Preserving Nigerian Heritage and Craftmanship with Aso-oke

Preserving Nigerian Heritage and Craftmanship with Aso-oke

Tunde Owolabi is a visual artist, photographer, designer and the founder of Tunde Owolabi Studios. In 2015, he founded Ethnik by Tunde Owolabi, a unique brand inspired by culture and based on the traditional aso-oke textile weaving craft passed down from generations in Yoruba land. Owolabi seeks to preserve and promote Nigerian heritage and craftsmanship, as well as re-invent and sustain the use of aso-oke through modern designs. He has participated in significant group exhibitions and held two solo exhibitions titled African Elegance at the Battersea Art Gallery, London (2009) and Aso-Oke – The Woven Beauty at the Red Door Gallery, Lagos (2009). His commissioned works can be found in important collections all over the world including, the Singapore Museum, the Hungarian Embassy and the Nigerian Stock Exchange. Owolabi has also worked as a designer at The Research Studios, London with the famous English designer and typographer, Neville Brody.

Is any other member of your family artistically inclined?

Yes, my sister is an architect.

What sparked your interest in working with aso-oke?
The way the textile is woven and the drive to see it sustained. We prefer Western imports in Nigeria and consume without thinking of what we can produce locally.

How do you differentiate between the yarns and nuances of the woven textile, and the designs that work best for your products?
I design the textile with its use in mind. This helps me determine the colours and pattern of weave.
 
Are your products fairly traded and do you create any new work environment for the artisans you work with?

Yes, our products are fair trade. We work with local artisans from start to finish. In addition, we are not just providing jobs, but also contributing to the communities of the artisans through our CSR.

Do you source locally for your other materials apart from the aso-oke?

Yes, we source locally as we have no capacity for imports yet.

Is your complete production process carried out here and how do you maintain the quality?
We are fully and proudly Nigerian, because none of our processes is done outside Nigeria. My team and I already know the high standards we are aiming for as premium quality is non-negotiable.
What is your staff strength and do they understand and align with your vision?
At the moment, there are 7 permanent and 3 contract staff. As you are aware, dealing with people takes patience and a lot of people skills. It is sometimes difficult to sell your vision to other people but with time and commitment on your part, they buy into it.

Most outfits made with aso-oke are dry cleaned. Given the fact that you work with woven fabrics and leather, how will they be cleaned?
 
Traditionally, aso-oke is not washed, it is beaten till it is clean but over time, people started dry cleaning. Although it is a tough fabric, it still needs to be cared for gently. For some of our shoes, the sneakers especially, they can be dry cleaned but we advise that the owner cleans gently with a soft brush. 

What are your challenges?
Access to capital for expansion, access to raw materials at an affordable price and skilled artisans who are ready to work wholeheartedly.

Your interest in preserving our culture and crafts is laudable. Are you encouraging others to do the same?
I believe what I am doing is a big enough campaign to encourage others, not only in Nigeria but around the world. Cultural values should not be toyed with. I encourage the artisans to continue making the textile more appealing to the younger people so it is not only used for weddings.
A drummer at the annual ‘aso-oke’ festival in Iseyin, Oyo state
Participants at the annual ‘aso-oke’ festival in Iseyin, Oyo state
You were featured on CNN African Market Place; African Start-Ups in December 2016. How did that happen?
I am a believer in hard work. When you work hard and your work is honest, then luck follows. I was contacted by the CNN crew from New York. They said they had been following my story and wanted to do a feature on me.

Your label already has a huge following among style arbiters. Where do you see in it 2 years time?
I see more growth especially outside the shores of Nigeria.


How affordable are your products or are they for the elite?
They are affordable and not just for the elite.

What’s next for Ethnik and do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in this field?
My advice is whatever you want to do, go for it. The best time to start is now. As for Ethnik, we see ourselves growing with commitment and hard work.

Tunde Owolabi

 

Image credits: Tunde Owolabi


Adebimpe Adebambo is the Business Development Officer at Revilo, an art and culture publishing company. She studied Painting at the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. Adebambo is also a fashion and accessories designer, and her work is concerned with environmental sustainability and recycling. She debuted as a costume designer on Tunde Kelani's award-winning film Dazzling Mirage, garnering for her efforts, 2 nominations in 2015 for an Africa Magic Viewers' Choice Award and an African Movie Academy Award for Best Costume Designer and Achievement in Costume Design, respectively. Adebimpe Adebambo loves to write and is presently working on a storybook.

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Comments

  1. I commend you for the writeup and the interview which is rich, educating and throws challenges at us. It also highlights the promotion of our ways of life and the benefit of job creation through using what we have—human skill, knowledge, human capital and the natural resources.
    Please l am interested in meeting the brilliant artist and entrepreneur.

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