- Leather is real and authentic, will be around for a long time
UCHE EGELE, founder of Nigerian luxury leather bags brand, Marté Egele, rose to global reckoning when American global music icon, Beyoncé Knowles, one third of the defunct music group, Destiny’s Child, who is married to global music business mogul and hip hop musician, Jay Z, was spotted carrying a Marté Egele bag she designed and produced in Lagos, Nigeria, in far away Udaipur, India. The young Nigerian, who studied Fashion Design (Womenswear) at The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), Los Angeles, CA, and Marketing and Sales at the University of Houston, Texas, in the United States, knows she is in a niche area of fashion where standards have been set by global brands like Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Gucci, Chanel, Rolex, Cartier, Burberry, Prada; and so has set her standards high. With an international endorsement by Beyoncé, she knows the sky is no longer her limits, but she looks at the environment under which she produces and tells PHILLIP ISAKPA when they met at Ice Cream Factory in Lekki, Lagos for Lunch with business a.m. that Nigeria’s luxury goods market is set for a boom. Excerpts:
I am aware that the high-end of fashion, which you are into at the moment, is supposed to be exclusive, it is supposed to be more expensive. Given that you are in this area of fashion in Nigeria, what has the market and the reception been for you?
Currently, people still view my pricing as being very expensive. But if you look at it, I am actually quite affordable because the highest price I have right now is not even up to $300 and when I first started, it was very hard to find out how to place myself in Nigeria because of the kind of work I do. It is handcrafted, it is made by local artisans, I have to also put my input into the bag as well, the design and the uniqueness and it is also real leather. Factoring all of these things, it is supposed to be a really expensive bag, but it is not because I am trying to make sure that people at home can afford it, people like me and you; so it can be reached by quite a number of people. But the only thing that will differentiate it is the style on it.
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It was hard for me when I came into the market because, number one, they did not necessarily know my background. Number two, I am coming into a leather industry which people do not pay attention to; and they were like: “What is this you are making, when others are making Ankara bags, which are trending at the moment, and where are you coming from that your prices are so high?” At that time, it wasn’t even that high, right now I have even increased it just a little, so it wasn’t that easy for me. But now I am actually owning it, because I have had to grow into my own and know who and what it is my target market is, and who I am trying to reach, not necessarily be swayed by all the talks that are going on around concerning the kind of products I am producing, because I know how much I am putting into it. So, if they say “oh yea, it is too expensive,” that’s fine, and if you say it is too cheap, it is also fine and that means you can buy it. So, I had to know how to adjust myself to different things and I am actually quite glad with where I am right now.
Production is a challenge in an environment like ours; sourcing of material, and the quality of material are also important, because even if you say leather is available, it has to be of certain quality for you to represent yourself with the kind of brand that you are trying to push. What is it like in terms of production, sourcing of leather and other materials used, and then the production process generally?
I have loved accessories right from when I was little. I have been in fashion ever since you can tell. I always knew that one way or another I was going to be in the fashion industry, so this was something that I have actually paid attention to, and so, I know what quality looks like. I have also tried to find out about fake leather and all these things, so that my bag wouldn’t do the same thing, not even by mistake. So, all these things I have learnt along the line because maybe earlier on, I made some mistakes, but I have learnt from these mistakes, so when it comes to sourcing, I do my sourcing myself. I go in search of real leather to use, and that is what I take to the local artisans, the people in Lagos, because you know, everything is made in Africa, made by Africans, and in Nigeria. I take it to them and work them through how I want my bags to be because, yes, they have learnt in several ways how to make bags, but I show them how I will like my own bag to be made. I do not compromise for anything, when it comes to the stitching and the rest, based on the designs of some of my bags. After they sew it, I hand-weave all my bags, and so everything just comes together really nicely; so I actually pay attention to all these details. When it comes to the hardware, I get the best, because I don’t want them to receive a bag and when they look at the hardware, it looks like it is old; and that could be very sad because in Nigeria there is no clean, good quality hardware. Yes, everything is made in Nigeria; yes, my leather is from Nigeria, but my hardware are gotten from abroad and so, from the hooks to the rings, to the studs beneath my bags, even the thread, I get them all from abroad, because I haven’t found them here. If I find them here, oh fine, then I will be able to use them if they match the quality I am looking for.
In terms of availability of materials, what is the pool of sources like?
That is now turning into a strategy, to put it that way, because of how limited the leather is. I do not have a huge source of leather pool so some people might just be carrying a particular type of bag that they are never going to have again, unless by luck I find the material again. But I literally go through searching for very unique and very amazing leathers that I will be able to use, even though there are some that I try to consistently use, because I want my bags to look like everyday bags, but no matter what, they are classics, so that is literally what I do, it is not easy finding a large amount of leather to consistently use, but I do search and that falls into it being a strategy and falls into playing with the price and stuff like that. But it is not easy finding a large amount unless you are going to be getting it from abroad, and that means, I am not getting it from Nigeria anymore and one of the key thing I want is for everything to be gotten from Nigeria.
Nigeria is a large country, and leather is supposedly gotten from the north, so where do you source your leather from?
I get it from here in Lagos and they also get their pool from different people, so I have people who I am able to reach and they are able to provide me with what I want.
Because you are handcrafting your leather, it must be challenging meeting the set target for the year, what is your set target for the year like, what is your production target for the year?
I produce a lot of bags, in a week, given that all the hardware is provided; because sometimes I am less hardware and more leather. But once everything is aligned, I can make up to 20/30 bags in a week, depending on leather and hardware availability, and this also takes into consideration the different styles, and not just one particular style.
So you don’t mass produce?
Yes, I don’t
Okay, so in terms of style of handbags produced, if you are producing a particular style, what number could you produce to make it very exclusive?
To make it very exclusive, you have to take into consideration the fact that the leathers will be different, but asides from the leathers being different, my bags will forever be exclusive; it is already limited. You see this bag I am carrying, nobody has it, I have not used plain black leather to make another bag, so nobody has this particular bag, so this is just one and everything is exclusive. There is another bag I made, there is a fish skin I kind of used, I was able to find a certain amount of leather and I was able to make two of it, and that is it. And then recently, I found some more of the leather and made more and that is it, I can’t find it anywhere else, literally only five people have that bag. There is this bag that Beyoncé has, she is the only one that has that certain bag, the colour combination of blush pink and red.
I was going to come to the Beyonce thing. So talk us through that. Suddenly Beyoncé was carrying a bag made here in Nigeria by you, how did that come about?
They reached out to me and at first I didn’t know, but when it was pointed out, I jumped at it. She was supposed to wear it at the 100 birthday of Madiba [Nelson Mandela centenary celebration] in South Africa but she didn’t wear it, so I was just like, “Oh my goodness!” but at least she has it around her. And then my friend sent me a message about a month later, asking, “is this your bag?” She saw it on Instagram, and I was like “you’ve got to be kidding me” and that was how I found out, but it was literally by contact. The people that you meet are the ones that will take you further.
There is the creative side of what you do, but what is the business environment like for you, how challenging is the business environment?
I am surrounded by good people, who have seen the effort I have put into it and really want me to succeed; so, my success is their success. That is literally my foundation, my family will do anything to push me, my friends will do anything to push me forward and so that is how I stay grounded. My dad is my business partner and so, when I am faced with a decision, I listen to his views. My brother is my head of finance, so he is the one who analyses my account because he studied finance and international business, and so he is actually skilled in that area. So, I have people around me, who make sure everything I do is in the right. I have project managers all around me; I have people that know what it is and where it is I can go. I have a very far vision of where I want to go and that drives me. If I just wanted to have a brand for the sake of it, I don’t know where I would be, but I want to be competing with international brands and so I have set my mind to be amongst the “Khloe and co,” so my business ground is very sound and well placed.
You focus on the creative end of the business, which produces the products, but you have to run a business to make profit, and this business can be affected by the environment, like power supply, traffic. How are they impacting the business itself?
It is really not easy, and that is why I spoke of my family and people around me; right now I only have four people on my team. I am there, my bag maker is one, I have someone who handles my social media, and I have a PR person or brand manager, and then my brother handles my finances, so it is really a tight-knit group and with that, it is like I am left to do all these things because these people are in separate parts of the country or the world, so I am left to handle almost everything myself. And because of how life is in Nigeria, the bag makers for example, I have to deal with their inadequacies, stroke their egos; electricity can be a problem and sometimes may not be. My problems lie with wanting to get more bag maker to make bags for me, and making sure that I have the right set of people selling my stuffs for me, while I work on the products. If I can get more people doing the bags for me, it will be a lot easier, if I had more people weaving the bags for me, it will be easier. I do them all myself right now and I am not saying that I don’t love it, I do love it but it is only me.
I hear that a lot from people who are into dress making, you know fashion is broad; they don’t have many artisans to help them. Why is that such a problem, is it that everyone wants to be an “oga” (a boss) or what?
You see, everyone in Nigeria has that boss mentality; everyone wants to be at the top, and everyone wants to be a leader. That is why I feel there is so much traffic in Lagos because everyone wants to be in front of the other, but nobody wants to follow, nobody wants to listen, nobody wants to know the right things to do to be able to move forward. That is why, if you have a shop and have someone working for you for about two months, they already feel like they know everything, and before you know it, they want to start theirs. When you travel internationally and see how businesses are run, you will see people that have been inside the company for like 20 years and they are doing the same thing, just that they are now skilled at it. So, that is one thing that Africans and Nigerians do not necessarily have, and I am saying Africans very loosely because the people that work for me are Africans and they are doing good jobs on my bags, and that is because they are in their comfort zone, in the same place with other bag makers. But if I take him out of his comfort zone to try and train him, he is not going to do the best work that he is doing being around those people. Even if I want to instill perfection to his art, he might not necessarily get it because he is around certain people. So, it is very hard for people to grow in the industry when they always want to be on top.
That must be a big challenge for the fashion industry, and for bag makers as well?
Yes it is, because you have to train these people to your taste and to know what you want. I tested more than five to six people before I finally chose my current bag maker and even some of them still say, “you have not come back to me?” and I will tell them I will be back but he didn’t sew my bag well for me. Yes, I might still go back to him and give him some more tests, but does he know what I am testing him on, does he know what I want, even though I have shown him? So, until they perfect what I want to achieve, I don’t think it will work.
This problem of artisans starting and running away shortly afterwards, is it something about the business model, in terms of maybe remuneration, and recognition, because I know that Stella McCarthy was with Chloe for a number of years, before she setup her own. How can people be rewarded and be recognised, or is it a local problem?
I wanted to leave my bag maker at one point; I was calling his bluff because they feel like they have so much to handle, and I felt like I was already paying him a lot for the bags and he was still calling for more. The good people I have around me spoke to me, I knew the issue would come up but it was really annoying because it was just me and a few people that are trying to put this thing together and this guy still wants more and I don’t have a sales person. I am the sales person, I am this, I am that; and he was asking for more. But then they told me that since he is making the bags well for you and you are satisfied with the way he does it, and since I had not seen anybody better, I had to stick with him and paid him more. After so much negotiation, finally, we came to a price and I had to write it down, clearly stating that the price cannot go higher than this and we signed that agreement with a witness present. So now, if he says he wants to increase his price, I just tell him, this is the price we settled on then, this is the price it is going to be now, if anything changes, we can renegotiate but nothing is changing and until then, this is the price we go for. Yes, payment can be a problem because I know that somebody else that actually had him, things didn’t go down well and he chose to work on his own and that was where I came in.
You could be regarded as an SME as it were, and one of the major problems of SMEs is financing, talk us through how it has been for you sourcing finance.
It is not easy. My dad has tried enormously to get me certain things; my mum has also done really well. She was the one that actually bought my industrial sewing machine for me to sew these bags, and my dad has been pumping money into this thing, even though now, Marté Egele is now putting money back into itself. They were the ones that started it. Right now, I am actually looking for finance, investors but it is really not easy because when you are trying to grow your company, you do need help to be able to carry you there. If you don’t have money, how are you going to put yourself in magazines and do the necessary adverts you need, travel and expand, you can’t be able to do that and nothing is free.
What is it like in terms of the sources out there for financing, what are the challenges you face trying to source for funds?
They want to know that your business is able to make profit and know that it is worth their trouble, if I should put it that way, or if it is worth their time. And in fashion, especially when it comes to all these intricate kind of things, they will want to know almost all these questions you are asking me, “How many bags do you produce?” “How much do you sell them for?” “What is this, what is that?” And if it is business you are trying to do. I have actually spoken to some and they are still deliberating. I can’t force their hand to give me money, I just have to continue with where I am and continue doing my very best to grow.
Let’s look at this broadly. You are into luxury fashion, because leather is not something you can find everywhere, how do you see the Nigerian luxury goods environment?
We are trying. It is not only me, there are all these amazing leather designers that are out there and so they also inspire and push me with their work; it just pushes me to want to do more and make sure that I stay on my feet. I don’t want to lag, because these are competitors and if people don’t buy from you, they will buy from them. It just depends on style or whatever, and these guys are doing their best and every now and then, Nigerians are beginning to realise the solidity of leather, that oil is not the only money maker, but leather has the potential. That is why Louis Vuitton and all these other brands come to Nigeria to get leather and go back, do more stuffs to the leather and sell it, but they get it from us in Nigeria. So, they are realising that leather is an amazing source of money.
I remember when I first started, there were not many of us; those that came before me were the hits, they were either the first or second to start this in the country, but after I started, before I knew it another person came out, and another one. I was still trying to get my feet and I was like, “What is going on here? Oh, God I don’t want to drown,” so I had to step up my game quickly and start something really fast so I don’t lose the momentum, lose the opportunity I have; but now slow and steady wins the race. Nigeria has come to understand that leather is a luxury product and they can make a lot of money from it so they are doing their best to push their products out there.
Looking at the industry, who are the typical consumers of these leather products, especially the handcrafted ones that are characterised by their luxury?
When it comes to the handcrafted, there are only a few people who handcraft their bags, and so, I can only speak for myself when I say the people that normally go towards my products are foreigners because of the authenticity; expatriates, and also returnees, they like my bags. Also, there are people that know what luxury is, people that understand what I am doing, so they can see the quality in the bag and appreciate it. So, those are the people I am targeting, people that are Nigerians and also know what it means. There are some of my customers that tell me the product is nicer than they envisioned and then I just hope that they don’t find some mistakes on it; and if they do, I try to replace the bags because I am also trying to make sure that my customer service is on point. So, I try my best to make sure that the experience they are having is also on point.
The luxury goods market in Nigeria, generally speaking, how do you see it in terms of its future outlook?
I think it is going to boom, I think it is booming right now, generally speaking. The fashion industry in Nigeria is already taking off, and I see that the luxury market will boom in the next few years. The reason why I say this is, more people are gravitating towards African products, and not even just leather, African products in general. Take Marté Egele for instance, Beyonce kind of endorsed the product and so people are saying “Wow, is that from Nigeria?” So, people now have it in their mind that they can get quality leather bags from Nigeria; it is really going to keep on starring. People are reaching out to me, different influencers from around the world want to do this, want to do tha;, so, let me just say that Nigerians are trying and I see the luxury market booming.
Do you see a Louis Vuitton emerging from Nigeria? Yes, you are doing your bit, but I am looking at the group, the LVMH and how it is focused on luxury, do you see that emerging from Nigeria, is there enough traction, because I know you need good money to go in?
I tell you, that is where my mind is at. I don’t just plan to be an accessories brand; my vision is bigger and wider. It is funny you are mentioning LVMH, I want to be a heritage brand, I want it to be that after I am gone, my bags still remain and asides from that, there is a company itself that has so many other luxury brands. That is the vision and it is not just going to be for accessories, it is literally going to be a wide range of luxury products, like cars and other things I am interested in. So I am hoping that that person will be me.
So you are already doing handcrafted leather bags, and you studied women’s wear; but there is commercialisation of fashion, there is commercialisation of what you are doing, and there is the craftsmanship, what do you think, in the broad sense of it, is the downside of the Nigerian market?
The thing is, whatever the international market holds on to, Nigerians get excited about; which is amazing. But it would be even better if they had a strong sense of drawing out designers and products from within Nigeria and commercialising them; all done before the international influence, and showing how amazing we are.
I feel when it comes to craftmanship, Nigerians are slowly giving credit to the designers and their techniques because it isn’t easy to put that method down and well. The downside is more Nigerians need to understand the levels of craftsmanship that goes into different pieces of work, from clothing to accessories so they can appreciate it more, because that elevates the industry. It’s happened in Paris; you know the work that has been put into each item and so when you get it, you’ll cherish it for decades and decades and speak of passing it down. Nigerian products should be the same with the level of craftsmanship that is coming out of here. Customers should know their brands and their products and feel for our products the same way they feel for other international brands.
So how does Nigeria get that endorsement?
For example, I will say Beyoncé, and it is not like I am just putting her name out there; I have not even publicised it, people have been doing the publicity for me. But the reason why I used her name, and I could have used anybody’s name, is because she has kind of endorsed my bag, like I explained earlier. People will start flocking towards it. Nigerians are like that, when there is a certain type of international push on your product, when some certain people have endorsed it, they take notice of your craftsmanship, then you and your product begin to matter.
Is there a possibility that this can be changed?
Yes, I think so. When we start believing in our abilities and know that we are actually our problem and as well as the change; but once we realise that we are the people to actually do all the fixing, that we are the solution, then different things will be changing from here on out, I mean from Nigeria to the world.
What size of the market do you hope to eventually capture or penetrate?
I am definitely not mass market; I want to be that bridge where I am in-between the designer, which is the $1,000, $2,000 product type and mass market. So I want to be the bridge between both markets, where people are very comfortable buying my products.
Do you see yourself getting to a point where, even though you say now that you want to be a bridge, you can say this is our high-end stuff and this is our low-end stuff, do you see yourself cutting across?
I actually thought of that, but at the moment I can’t speak for where my mind will go in maybe a year or two. What I can say is I just want to be that bridge. Yes, I do love luxury products, I also want to have some mass market products so that more people can get access to certain things that I am able to provide and not just certain target group, but right now I can say I want Marté Egele to be that bridge. Marté Egele can grow into something bigger and better, but for now it is taking its time to build its progression.
How did you get into this? You studied fashion, you studied marketing and sales, but bag making is an aspect of fashion you settled into, but you could have gone on to say that you wanted to have a first experience working in a company, but you started out straight away?
Not really. I have worked for Merill Lynch before, but I was more under a sales person. I was calling people trying to get them into retirement schemes, but I did that for a short time. I have actually done internships with fashion companies; I have worked at a magazine in Houston, and helped with some fashion shows in Houston as well. I always knew I will have something to do with fashion, so whatever I did, whether it was marketing or sales, I wanted it to be in that fashion line. I have always thought about who I wanted to be, and I actually started out studying accounting; after a while I just knew accounting wasn’t for me, so I switched to marketing and sales. Even though I went to Merill Lynch, those were the days I was actually figuring out myself.
Going back to how that passion became part of me, my mum used to sew clothes when I was little and my dad called her “obioma” (the local tailor), and my dad even bought me and my sister sewing kits as toys, so that kind of like shaped me.
Can you now talk me through the bag that Beyoncé carried, describe the creativity that went into the design?
The design had been here. I designed the bag in 2016/2017; that was when I created that style and it was during the time I was trying to figure out the kind of bags Nigerians like. When I came back to Nigeria in 2014, I was working with a fashion brand named “Grey” in Lagos. I worked for them for about a year, and left to do my own thing. That year was very tough for me because even though I thought they had inserted me into the fashion industry, me now leaving to say I wanted to do hand bags, something that Nigerians had not necessarily seen me do, they don’t know me, it was very hard for me to understand. I started testing the waters by pushing some products out there to see which products will make it, which ones do people like, which ones are people gravitating towards. I was also testing the pricing as well, and people kept telling me, because when I came to Nigeria, I came from Los Angeles, which is more relaxed, more down to earth, so my bags were also relaxed, not too many bold colours, and people kept on telling me “Uche, what is this? You are in Nigeria, people want bags that are structured”. But I kept on refusing and it looked like I was being strong-headed, that was how I came up with the structured shape, and also decided that there are certain things that I want my brand to look like, things that I am interested in. I love art, I love geometry, and so that was how I wanted the bag. And then, I also wanted an element where I am merging the cultures that I have grown to love and appreciate. That was how I came up with the weaving. I also needed something that was completely different, and I don’t like things that so many people are carrying and it is not so farfetched. But in all, I wanted it to make sense. So, that was how the bag came along, it is geometric, it has like an art deco style to it. I also studied art history as well, where they tell you about the history and different eras of fashion, and I really liked the art deco period, so that is another reason why my bags are that way and my logo is that way. You will notice that in every piece I have, that there is a geometric side to it; and so that was how the bag came about. It is structured but still seems very relaxed, it is not heavy as well and you would be able to see that it is not necessarily African but has elements of culture to it, that was the bag she carried, which many people now carry.
So your creativity is driven by your surrounding?
My creativity is driven by things that I am inspired by, things from my past, because I also do scarfs and it is based on things I like. I like big scarfs and that is why my scarfs are like one yard big, and I love colours even though if you ask me for my favourite colours, I will tell you black, yellow, grey, white, all these muted colours, but I’d throw yellow in there because it is my childhood colour. But I like muted colours, all these nude colours, like all these brownie colours and so I am driven by travel, driven by other designers too, just seeing the fact that people are able to create all these kinds of things to inspire me. I am driven by love, friendships, how I feel because Marté Egele is built on people being free, people being friends and people being genuine, that is another reason why I am stuck with leather because they are genuine.
When I was coming back here, initially I was planning on doing leather and African print, then I realised it wasn’t unique and everybody was doing the same thing, so I decided to scrap the African print idea and said “you know what, leather has been here for a long time and it is still going to be here, it is real and authentic”, so that was what inspired my choice in leather.