A TRAINED architect, Tolani Nkili Onajide is set to take the Nigerian fashion scene and the global market by storm. The graduate of University of Dundee School of Architecture, Scotland, made a foray into fashion through the support of the Scottish government, which created a platform for the less-privileged young people in the city of Dundee to develop their business potentials.
Braving the odds in a keenly contested competition, Nkili won awards and financial support from the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust and Cultural Enterprise, which offered her a grant of £25,000 and other benefits to launch her shirt line, Nkili, in February this year.
Since then, she has not only looked back, but has gained wide support from the Scottish media with her new twist to shirt collections. Recently, Nkili launched her brand in Lagos at an exhibition titled, Seeing Beautiful Things. The designer spoke with NIKE SOTADE about her collections and entrepreneurship.
The beginning of Nkili
I started Nkili in 2011 after attending Arts School for a year in London, at the Architectural Association School and later at the University of Dundee School of Architecture.
I was in my second year in the University when I entered for the Business Plan Competition. We needed to develop business ideas about opening a people-friendly business shop in Dundee, which inspired me to start something on my own. With the help of the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust funded by Prince Charles of England, I developed a business plan.
The whole idea of the trust was to develop young entrepreneurs. I was given business advice, went for classes for a few months and then got a grant in October 2011. I got my final award, which was financial, and this helped me to start my business. I also got another grant from my university, which was a six-month lease in an office space, using all their facilities to do my business.
So, I started Nkili in January 2012, when I got the full funding with my online website Nkili.com. I started with seven shirts and three scarves. Nkili is just focused on making beautiful hand-printed shirts with my own unique designs; so, I design prints and shapes for shirts.
By February, I got a lot of support from the Scottish media. I was in the Skinny Magazine, an arts and entertainment magazine in Scotland and in the Evening Telegraph, too.
What has an architect got to do with fashion?
The one-year course I did at the Arts School, London, helped me, because it offered an artistic view to architecture, as it entailed fashion and textile, photography and painting. It helped to shape my fashion sense.
Before I left school and presented my final work, the comment that was made pointed to the fact that my strength was in fashion and textile, and I knew that as well. That gave me the confidence, but I knew I would study Architecture and be an architect in the long term.
I decided to go into shirt making in particular because I wear silk shirts all the time. I decided not to use generic prints for my shirts. I wanted to design my own shirt and make them look like something different.
The shirts just describe my character. I made them very feminine. They were hand painted and classic with a quirky twist. My designs are based on an architectural design. Both fashion and architecture are about design and structure.
The Nkili signature
The Spring/Summer Collection, Seeing Beautiful Thing, is about women’s luxury shirts. It focused on highlighting the most important garment in a wardrobe — the shirt.
Nkili designs, prints and produces the most beautifully crafted silk shirts that people will treasure. Each piece goes on a journey, from design and print to production. The process of combining tonal hand drawing with traditional silk screen-printing and hand-painting techniques on pure silk makes each piece unique.
My collection is influenced by one of the leaders of modern architecture — Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s minimalist design style. He adopted the ‘less is more’ approach and arranged the necessary components of a building to create an impression of extreme simplicity.
By highlighting the shirt in its pure form, without distraction, the progressive beauty and craft can be seen. Everything is simple, but sophisticated.
Future plans for Nkili in Nigeria
I want to make my designs accessible to my clients in Nigeria, and to achieve this, I already have two stockists in Lagos namely, Les Spaces and Deola Sagoe’s flagship stores in Victoria Island.
I, also deal with an online store called Asos.com. They have an independent store for young designers, where you have your own boutique. In the future, I intend to go into other fabrics outside silk.
How can one compare the fashion industry of Scotland with that of Nigeria?
There is no comparison between the fashion industries. There is so much diversity over there. The Nigerian fashion industry pales in comparison to that of Scotland and largely the United Kingdom.
Fashion industry in Lagos is just starting and there are only a few people in the country who are just starting it. There were a lot of incentives, which I took advantage of in Scotland, to help me start and grow my business.
How can Nigerian government help young entrepreneurs to grow?
I happened to be in the right place at the right time. The Scottish government is investing in young people from the age bracket of 18 and 26. After spending a year in London, which was the foundation because the Arts School refined me for the textile and fashion industry, I moved to Scotland in 2009.
The platform of the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust created by Prince Charles for young and under-privileged people was what I used to set up my clothing line while still in my second year at the university. That is the kind of incentive every government should have for her youth. I have two years of aftercare support for Nkili.
I have a financial adviser whom I go to from time to time for my clothing line; I also have a legal adviser, who takes care of other things so that I can face the design proper. I sometimes wish there was a trust like this for young entrepreneurs in Nigeria. It could go a long way in empowering young people.
Apart from the grant from the trust, which I could access for Nkili, there were other incentives such as the Enterprise Gem Business Incubator from the University of Dundee, which offered me £1,200 to invest in my business.
I would like to see an encouragement of young people with innovative business ideas in the country (Nigeria). They’ve helped a lot of people to grow their business in Scotland. You don’t even need to have a degree to get the support. It would be nice to have this kind of support here.
I was born in Lagos. I spent my first eight years in Nigeria. I’ve spent most of my life in Oxford and London, but then, I moved to Scotland in 2009. I come to Nigeria almost three times a year because my parents live here and I intend settling down at home.
Stella McCartney is one of the designers I consider as my role model. She is my main influence. She is probably the richest fashion designer in the world, but if you see her, she is very plain and minimal. She wears everything with confidence.
Her definition of fashion
Fashion is more than clothes, but an expression of oneself. One can decide to dress like this one day and like that the other day. I love classic styles, colours and make-up, but I also like anything that is a bit off and quirky at the same time.