By Christine Onwuachumba
NENI, a name coined from the first two and last letters of Nneka and Ini, is a collaborative Nigerian start-up fashion brand, co-founded by two fashion female entrepreneurs, Nneka Nwaligbe Etayokhai and Iniobong Obinna-Onunkwo in 2022. Their purpose to offer a retail luxury fashion line tailored exclusively for career driven young ladies that love the “Bougie Billionaire Look” on a budget, inspired Nneka and Iniobong to share their dreams and create master pieces. Their brand got launched for the first time on African Fashion Week Nigeria (AFWN) 2022 runway edition, which took place recently in Lagos. It was a fabulous opportunity to leverage on their extensive platform and network.
Tell us about “NENI” collection
The Bougie Woman Collection by “NENI”, is inspired by the beautiful butterfly that flutters playfully in the luscious garden. The metamorphic transformation of a butterfly’s cycle is phenomenal. From infancy to adulthood, the butterfly experiences life. The best part is the chrysalis stage where it emerges into an adult. At this stage, growth becomes a place of curiosity, questions, struggles and the dire need to succeed. This emergence in every aspiring woman is called “Change”.
The butterfly signifies the modern woman. She’s scarred yet grateful, dares to explore the world, fearless, driven to grow, sees and enjoys every moment as a luxury of her journey to aspire for more and the challenges, which makes her confident, courageous, bold, beautiful and intelligent.
The garden is the environment and the greenery is life. The combination of all species of plants signifies different people, diverse cultures, different places and several opportunities waiting for the woman to explore and learn.
What were your expectations? And who were your models?
The models were beautiful ladies. When we went for our fitting, they were very proud of what they wore. They were also pretty excited. So I knew that when they came out on stage, they were really going to showcase the brand, because we had to tell them that our brand is a masterpiece, and this is our first outing on African Fashion Week Nigeria. We also told them the piece that they were putting on should signify that they are a Bougie Woman. So it just kind of changed the perspective and gave them that feel of confidence, courage and bravery.
Now, on my expectations, I tried to send a message to everyone coming to watch us, but look, it’s not just about the colours, nor about the damasks fabric pieces we’ve put together. But, how do those pieces tell a story for each of those models that would be wearing each of our masterpieces, and how does it connect to everyone sitting there in the audience?
Is there any coloration between damask fabric and Africa?
Damask is a heritage fabric, just like we have Adire and Aso Oke. One of my core values is heritage. So when it comes to anything heritage that will promote culture, luxury or sustainability, I believe that whatever you’re dealing with has to have that heritage feel.
How long have you been in the industry?
For me, next year is going to make it 10 years in the fashion industry. And it’s been an amazing journey with ups and downs. Like I said, the NENI Collection like my partner, and my colleague, we’ve been through a whole lot. I mean from the setup, to the growth stage, but we’re grateful.
Have you been in other careers before joining the fashion industry?
Initially I was an investment banker and a portfolio manager, and it was very interesting, because when I started, I was a trained engineer before I went into investment banking and portfolio management. What really inspired me to go into fashion was when I made some pieces for my children, and they went for an elitist society wedding where all the mothers looked at my children, wondering that designers could actually weave pieces of ankara, and do something very nice on the children. No one had thought of it at that time. That inspired me. So we started the brand, ‘Little Weaver’s’, and now we’ve been in the industry for a while, and we’ve also found another niche which I’ve partnered with my friend, Nneka, where we collaborated to create “NENI”.
Does that mean you went into fashion even as a portfolio manager?
No, not really, as a portfolio manager, I loved fashion and heritage. So whenever I put on some of my outfits. I reflect that African heritage. Sometimes I would come to work on my suit, with beads on them. I save a bit of heritage in contemporary urban and in a mix of everything. Imagine someone wearing these suits with pearls and all of them. I just love that heritage feel. So it’s always been about fashion, creativity.
At what point did you switch completely from your career into fashion?
It was a personal journey, and I felt at that time that there was more that was deserving for me. Again, I just felt it was time for me to leave. And then, the inspiration that came with the societal wedding, and I just felt like this was an opportunity. Let’s just leverage on it and start up.
You basically design for women. Are there any plan to start designing for men?
That will be in the pipeline and we’ll look at that as well, because I make some pieces for my husband and he showcases them almost every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or whenever he decides to put on. So we’ll think about that.
Is this the first time your brand “LittleWeavers” is coming on African Fashion Week?
Yes, this is our first outing on African Fashion Week Nigeria.
So is this the first outing on African Fashion Week by the two brands?
Yes, it is our first time on African Fashion Week Nigeria, because “LittleWeavers” have been going for other fashion shows, and we’ve had our own fashion shows.
How do you feel having two of your brands featured on African Fashion Week Nigeria? And what should we expect
I’m excited. So a quick one for people that are actually going through different life endeavour or challenge (you know whatever it is you’re doing whatever investments or whatever plans you have) just stay focused on the goal. I say this because the journey towards creating the collection for NENI and for LittleWeaver’s was tedious, highly challenging, and very competitive for me, because I’ve two brands making their first outing. So I braced myself to take it on because whatever happens, we know we will succeed. So we just had to stay on the goal. And here we have.
What’s your perception of the Nigerian Fashion Industry?
I feel Nigeria is a consuming economy, and I feel that we could do much better. I also feel that the government could do so much by supporting indigenous businesses. I don’t just want to say fashion because in the fashion industry, we have the value chain. So I feel there’s so much to be done in terms of investment for the young people. There are so many young people out there that have the talent. I feel we could do better, and turn around and be a producing economy. So I don’t want to compare us to other countries because I feel that Nigeria has the skills, we have the talent, and I feel we could we’re actually under-utilised.
As a designer of both adult and children wears, what is your biggest challenge putting your pieces together?
I believe strongly in an Ibibio proverb that says Ewo ado iyene, meaning that people are your wealth. You could have a room filled with money, a whole estate, or even own a bank, but you need people. You need the right network of people. You need to empower the right minds. You need to change the mindset of the people around you. You need to build the people. It is the people that will bring the wealth, create the infrastructure. The fabrics won’t weave themselves or export themselves at the Apapa Port; you need human beings to do that. So I believe that the first step in everything that we have to do is to invest in the people. It is the people that make or mar your business
Many hold the notion that women don’t unite. So what is the force binding the partnership in NENI Collection?
Usually what I feel is that for everybody, the first thing you have to look out for in yourself is your personality. Find out your personality, what are your strengths and weaknesses, and if you find someone that can back you up. For instance, if I’m not a good time manager, then I should have someone who is a good time manager. Or probably I’m very good with calculations, (crunching numbers), then I should have someone that is creative. Or, if I’m the creative one, then I should have someone that knows how to crunch the numbers, or has the skill.
So, there should be something that would fuse these two personalities together. So based on your question, I think it’s a personality thing. It’s not just within the women culture; it’s also in all genders. People just generally have to know what their personalities are, and who they can do businesses it. So you have to understand if Personality A can merge with Personality B. Again, what is our vision? What do we hope to achieve? What’s the objective of why we even came together?
Nneka Nwaligbe Etayokhai
What was the essence of this collaboration?
We came together to create the collection called the “Bougie Collection”, for women. We aim to satisfy women of substance, women that want to stand out in the society.
How long have you been in the fashion industry?
I’ve been in the fashion business since 2014. I worked with most of the top designers in Nigeria. I was a former Secretary to Funmi Ajila-Ladipo, the President of Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN) and as well, I coordinated designers at all kinds of fashion shows.
Before this partnership, tell us a little about your fashion brand?
My fashion brand “Nene-Hotie” has been all about making clothes for women that make fashion statements in the society. We come out with different shapes of outfits that stand out. So along the line, my friend, Ini came up with the idea of partnership. We’ve really done so well and the African Fashion Week Nigeria is our first outing, showcasing what we can make as designers.
Did you start your fashion business right from the scratch?
Yes, I gained the business skill after working and with a designer. I once coordinated designers as well. So I’m a designer. I went to a designing school. I’ve always had passion for the fashion industry and I have been in the business for over seven years.