Princess Kelechi Oghene –FASHION DESIGNER MENTOR
By: Bianca Iboma
WITH a degree in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management from Lagos State University, LASU, Princess Kelechi Romeo Oghene struck out 10 years ago to grow and turn her childhood passion into a successful enterprise which today owns a bespoke fashion brand, GMYT. While pursuing her undergraduate studies, she set up a boutique. And then moved on to study Textile and Fashion Design. Her creativity has won her international recognition. In the quest to build the brand, she has taken business management courses at the Lagos Business School. In this interview, she talks about how it all started and sheds light on the work she is doing in mentoring young women through the skills acquisition programme run by her company
Let’s start from the Skills Acquisition Academy which you operate as a fashion entrepreneur. Tell us more about it.
GMYT Fashion Academy has an excellent structure in place. I actually embarked on a detailed research before I was able to create, implement and establish this structure. I do one-on-one training with every student. I have a course curriculum with a log book where every student takes stock of the classes they have attended. I must see the signature of the students and the instructors. If there is any reason for a student not to be available, the person would write the academy to state the duration of absence. The academy would in turn halt the tuition fee paid and as soon as such a student resumes she would continue from there. Normally, we teach them at their own pace. The students have their kits, containing all the necessary items required for their training. If a student is slow to catch up with what they are being taught, we take it at her pace. The students that I am training here are trying to buy time to learn. Some of them work and do other things that take their time but as an entrepreneur in the fashion industry, I have been able to build a curriculum that fits into the students’ schedule. So we make it conducive for them. Our curriculum is totally different from any other fashion school. The course is carefully designed to impart total skills that will transform the students to become well rounded fashion entrepreneurs in terms of skills and management. I am grooming them to become successful fashion entrepreneurs. I have been able to train 60 female entrepreneurs in sewing and designs. By this December the academy would be 12 years. It has been a journey. It has always been my vision as an individual to give back to my society.
How do you balance your creativity with commerce?
I think I am still struggling with that because I actually went for a programme at the Lagos Business School (LBS) to learn about business management. I don’t think you can balance it, you just take one step at a time. Though I am through with the programme I still take classes. I teach my students to keep learning because the moment you stop learning you start dying. I am still going to do another programme on client management. I have been in the fashion industry for some years and I still take classes from facilitators with my students. Even if it is their instructors giving them lectures. I continue to improve on my skills. I tell my students that knowledge is a process. All our machines are industrial machines and all advanced and intermediate students are trained and equipped. I ensure that they are trained by successful business people who have succeeded in those areas, this would assist them build their businesses. That is something every designer should be aware of regardless of their level of success. My designs are not extreme or conceptual. They are made for people based on request and I am making sales. I don’t limit myself to one market. I put in much creativity to give my clients value for their money.
When did you actually start as a fashion entrepreneur?
I have been in business for 12 years. I started with a boutique. Then the couture and later the academy and now the foundation. It has been a journey. I read Management Sciences at Lagos State University as a part-time student. And I began with selling jewelries and accessories. So I was running my business and studying at the same time. I did that until at a point in time after school when I decided that it was time for me to introduce my own brand and label. I was owed over N200,000.00, because I used to go to offices, to sell. I became angry and that was how it all began. I started selling mens wear; the women were always owing me. I rented my first shop at Ojomu. I had a choice of buying a car or the shop but went for the shop and later moved to a bigger shop. I started the GMYT boutique, Couture, academy. Now we have a foundation. Last December, I launched House of GMYT to serve as a parent company to all my businesses after 12 years.
Did you just develop passion for fashion or was the interest sparked by a member of your family?
My mother was a fashion designer and my siblings are into the fashion business as well. While growing up, my mother made it compulsory for us to learn a skill because she has a multi-tasking personality. So we all went to school and at the same time learnt a skill. We all had to learn how to make dresses; how to bake; how to style and braid hair. My brother was equally taught how to make suits. At the starting stage I was completely dependent upon the skills and knowledge from my basic training at my mother’s workshop. I got this whole thing from my mother, she is so many things rolled into one. Her great attention to detail and her perseverance rubbed off on me.
The only part I did not take from her was the spiritual aspect of her life but my sister whom I call my mummy did. Actually, my name from birth is God’s Might so I derived House of GMYT from it. The name is actually working for me because a lot of people are working even twice as much as I am but grace has brought me here. I also know that if you are just sitting in your house and thinking that God will do a miracle because you know how to pray, I don’t think it will work. When you have a passion and you give whatever skill that you have a shot, I think miracles will happen. So I go all the way in getting close to perfection when I am making apparels for clients. So far, I have been taking every course in fashion design and even though I may not have time to sew, I can easily do that if the situation arises. I am the creative director of my business. I create designs for all clients, supervise the making of the apparels and ensure that quality standards are not compromised. As a fashion entrepreneur, I understand that managing relationship and customer satisfaction is a priority. I have to constantly innovate and reinvent myself. I bring something new out to wow customers because I focus on quality and creating products that can compete effectively.
Looking at your creative collections, do you engage in research to get new lines? Also is everything you do produced here?
Yes, I like local fabrics. If you know me I do more of ankara but you remember the popular saying that you dress the way you want to be addressed. When you do a particular thing more people assume that it is the only thing you know how to do because they see you wear it every time. I try to dress down. I do bridals, sequence, abstracts, English collection but more of ankara because I like promoting African wears, it is my brand. It is easier for us because it is accessible. Even the Whites like African fabrics and they patronise us. I equally partner with vendors. I don’t promote China but African fabrics. Even at that people are buying into the ankara.
I teach my students that they don’t need millions to start up business. Promoting African attire is key to us. I get inspiration from outside. I just started going out.
Do you think African fashion industry can cater to the need of the next generation especially those who are interested in the vocation?
There is a growing interest in African fashion and Nigerians are the front runners in terms of putting together good quality fashion shows with high calibre of designers, who have to a certain extent been able to create their own fashion industry that works. With the growing economy and its potential, some countries are producers and consumers of luxury goods. Nigeria fashion industry would perhaps become top contenders, absorbing aspiring entrepreneurs when it comes to measuring the amount of young people starting up businesses in the country, but there is still a lot to be done as far as replicating multi-billion dollar fashion industries you see in developed countries. Young Nigerians who are interested in starting up a fashion business should understand the resources and investment that fashion demands and be innovative and practical in operations. They need to have enough knowledge and information about the industry. Presently, the world is focusing on economic ideas, so you need to know how to position your brand and understand the trends and consumers in the market.
I used not to go out but now that I have started going out I have realised that fashion entrepreneurs need to use their network to increase their customer base. Those you know and move with are key to the growth of fashion business. Personally, I have been branding, I am taking the part because people need to see you and have confidence in associating with you. Surviving in the fashion industry requires a mix of creativity, continuous learning and determination.
What have been your major challenges?
The cost of production has continued to be a challenge for designers in Nigeria. As entrepreneurs, I would say that every business is different. With the class of service I offer, a lot of people that are not giving such service are probably charging more because of the bills they are paying. You don’t know the structure they have or how they are balancing their accounts. Whatever salaries I am paying or services I am offering, I am still not running at a loss because whatever figures I am giving is based on the staff strength or whatever services I am giving. I know how much I spend on diesel, people outside the country are not facing this. The cost of manpower is high in Nigeria and no one is giving me money but I have to pay for all these people, working with me. I have never owed my staff because they have their needs and family to cater for. It is not easy running business and sustaining it in Nigeria.
I wanted to print the card I intend using for the graduation ceremony in Lagos. My student scouted several weeks for a suitable printer but could not get what we wanted. I actually took the printing job to China because it met with what I wanted. It was not cheap, I paid so much for it. If we had it here it would be cheaper. It is not everything that China produces that is sub-standard. It may not meet the standard of Europe, UK or America but it would have some quality. What has been working for me is good finishing.
What role do you think the government should play in solving some of the challenges affecting the industry?
I don’t really know anything about government but government should locate people like me, who are already into wealth creation. Without the government I have been able to create jobs. I can’t advise anyone to start business with a loan; what they should do is start up with their own capitals. No matter how small it is. Government should encourage indigenous business people by creating facilities that can encourage their business. I don’t think people should wait for government. Also, they should be given grants to set up SMEs that can promote our local fabrics. Although I don’t encourage people to wait for government, they can start something from what they have. Basically, most African countries lack entrepreneurs. Small businesses, such as fashion designers have helped to grow fashion industry through social media. Often, these fashion houses consist of 1-2 people, and with the lack of cashflow, they have looked to social media to promote their brands. This has helped create an immense awareness of what is coming out of Africa. The industry is critical to the continuous growth of our nation.
What is the role of young people, in revolutionising Africa’s fashion industry?
The younger generation tend to be highly educated and technologically savvy. They use social media and text to communicate and stay connected. Through the help of social media like Instagram and Facebook, these groups of young people, who tend to have hundreds of followers, are able to instantly communicate the latest fashion trends worldwide drawing attention to the fashion industry in Africa.