Taiwo and Kehinde Okunoren: Mentoring A New Generation
Taiwo and Kehinde, the Okunoren Twins, were born in 1983 in Lagos, to Kunle and Abiola Okunoren.
They drew their early inspiration from their mother, Abiola who was a fashion designer. The growing demand for finely tailored, well fitting men’s clothing in the 80s fueled their interest and at 19, in 2002, they founded their label Okunoren Twins. The first fashion duo in Nigeria soon distinguished themselves as pioneers of bespoke suits, distinct for their perfect construction crafted from tweed, wool often times embellished with local African fabrics like aso-oke.
In 2007, their growing reputation ensured a nomination as the “Entrepreneur of the Year” in the Beauty & Style category at the Future Awards, and in 2012, they debuted at the Arise Fashion Week. The Okunoren Twins have since styled several Nigerian celebrities including Naeto C, D’Banj, ex-Nigerian football international, J.J Okocha, Don Jazzy, DJ Caise, Tinie Tempah, Tubaba, Wizkid, Davido and Jimmy Jatt.
Recently, the twins established a foundation in their name, which aims at discovering, nurturing and empowering talented young fashion designers through education and industry placements. In collaboration with key major experts and academic institutions, they hope to initiate an internship programme and issue certificates to successful graduates in ensuring the highest standards in fashion design in Nigeria that have made the Okunoren brand a household name.
Your design spectrum is broad, from suits to kaftans, accessories and footwear. How have you maintained an equilibrium for the past 14 years since inception?
I think this is due to the fact that we haven’t over exposed the promoters of the brand. Though every now and then, you see us, from the inception, it has always been about the product and not the face because we realized that in Nigeria, many people who do major things want to put their faces out there but if anything bad happens then, their business dies with them. However, if they had allowed the business to be the focal point, then someone could have taken it up as long as it was well documented in such a way that anyone could have taken the mantle and run.
Are you both self taught and how did you hone your skills?
You are correct, we are self-taught. It’s something we merely had a flair for, while growing up as children because our mother was into tailoring and so we dealt with tailors. So I am not surprised we are doing this today.
How do you maintain high profile clients and get them continually returning?
We consistently focus on innovation as Nigerian customers like new things. Unfortunately, when they wear something, they don’t want other people to put it on too, which is difficult for us. We have to consistently come up with different new designs so that we can keep them coming.
Do you have any brand ambassador(s) for the brand?
No we don’t because we are not a mainstream brand yet. We don’t appeal to a wide audience so from a brand perspective, I don’t think we need them now.
Who is the Okunoren man?
The brand is targeted at a man who is confident and not driven by brands but is more interested in the quality of an item than in its name or where it comes from. The Okunoren man is an independent or free thinker, someone who has liberty in his own ideas; he doesn’t have to look at the next man for validation.
What informed your payoff line/brand philosophy ‘Conceived in Africa’?
It makes no sense and pains us when Nigerians get on a plane to America just to shop for a suit or clothing, so we agreed to do something about it. For instance, this is a suit (shows a suit) that is 100% made in Nigeria. It might not be the best quality, but people wear it and are extremely happy. Nine of them were made for groomsmen and each was sold for N170, 000. If people are paying a premium for our suits they obviously know they are good and at par with the international ones. We thought since people appreciate our work, we should let them know they are made in Nigeria and as a matter of fact Africa, so that we can build a perception that it’s not only from the United States, UK or Italy that one can get good things. Nobody is going to build our system for us; we have to do it ourselves. For years, we have been building other people’s systems; it makes no sense as far as we are concerned. Unfortunately, we make what we can here but what we can’t, we do abroad. However, we are working to empower people by harnessing wasted skills through education.
In September 2015, at Fidelity Bank’s SME Forum on Inspiration FM, you shared your insights speaking on ‘Differentiation: Keys to Succeed in a crowded space.’ How successful were you in inspiring listeners?
Yes, we got some callers after the interview, many of whom came to us for mentoring. So I think it’s a good idea to inspire people from the grass roots using radio and local TV. We connected from the emails we received and through the radio station. People who are doing business in Nigeria should do more of that.
You and your works have been featured in many local and international publications and magazines like The Huffington Post, Vogue Italia, Genevieve, Made and recently ThisDay Style. What have these done for your brand?
It is always good to be in the media but if we had our way, we won’t want to put out our faces. As we said earlier, it is more about the business though we sometimes we have to associate our faces with it. To be honest, when you are doing something that is creating value for the system, you cannot over emphasize the importance of promotion, which pays off and turns to profit.
You use aso-oke in a refreshing way as details in some of your outfits. Why and do you use also other woven fabrics from other parts of Nigeria and Africa?
For now, it’s aso-oke, maybe because we are used to it. Besides, aso-oke varies in terms of designs and we are not done with those designs yet. Maybe when we are done, we will move on to some other fabrics from Delta or Benue State.
Which of you manages, and who handles the creative aspect, or do you have mixed roles?
That is what I do; I am the creative thinker. I designed everything displayed on the shelves but Kehinde handles the day-to-day running of the company, the media and business plans.
What kind of innovation drives the brand as that is the buzzword these days, and why do you always infuse drama into your runway shows like someone being brought in a wheelchair smoking a cigar, both of you posing on wing back chairs for the finale and a model wheeling a crying toddler onto the runway on a bicycle?
Innovation is the buzzword but it is very important because if you are not innovative, it is only a matter of time before you are kicked out as consumers have an insatiable appetite. You have to consistently create something different, not necessarily the product itself, it could also be in the processes or service delivery. You have to be innovative across the value chain. In Nigeria, fashion is grouped under entertainment and because we have come to realize this, we decided to infuse a bit of drama in our shows. To be honest, people just walk in and out of fashion shows but we want to communicate beyond fashion, we want to communicate culture as well. So with drama, theatre and all that, we bring culture into play.
What will you say are your achievements till date?
We are not conceited and so we don’t think we have achieved anything yet because we are not where we want to be. However, if you say we have achieved, then we will be glad to say thank you.
What advice do you have for people who wish to tread your path?
You have to focus, not necessarily only on fashion, but on what you believe in and not get distracted because you can easily be. You have to consistently believe in yourself, as well as beyond people’s comprehension of you.
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