. Some seemed to have mostly ceremonial styles and clothes that you would not wear on a regular basis. I designed a few pieces and we got them made, people at the event loved the clothes and wanted some for themselves.
I started researching into what other businesses were doing. I realised that there was a market for FOLKSHELF but I had to be careful because of the weather in the UK and in selecting my niche. I also realised that it was important to teach people how to wear or pair the clothing. Such as how to layer the outfits for everyday use.
Vicky: How did you get the name FOLKSHELF?
Eva: Everyone was working on it!!! I knew that I wanted the name to be something that will remain relevant no matter how big the business grows. You don’t want to outgrow your name and start rebranding again. Once FOLKSHELF came to me, everyone said Yes!! I am really glad I picked it myself.
Vicky: Besides the clothes what does the FOLKSHELF brand stand for?
Eva: The FOLKSHELF brand is versatile, it is a celebration of creativity and culture. Especially from the part of the world, I come from, everyone is focused on climbing up the corporate ladder and working 9 to 5 jobs. Not a lot of kids are encouraged to follow their creative passions. As a brand, we would also like to work with other businesses and use FOLKSHELF as a platform to grow creative businesses.
“The FOLKSHELF brand is versatile, it is a celebration of creativity and culture”
Vicky: Do you think there should be more initiatives both in the UK and wider Africa to encourage creative careers?
Eva: Absolutely, there is a wealth of talent that is often wasted. I think it is important to go into schools and introduce creative careers. I am not too sure about other countries but most of the schools in Nigeria that have this available are the more expensive ones, this excludes the masses who are not in private education. A lot of people end up studying courses they have no passion for, some are bad at maths but they are forcing their way into an engineering career. I believe parents will be motivated to encourage creative fields if they see more young individuals succeeding in creative careers.
Vicky: What is the most challenging thing about having a clothing brand?
Eva: I still haven’t figured it out!!! The production channel of the clothes is often hard to find and set up. As much as you have an idea of what you want, it might not translate to the next person in production. You must be firm on what you want but you should also try to be open to change unless you might run yourself crazy. Also having the right resources, both financial and human resources is really important.
Vicky: What happens behind the scene of this brand that some people might not be aware of?
Eva: You don’t have the luxury to spend. When you want to spoil yourself, the thought that your business needs a million things just changes everything. Most of your daily experiences are focused on designing new concepts, so its almost hard to enjoy a movie without analysing the fashion of the characters. Customers fall into a lot of categories, and they have different needs especially visuals to relate with. Social media platforms are your best friend. You must also do a lot of research; every day is different. I also have a focus group that gives me their thoughts on the pieces, lots of feedback is required.
“Social media platforms are your best friend”
Vicky: Who are your support system? What motivates you to continue with this brand?
Eva: My mum has had a huge impact on the brand, she is sort of a superwoman. When I was younger she used to make our little cute outfits despite being a top lawyer. The support of my husband, brother and sister has been amazing, they are my greatest cheerleaders. I come from a family that fully gets behind your ideas. I also found out that what I was doing was also motivating others to pursue their creative and business goals. Sometimes it gets to the point I want to just stop because trust me raising a child, family and starting a business aren’t things to joggle but because of my amazing family encouragements I don’t want to disappoint them. It is also important to do more networking and find out what people in your field are doing, that is a good way to stay motivated. Although I have support, I have learnt I must motivate myself and do the work myself.
Vicky: How easy has it been to find people who believe in your vision and brand?
Eva: It is not easy to get people to trust your vision that is where social media plays its part. You shouldn’t force your product on people, you want to build trust, get people excited and encourage good relationships with customers, this is why reviews are a most.
Vicky: What do you wish you knew before starting the brand?
Eva: I wish I knew I was going to start a business because I would have been saving towards it. Especially when I had fewer responsibilities. I would also encourage people to start businesses when they are much younger. Even if you don’t have it all together it is good to try. On the other hand, you cannot undo your experience, there is time for everything. If I started back then I probably would have stopped, I now have a lot of things pushing me to succeed.
Vicky: What skills do you need to be able to launch a clothing brand?
Eva: Unfortunately, I don’t have any previous experience in fashion management or the hard skills required like dressmaking, but this is something I am working towards. You just have to start, it is easy to wallow in your ideas but after a while, the fire dies. Just jump in!!!
“Just jump in !!!”
Vicky: Do you need to know how to run a business?
Eva: In terms of running a business, just read as much as you can, especially about the industry, successful and failed businesses similar to yours, there are also educational webinars. Sometimes you also learn from getting it totally wrong, you get up and know that you will not make that mistake again.
Vicky: What should we expect from the next collection?
Eva: Ohh!!! It is going to be exclusive. All I can say is we are working with Denim, we are kicking things up a notch because it is getting colder.
Vicky: What final advice would you give someone who wants to launch a clothing or footwear brand?
Eva: First, you should have a niche because you cannot please everybody. It is easier to meet the needs of a smaller group, this is key because a niche helps with finances and focus when designing your pieces.
Vicky: What do you do to relax?
Eva: I don’t sleep!!! My brain is always working. However, I love to watch movies, I like good food and listening to music. Oh my, I used to have more fun!!!
If you would like to know more about FOLKSHELF. Click the Link Below.