The luxury brand, The Potter’s Signature (TPS), is the brainchild of Princess Adebowale Odutola who combines intelligence, hard work and multi-tasking to create bespoke delights. These have driven her to heights in the world of a mix of African and continental bags. As a student at Federal Government Girls College, FGGC, Shagamu, Ogun State, she won a scholarship in a keenly contested Commonwealth competition, from among 82 students from 82 different schools in the old Ogun State. A lawyer, a Paul Harris Fellow and a royal daughter, Odutola has created premium hand crafted works by paying attention to details.
As a bespoke designer, why do your bags bear the names of Nigerian women?
Initially, I was into real estate and the market was in a downturn, and I had a lot of briefs but there was no client. At that point, I was living on my savings. So I went to the Lord in prayer and I said, ‘Lord, I need a job that will give me money every day and I will have passion for it.’ Then it was my birthday and someone gave me an ankara bag. I looked at it and asked my God, ‘Father, is this an answer to my prayer?’ It looked like a good idea to me. Then I took all my scarfs from my bou-bou and started making ankara bags with no leather. Over time we began to improve on our designs and I was producing the regular Chanel like other designers. Then again, I decided to start drawing my designs just to carve a niche for my enterprise when we became ‘3’ in the business. We changed the narrative and started doing more of the leather in the exterior with just a bit of the fabrics outside and then stepped up our game. We stopped buying our hardware from Mushin but Hong Kong; we also identified the big manufacturers in Asia who do our handle to last for years. As the news of purported ban on imported products fly around, made in Nigeria goods should be fine-tuned to meet international standards.
Today, I stand at par with the big labels in the world because the hardware they use is the same hard ware we use. In those days everybody wanted a foreign designer bag like Gucci, Chanel, Versace, Escada, Celine and Roberto Cavalli bags etc. I personally like to uplift women who encourage and celebrate other women in business. That is why the names on our bags are named after those women who encouraged us in business. Again, once I do a design and notice a client has bought three, four or five pieces, I will do another design and name after her. That was how Adebisi Abiola, Dame Abimbola Fashola, Morin Desalu, Olori Ladu Sijuade, Hajia Bola Shagaya, Oludolapo Osinbajo, Annabel Adeyemi-Johnson, Tinuke Onoiga, Yewande Zacheus, Ndidi Obioha and others were born.
You will be marking the 5th anniversary. What will stand out during the event?
We will unveil the Hajia Ireti Kingibe (HIK) collection for our fifth anniversary as part of our efforts to celebrate women who support and encourage others in business. Hajia Kingibe has touched my life in a special way and I decided to name a label after her. Apart from celebrating the Nigerian woman, we also celebrate our Nigerian culture with our aso-oke, Damask, ankara and adire. We work with all these to support local content and that is why every one of our product has ankara on the exterior or interior.
Give us an insight into your growing up days?
I was born into a royal family. We were 16-17 children and I am the last of the girls. My father is from the South West while my mother is from the Middle Belt. I grew up in Lagos and my background is English and Yoruba. I went to school like every other person, came out and graduated from the university and had a good life while growing up. I saw the departmental stores like Selfridges in Nigeria; we had UTC behind our house then. It was an opportunity for us then to have big deep ice-cream, Mintex with jam and sausages as breakfast. Lunch was jollof rice, chicken and ice cream. Further down on Modupe Johnson Street was where we bought big deep coated with chocolate. I felt that growing up was normal not knowing that it was luxurious because later I found out that some of my classmates did not have the pedigree I have.
My father would drop me off to school with a Mercedes Benz and we travelled for summer vacations. Then it was not the era of Marks and Spencer, but St. Michaels. We had the best things in life and above all we had discipline and business acumen because my dad was on the board of so many companies. He had a lot of friends especially his five-business gurus. They were the ones that ran the show in Nigeria then. When I look back from where I am coming from and where I am today, I just see myself as the female version of my late father. He was business oriented, a strict disciplinarian, a devout Christian and above all, he was very neat. Everybody knew him to wear white apparels. My childhood has influenced a lot of things I do today. I have a niche for excellence and perfection and very elegant, and a taste for the good things of life, and as a result, I work very hard.
Have you ever received awards for the handbags?
In the last five years, I have gotten four awards. In 2017, I got two awards ‘The Best Emerging Fashion Brand’ organised by Bell Africana and FADAN Special Award and recognition for our contribution to the fashion industry. In 2018, I won the Lead Brand Award for excellence in the fashion industry and in March 2019 I won the Best Female Entrepreneur Award and that again motivated us. For me it is an inspiration, and a catch to keep stepping up on my game.
Were you trained on how to make bespoke handbags?
I actually did the quilting training in England. I found out that we were not so perfect with the dimensions of our quilting. I needed to also know the right materials to underline the leather to measure the strength. I did a course on that and passed it to my staff when I came back. All the effort is to meet international standards.
What about other products in your collection?
TPS is not just luxury but a lifestyle, hence ‘The bubbles of Euphoria.’ We are also into bespoke ethnic products like furniture, work bags, tote, clutches, luggages, Ipad cases, hand fans and purses. We use leather and ankara and have done about 10 sets since we started. As for the fans, ours are made with real leather. When we made shoes, I found out that it was taking more of my time, and I was losing focus somehow. So I stopped the shoe collection.
What challenges do you encounter as an entrepreneur?
The initial challenge I had was with my work force until I got it right. When I had Nigerians working with me, they were meant to learn from the boys from the Francophone countries, and become experts, but they were so eager to start up their own businesses and have quick money. I persevered. Now, the major problem I have is to meet up with demands. While we are trying to release our new collection, orders are coming and we intercept the stock. I have to set aside a machine to deal with orders while others concentrate on the new collection. Made in Nigeria is becoming something that Nigerians would be proud of. When I started, I had bags sold at N15,000.00 but today, we have bags worth N300,000.00.
I like what the government is trying to do to clamp down on those entire fake designer Bbgs. About 70 per cent of the bags in this country are fake products. I call the carriers the ‘wannabes’. The original bags are bought from the stores on high street or nothing. Anyone who buys from a secondary market, know it is not their product and within a short time, the hardware will start to break.
What should we expect from TPS in the next five years?
In the next five years by the grace of God, now that we have gotten our export licence, we are ready to move. We might not go into the big store because for me it is a bit challenging and the taxes are very high. What I am looking at is for people to distribute my bag in major countries where we will have stores, it will be a Nigerian store for Nigerian products. We will have a lot of road shows at different countries where we can show what we have in this country beyond oil. We have tasted the Canadian Market and it is doing well, someone will buy from me and resell in Chicago. It is accepted.
What memorable times do you have?
When I was in secondary school, I won the Commonwealth scholarship, which was not an award. I earned it because I competed with 82 students from 82 schools when I was in FGGC Shagamu and won the prize. This was the first time I competed for an award and won it. Life itself is a good memory. I had my fair share of ups and down. God has been good to me. I feel that my life is a testimony. At late age I became a designer, I am happy that I have achieved a lot. I am hopeful that this business will bring me fame and popularity like the big brands. I want to do my exhibition at the New York and Las Vegas Fashion Week. When you are naturally gifted, fashion is a lifestyle and that is why I do not have a time that I am not busy.