Tope Williams –Taking The Lead

Young, bold and beautiful, Temitope Williams is a fashion entrepreneur and the brain behind Martwayne Dynamiques, a fashion retail, consulting and training outfit set up for the sole purpose of giving individuals “power through fashion.” Having worked in an education consultancy firm and as an analyst in the tax, regulatory and people services unit of KPMG Professional Services for two and half years, Ms Williams resigned to pursue her love for fashion far away in South Africa.

Ms Williams got her first degree in Economics from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in 2002 and later added a diploma in Management and Image consulting in Australia and the United Kingdom respectively. She got her Bachelor of Art in Fashion Design from the Future Excellence Design Institute of South Africa (FEDISA) in 2009. And in less than one year of hitting the Nigerian fashion industry in 2010, the young chief executive officer of Martwayne already made a statement as the 2010 Exquisite Magazine Lady of the Year Award for Best Designer (Newcomer).

FinIntell met with Temitope Williams at her training and design studio in Lagos. She unveils her plans of the soon-to-be-launched Martwayne clothing line and how she would use her training platform to lead the Nigerian fashion industry to its promise land.

You resigned from an accounting firm to pursue your passion for fashion. What motivated that decision?
I went to study fashion just because I was tired of my tailors; they were damaging my clothes. There was one particular tailor who always spoilt my clothes. I just made up my mind to study fashion design so I could teach the likes of my tailor.

I have an eye for style; and you know style is very relative. Back then when I used to work in an office environment, my colleagues do ask me for help in combining colours, clothes, etc. I initially went into fashion to be an image consultant. Then, I use to create customised clothing for people with regular body shape, but as time went by and I delved deeper into the fashion industry, I realised that there were so many things I could do within the industry. There were many untapped areas. That was how my business idea changed.

Even the training we currently run was not supposed to be an immediate plan; it was meant to be a retirement plan. We started training because I discovered that there are many people who need to change their thinking on how to run a fashion business.

How impactful has your training been?
The trainings have been helpful to our students. I also do a lot of referrals since I was always getting jobs that I wasn’t really interested in. For example, I don’t sew school uniform but I used to get such project. Initially I reject such project, but I have now realised that I could always pass the job to any of my trainees who specialises in uniform making. So, I do a lot of referrals that links people up. I try as much as possible to help my students. I go as far as Lagos Island to help some designers look for tailors who don’t have jobs. My local tailor who made me go into fashion business get more referrals from me today, and I am happy about that.

I am first and foremost a consultant than a designer. I also run a network of designers, called Designers Connect. The inaugural ceremony held in February, 2012 at Trend in Lekki with over 150 people in attendance with top designers like Prince Akanni Oyefusi of Nobel Afrik and President of the Fashion Designer's Association of Nigeria (FADAN) gracing the occasion. The gathering wasn’t really formal. The idea was basically gathering designers together to ask ourselves why we operate in an industry that provides the basic necessity of life and still suffer. We talked about what the problems are and the way out.

You must have seen a gap between the fashion industry and the business community before coming up with the Designers Connect idea?
What I am basically trying to do with Designers Connect is to link the fashion industry with the business community because I am coming from a business background. I believe that by the time you link fashion and business together, the industry will progress.

A lot of fashion designers forget that it is not just about the creativity, they need to run a business. That was why I invited people who could help us in our business for the maiden event. I invited public relations consultants, accountants, marketers, logistic experts, fashion designers, business development officers, lawyers, and other professionals. It was a total package.

We initially started with a general session before breaking into syndicate sessions. So, each person who has a challenge went to meet a consultant in that field. If you have issues with legal problem, you will meet a lawyer; if you have issues with starting up a business, you meet the business adviser, etc.

The Fashion Designer's Association of Nigeria (FADAN) was established for the purpose of promoting fashion design in Nigeria. Is Designers Connect created to replace FADAN?
Designers Connect was not created to replace FADAN and it cannot replace FADAN. I think FADAN tries to merge the fashion industry together while Designer Connect tries to link fashion and business together.

I talk to designers on daily basis and I fear their horror stories. It breaks my heart to see an industry that is making billions of dollars around the world not being fully tapped in Nigeria. A lot of us keep saying we are designers, we have fame and fortune; but the truth of the matter is that it is our bottom lines that count. If you don’t have money in the bank and you have all the fame and fortune, your business will crumble.

Designers Connect gives us the platform to learn together. I only understand how the industry works because of the three years fashion design degree; but in terms of running a business, I am not the Gucci of this world. So, we are all learning together.

I noticed that there is a lot of ego and pride in the sector, but with Designers Connect anybody can ask question from others and we talk about it together. That was why I set up the network. It gives designers platform to learn from each other. A designer facing a particular challenge can get encouragement from another designer who already passed through such challenge. That was the essence of all of us coming together to deliberate.

Sometimes you find designers asking what kind of business they need to setup. That shouldn’t be my role. You need to know what you want to do. You need to know your area of competence and stop looking at what other people are doing. They may not even tell you what they are facing. If you have an issue that needs to be addressed, let us talk about it. It is when we know what the problem is that we can deliberate on how to fix it.

You came back to the country in December, 2009 and by 2010 you already won a best designer award for the year. How did you achieve that?
It was just God. The award was from Exquisite Magazine following my participation at the Lagos Fashion Week which was part of the Black Heritage Showcase in 2010. Somebody introduced me to the organisers of the show, and they asked if I can showcase my designs. I said yes because I just did my final collections in school then. With only less than a week to prepare for the show, I dazzled the audience when my designs hit the runway. The publicity I got after the event was huge. Different magazines, newspapers, television and online media wrote about me.

However, after a while I pulled out from the public eye because I needed to focus on the business side of fashion. You know when you are always in front of the camera, people talk about you, and it gives you a false sense of achievement when you know that there is a lot of work to do and your bottom line is suffering. I said to myself that I need to focus on my business.

Initially, I started sewing for people, but there is nothing worse than loving what you do and not enjoying it. I wasn’t enjoying it because my plan was not to sew for people. My plan when I started out was to create designs, not to sit down behind sewing machine. Sewing wasn’t the vision I had for my business. I told myself there is no point doing this anymore. In fact, I broke down twice and had to be on bed rest and for five months I did not take any job. I had also finished training some interns from Yabatech and some corps members. So, I had enough time to understand what I wanted to do within the fashion industry.

In specific term, how did you re-strategise your plans?
I gathered information from the global environment and learnt what is being done. I then try to customise it to work in Nigeria since Nigeria is a different working terrain. What I also did was to enrol at the Fate Foundation for four months in just trying to understand Nigerian business environment and how Nigerians think generally.

By the time I finished the programme, I had a plan for myself again. I discovered that I had derailed from the plan I had back then in school. You know when you start a business and things start happening, you forget about your plan. So, I had to go back to the business plan which I wrote long time when I was in school. I saw how far I had deviated from my initial plans.

What are the challenges faced in this industry?
One of the things this industry doesn’t have is the fact that we don’t work together. Everybody is busy doing his or her own thing.

It is only in Nigeria that you see a fashion designer that is a men’s wear designer, women’s wear designer, children’s wear designer, and bridals wear designer. How many things do you want to do at a time?  Why not start with one and perfect it before moving on to another one. As a designer, you have to focus on one thing at a time. This is one of the things we teach designers.

Another issue is that too many designers continue to focus on the people around them to patronise their business. But I tell designers and my students that if the people around them can’t patronise their works, they should go out to look for other customers. If you don’t go out, you will keep under charging yourself and you will keep charging a ridiculous amount for something you are spending hours doing.

I came up with a pricing that at least covers a bit of my cost even though you can’t cover 100% of your costs because of some fixed costs. But at least, it will make sense to cover salaries, rent, etc. If the people around you cannot get your business going, then go out. That is why I advertise in some fashion magazines. When you spend money advertising, there will be a minimum you can’t go beyond.

Tell us a bit about the entrepreneurship part of fashion that Martwayne focuses on
Fashion entrepreneur is what I teach, though most designers that I teach want to run their own businesses but a lot of them still have full time jobs because they are scared of taking the plunge. Not everybody can just leave their jobs and go to fashion school.

I teach people how to sew not because I expect them to sew. If you are a business owner, sewing is a least of your problems. As you are sewing you are counting what still needs to be done. You still need to market your business and you cannot basically do everything yourself. So, what I try to do is give them the knowledge to be able to guide a production team and know the kind of people they need to bring together to help them actualise their vision.

The job of a designer is not just sewing; a designer does not have to sew. What we designers do is to create the vision and the concept of who the ideal person we want to dress is and then find people who can help us to bring that vision to life. That is a designer.

But a lot of designers feel they need to learn how to sew. There are so many designers out there who don’t sew. Tiffany Amber is one of them. Being able to sew doesn’t mean you’ll run a good business; just like being able to draw doesn’t make you a designer.

How affordable are your trainings?
Affordability is relative, but I think I am affordable. Although, one thing I don’t do is to compromise on my standard.

What is the structure of your trainings?
There are two different courses. There is the foundation course that teaches you how to sew; it takes you over a period of time, say over year, because it is on weekends only. I just introduced the weekly option for people who have time during the week; twice a week.

But the entrepreneurship part which is the Fashion Entrepreneurship Course (FEC) has seven volumes. It is like an interactive training session and each one last for about five hours. So it is up to you, if you think you can handle the work, come for the entrepreneurship course and get a better view of how it is to run a fashion business. The training is based on research and case studies. It covers being a designer, issues around creativity, how to get money, colours and fabrics, selling your clothes and making a profit. It is one thing to sell your clothes and it is another thing to make profit.

How helpful have the banks been to you?
Fidelity Bank has been very nice. I met the bank representative at Fate Foundation during a training session. I met the head of the SME unit who talked about a unit that has been opened to address SME advisory needs. The bank gives free advisory services to SMEs. I also refer designers to the bank. I tell designers the need to know what they are doing before going to look for money.

Are you saying Fidelity Bank gave you fund?
No, the bank did not give me fund. It is just the advisory services they rendered. You need as much advise as you could possibly get.

Banks don’t give you money. I have met like three representatives of different banks that told me categorically that they don’t give fashion industry money because we don’t understand what we are doing.

Do you agree with them?
To a fund provider, they will give you money if you can prove that they will make their money back. The truth of the matter is, if I had taken a loan before I was ready, I would have spent it on other things like payment of salaries, etc. Things that I felt I needed I later realised were not necessary.

And that is what a lot of us, especially some people I have spoken to, want to spend money on. Some wants to spend money on branding, but I tell them you can’t brand if you don’t have a product to brand. If you have a product then people will find you. Initially, I wanted to spend money on fabulous looking business card, etc. But those things don’t really matter in the early days. For example, I spent money on a website but I didn’t use the website while I kept spending money to maintain it. Eventually, the website I now use to talk to the fashion industry is a free blog.

If you have access to fund to expand your business, would you go for it?
It depends on what the interest rate is. I promised myself that I will get to a certain stage where I can borrow money from people at zero percent interest, and that is what I did. Rather than asking people to give me money, which was what I did when I first started and I spent it on the wrong thing, I now ask them to loan me the money at zero percent. I took loans from friends and family. When you know you are paying back a loan with a timeframe, you get serious.

Do you teach your students book keeping so they can have access to bank loans?
I have shown them my books. I write everything down even when I buy thread. There is a course on accounting, tax, legal and administrative side to running fashion business where I address the issue of book keeping. I tell my students the need to get an accountant to keep their books. Designers don’t need to keep their books themselves, all they need to do is keep track of what is coming in and going out. But in terms of drawing up a balance sheet, give that to an accountant. There are so many students out there that are looking for extra cash. Some of them are already chartered accountants and they will do your books for a token.

For me, it is about getting what you need done at the cheapest price. You don’t need to go and meet a consultant and be spending too much money. These are things I have done.

Apart from infrastructural challenges in Nigeria which the fashion industry is not immune to, what other problem is facing the sector?
When I first came back, I thought the major issue we had was infrastructure, but I realised that the major issue we have in this industry is human resources. Finding good staff with the right skill is very important.

You might buy the generator, buy the sewing machines and then you get tailors who just come and either damage your machines or spoil the design you are creating. So, what I think we lack is human resources. I know the Lagos State government is doing enough in that area through its skill acquisition and training programme. The leadership of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) is also doing its best. However, more still needs to be done. I think they also need to focus basically on educating those they are training to realise the need to work with people.

Back then in fashion school, a lot of people who were in my class didn’t want to be designers. They wanted to be more of buyers in big fashion firms. They wanted to work in other fashion companies. They wanted to be creative directors. That is how most of the global market is because they realised that starting your own business is a lot of investment.

That was why I said when you leave a fashion school you should try and look for a job within the industry rather than starting afresh. This is not to say you should not plan to start your own business someday –because somebody may say Tope Williams started her own business too. What I am encouraging is that one should at least learn how to work with people.

Presently, the fashion industry has the least barrier to entry. Rather than learn how to sew and setup your own business, why don’t you work with somebody else? I knew when I went into the labour market that I wasn’t going to work for somebody for long. But I needed to go into the business to learn how to meet people, interact, and actually work in a structured environment. The trainers and the people that are being trained should be groomed to work in professional environment; or are you just teaching them how to sew? After learning how to sew, do you also help them look for jobs in the fashion industry? These are areas to address.

Also, government putting a ban on importation of textile doesn’t really help. You cannot just cut off one area and then expect the other area to work. Local production of textile is high because of unstable power supply. So, government must endeavour to find lasting solution to the problem.

...Structures and Regulations
Another challenge is teaching your worker everything you know and the person suddenly leaves after acquiring the knowledge. It is also very unfair for me to spend so much resources coming up with a design and somebody down the street just copies it and takes it to the tailor. So, there has to be some structures and regulations within the industry to assist designers.

Meanwhile, I must say here that we also need to be very careful on the thought of someone stealing another person’s design because it is actually possible to get inspiration from people without copying their designs. I have seen some of my designs on the website of big designers whom I never saw their works before creating mine. There was also a time I gave my students a project, two people in the class created the same design without seeing each other’s work. That is why designers abroad register their works to protect them before showing it to the public. Copy right is a big issue in developed countries. Before you can take somebody to court over intellectual propriety case, you need to have taken certain steps to protect your work.

What style of design are you planning to introduce into the market?
I am going into female office wears because of my work background and because I went to an all-white school where fabrics like Ankara were not used in design. I get confused when I see Ankara because the prints are so busy. That is why I always give kudos to those who work with such fabrics.

How do you relax?
I relax on the job but I believe proper relaxation will come later. This is the time I can work actively and do the general grinding (running around). When you are young and energetic is the best time to do as much as you can.