Creative Capital: The fashion entrepreneur bringing African fabrics to Singapore

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BY AUN KOH

Ifeoma Ubby, Ify to her friends, is an unlikely fashion entrepreneur. Not because she isn’t incredibly stylish or striking – she is both of these things. But because the young founder of OliveAnkara is a molecular biologist with a doctorate in genetics.

OliveAnkara was launched here in Singapore in 2017, while Ify was completing post-doctoral strudies with the National Cancer Centre. Since last year, she has been focused full-time on this exciting clothing and accessories marque that is introducing African fabrics and designs into the local and regional fashion scene.

OliveAnkara was also one of the first local brands to produce face masks, something that, Ify has said, has helped keep the company afloat during the pandemic.

OliveAnkara designs worn by models

HI, IFY. I UNDERSTAND YOU FIRST MOVED TO SINGAPORE BECAUSE YOU WERE INVOLVED IN CANCER RESEARCH.

Yes, I have a degree in Molecular Biotechnology, and after graduation I decided to embark on a journey in scientific research. I was awarded a PhD grant to join Scuola Normale di Pisa, one of the most prestigious universities in the scientific world, where I studied Human Molecular Genetics for four years. At the end of my PhD I wanted to continue with academia and research, and wanted to try an experience overseas. I applied for a few positions all around the world but the most interesting project was here in Singapore. I was offered a postdoc at NCCS (National Cancer Centre) in Molecular Carcinogenesis with Professor Kanaga Sabapathy to study the mutations of P-53 gene, and I decided to go for it. It was April 2013 when I moved to Singapore, and I finished my postdoc at NCCS in January 2019. It was an amazing experience! Along the way, I started OliveAnakara as a side project in 2017, and now it’s my life and passion. I’m fully focused on OliveAnakara these days.

YOU GREW UP MOSTLY IN ITALY? WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

I have to say that growing up as a black girl in a small village near Venice, where 99.9 per cent of the people were white, has been nothing but good for me, and also for my sister. That may be surprising. But we never faced a single case of racism that I can recall. My family and I were fully accepted in the community as if we were 100 per cent Italian. Probably the fact that dad was a renowned architect and mum was a cultural mediator, and both were involved in local activities, helped a lot. Also, in the early 80s, the Nigerian community didn’t have all the negative connotations it has nowadays.

DO YOU ACTUALLY FEEL MORE ITALIAN OR NIGERIAN? OR ARE YOU CAUGHT SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN?

According to my husband, I got the worst traits of both cultures! Jokes aside, I really feel 50/50.

As a kid, I probably felt more Italian because I was constantly surrounded by that people and that culture. As I grew older, I kind of reconnected with my roots and now I feel the importance of both equally.

WHAT WERE YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF SINGAPORE WHEN YOU MOVED HERE?

I decided to move here focusing mostly on my scientific career, so, to be honest, expectations were not really a thing. I had a friend who had moved here the year before me and he was enthusiastic about Singapore. My husband and I didn’t really know Asia so we came with open mind and a lot of curiosity. Our initial plan was to spend a couple of years here and then maybe go somewhere else. After seven years, we are still here and we are not planning to go anywhere else! We found a place to call home and we really love Singapore. 

Ifeoma Ubby

TELL ME ABOUT THE CREATIVE SPARK THAT CATALYSED THE BIRTH OF OLIVEANKARA.

As often happens, the idea of OliveAnkara was born because I found a gap that needed to be filled. It was 2016 and I was looking for African fabrics to make a traditional Nigerian wedding gown for myself. I looked around and couldn’t find any in Singapore. So I decided to get some fabrics from Africa. I ended up designing and sewing my gown myself. After that, I made some other garments for myself, and received a lot of compliments. So I made a few for some friends. The response was so good and I realised that I was very passionate about it, so I decided to create a small capsule collection and started OliveAnkara. That was back in July 2017.  From what I could tell, we were the first cool African-inspired brand in town. And while I started the brand as an “experiment”, I finally decided to fully commit to it after realising it’s my true passion.

HOW DID YOU LAUNCH OLIVEANKARA?

I wasn’t an expert in marketing or brand launches so I simply created an Instagram page. I asked some friends to help with pictures and photoshoots and sent emails to a list of media and bloggers given us by a friend. Then I rented a gallery space in Bussorah Street and did a week-long pop-up. After the pop-up, based on the very positive outcome, my husband and I decided to create a website and started to do more pop-ups and take part in markets.

HOW WERE YOUR PRODUCTS INITIALLY RECEIVED?

There was a lot of interest and curiosity. People were very curious to know the stories and histories behind the fabrics. Consumer education became really crucial. Many people here don’t know anything about the origins and significance of the African fabrics we use. Also, the type of cotton and the dye methods are very different from everything else you see around. There are some similarities with Indonesian batik. Being able to use batik as a familiar reference helped us to explain better what we do and how it’s done.

I LOVE THE FACT THAT YOU DO CHEONGSAMS. IS MIXING CULTURES SOMETHING THAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU AND THE BRAND?

Yes, absolutely. Mixing cultures is a crucial part. We do it with cheongsams but also with what we call Afromonos — kimonos made with African fabrics. And we plan to do it more as we move forward. My history itself is a mix: I was born in Italy, my blood is Nigerian and I made Asia my home. I want to translate my story in my creations and I am grateful for the rich inspiration that Asia is giving me.

WHAT ARE YOUR BESTSELLING ITEMS?

At the moment, in these crazy times, our face masks are trending and surely our bestsellers. COVID-19 aside though, there is no real bestseller because we keep changing designs and prints, but two categories that sell very well are our infinity dresses — also called convertible dresses — and our jumpsuits.

OliveAnkara designs worn by models

I LOVE THAT YOU PIVOTED AND WERE ONE OF THE FIRST LOCAL FASHION BRANDS TO COME OUT WITH FACE MASKS.

Actually I made some face masks for some friends a while back, way before COVID-19 was seen as a threat in late January. But back then I had very mixed feelings. Part of me felt that it was inappropriate to create a fashion accessory out of a tool used in crisis or when unwell. When the pandemic got worse, I decided to start producing a few masks for sale. I started making them at home using off-cuts of our fabrics. They began to sell so fast that I asked our tailors, who by then had to close their shops, to help us sew masks. We also decided to donate 10 per cent of the proceeds to local charities. It is important to give back to the community and help people who are not as lucky and safe as we are. In a way, we were also helping our tailors by giving them some work. And, of course, the revenue helped us survive after we were forced to close our shop for two months.

The masks are still selling very well. They have been received with great enthusiasm and people seem to love them. In general, the pandemic has affected us a lot, but luckily we were already present online, so we just had to focus more on the e-commerce and the sales of the masks. Business is constantly growing despite the pandemic, so we cannot complain!

WHO ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS?

Our customers are curious, open-minded, love colours and are not afraid to wear something bold. They are mostly women aged between 25 and 50. We do have some unisex pieces and a line for kids but the majority of our customers are women. I’m happy that the customer base has grown a lot since we launched in 2017 but the general traits of our followers remain the same.

DO YOU THINK CONSUMERS IN ASIA UNDERSTAND WHAT AFRICAN FASHION AND AFRICAN PRINTS ARE LIKE, AND HAVE YOU FELT A BURDEN OF RESPONSIBILITY TO BE AN AMBASSADOR OF THIS CULTURE?

In a way, I was surprised to see how many Singaporeans are well educated and very knowledgeable about the fabrics and African fashion. I think one of the great things about Singaporeans is that they are used to melting pots and cultural mixes. So they have a very open mind and a lot of curiosity for new things. In another way, African fashion and prints are still fairly new to Asians in general. Let’s be honest — black brands historically marketed themselves to black people in terms of designs and image. One of our goals is to show that our clothes can be worn by everyone and anyone, without limitations.

I don’t see myself as an ambassador yet, but I would love to become one, because that would mean I am doing a good job and achieving my goals as a person and as a brand. I never felt a burden either. Rather, I see it as a blessing and I am thankful for it. I would love to spread a message that goes beyond past history and borders, and inspire people to know more about and understand better not only African fashion but also the meanings and stories behind it. Fashion can be an entry point to learning about a culture.

Ifeoma Ubby

YOU HAVE SAID IN PAST INTERVIEWS THAT OLIVEANKARA IS A SLOW FASHION BRAND. CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT?

Slow fashion means we don’t subscribe to the usual fast fashion schemes that reign in contemporary fashion culture. We put quality and design ahead of quantity and trends. We don’t make clothes that last a season, we aim to make timeless clothes. We pursue sustainability as one of our main pillars. We create small collections and limited editions and we try our best to reduce waste and optimise processes. Even as we grow as a brand and plan to increase our production, we will always work with the intent of creating something that is respectful of the planet and the people involved in the process.

LOOKING BACK, WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNT AS AN ENTREPRENEUR THAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW BEFORE YOU JUMPED INTO THIS BUSINESS?

I could talk about this for hours and still not scratch the surface! Honestly, I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship when I started, and I am still learning every day. I feel like it’s an endless learning experience. The more I learn, the more I realise there are so many things I don’t know and still need to learn.

One thing I had to learn is that when you own your own business, there are no days off or restful weekends. It’s a 24/7 job. But I also learnt that the satisfaction of seeing your hard work being rewarded is priceless. And that the motto “dream big” works if you restlessly chase your dreams!

LET’S TALK FOR A MINUTE ABOUT WHAT IS HAPPENING AROUND THE WORLD. WHAT ROLE CAN FASHION AND FASHION ENTREPRENEURS LIKE YOURSELF PLAY IN THE FIGHT FOR MORE EQUALITY AND DIVERSITY?

In my opinion, before the role of fashion and entrepreneurs comes the role as a person. I feel like the fight has to start first of all at a personal level. Understanding the importance of equality and diversity is crucial to being a good person. Many good persons create a good society. What we can do as entrepreneurs is to push positive messages through our brands. The fashion industry is one of the major contributors to pollution, waste and unfair wages. To Inform and educate the customers about these issues, as well as create positive examples and spread meaningful messages, is a duty for forward-thinking fashion entrepreneurs. Being all equal in our diversities is what makes us beautiful.

Ifeoma Ubby

YOU ARE ONE OF THE FEW AFRICAN BUSINESS OWNERS IN THE LIFESTYLE SECTOR IN SINGAPORE. IS THERE A COMMUNITY THAT I AM SIMPLY UNAWARE OF OR ARE YOU ONE OF A SMALL NUMBER?

I think you are right, we are part of a small number of African-inspired businesses. The community is still very small but we feel like the interest is there and the community will grow in the future. One of our projects moving forward is to partner with some like-minded brands to create events that focus on building a community. But right now, events are not doable so we are postponing that project until the timing is right.