Bisola Edun is founder of Tae Afrika, a fashion designing house fast becoming a major fashion brand on the African continent.
The word Tae is derived from the Yoruba word ‘Talwo’ which means ‘taster of life’. In the Yoruba culture, Taiwo is a name given to the first born twin. The rationale behind the name therefore is simply that Ebun started the business with a partner who was a twin and was named Tae. The name was adopted as the name of the business because of the connection to life, giving the company’s brand essence ‘the first taste to life’. Indeed, the brand Tae is full of life, full of confidence, and the women who wear Tae clothes also love life and live it to the full.
Ebun veered into the fashion terrain with boldness and determination, in the face of the odds she faced. Luckily she had a family that supported her dreams after quitting her job, as her father provided some initial startup finance, together with some rooms in the family home which she converted into a small factory and which was her business headquarters for a decade before moving to another place as the business got larger due to space constraints.
In the tough and highly competitive fashion business, Bisola has exhibited remarkable ability for exquisite innovation that is sure to transform the African fashion landscape and take it even further into reckoning with the larger global fashion world.
In her words, “When it comes to how I got started as an entrepreneur, I always say to others “don’t start the way I did”, because I originally had a partner, and when we started I was actually working in finance, and by the time she pulled out to move outside Nigeria, I realized I needed to do this on my own. So I quit my job in stockbroking, put together a business plan, and because my partner and I had tried for two years to raise some finance and couldn’t, by the time I tried to start the business I was able to raise the initial money needed over three months. In that time, no-one told me I was crazy, everyone was supportive telling me “you are quitting your job to pursue your dreams, we are so happy for you”, which was all great, but I had no actual clue initially about the fashion business – I only knew it was something I had always wanted to do. I was much younger then and more adventurous, not afraid of anything – that was eleven years ago when I first started the business. If I started again today, I probably wouldn’t have approached things in quite the same fearless way. Instead, I just told myself that I wanted to start the business, I wasn’t afraid of anything, and I was going to succeed as an entrepreneur.”
As an exhibitor at the Sanlam Contemporary Handmade Fair in Johannesburg in November 2013, she developed the hunger to break into the South African market, knowing there wasn’t a single clothing brand that was known Africa-wide in the way Western brands such as Zara, Tory Birch, etc, were. So far she has been able to bring her unique vision, and design philosophy to her clothing label, building a fashion brand for Africa that is universally embraced and appreciated.
Of challenges experienced in the business over the years, Ebun says one of them has been funding.
“Although my approach has always been to not take no for an answer, no matter what. Everyone will tell you that the main challenge for any entrepreneur is always funding, especially in Nigeria, but if I was to be fair, I have harassed and harangued my accounts officers into getting the necessary funding over the years, but I have to say that the right type of funding for this type of business is still not available.”
“Another challenge in Nigeria is the issue of technical know-how in the clothing business. The skills needed are in short supply. For example, if you want to be a fashion designer in Nigeria, the chances are you have to set up a factory, and no-one does that. Factories are seen as a completely different business. But, in Nigeria, even if you have only one tailor, you must have a factory. The availability of raw materials is also a challenge because we are all buying our materials from the same place, so we cannot negotiate discounts for buying wholesale. There are no wholesale textile manufacturers in the country. The lack of support in so many ways is a challenge, for example, you have to travel a long way to get your machinery. So the process of making the transition from simply being a fashion designer, to becoming a clothing manufacturer is a difficult one, and scaling up is a real challenge.”
One of the unique highlights in her life was the fact that at a particular time when she first started out in the fashion industry she didn’t really know about the skills required to do cutting, pattern making, etc, “and in Nigeria, in those circumstances, you are at the mercy of your staff. So having been let down by my one pattern maker one day, I was left in the lurch for three months without any specialist cutter or pattern maker in the business” she admits.
Ebun was forced by the circumstances to sit down with all her books, and started to learn how to make the patterns herself. She took on the challenge, and achieved a whole new level of confidence in the business. She avers this was the most difficult of times, but which was worth the end result. All of these things, according to Ebun, have ultimately represented highlights of her entrepreneurial journey which have made Tae what it is today.
An advice that Ebun would give budding fashion entrepreneurs is;
“Just start. You are never going to have all your ducks lined up in a perfect row. If you are ignorant of all the challenges that you are facing, then when you start, your creativity kicks in and you will naturally find ways of overcoming those obstacles. So, just start.”