Cynthia Oguntoye is the Creative Director of Maison Loulabelle, an outfit that specialises in children’s wear. In this interview with Yetunde Oladeinde, she recalls how she made lots of mistakes at the beginning, conquering her world and how life as a human resources consultant motivated her.
What or who inspired you to go into making children’s wear?
I have always loved all things afrocentric. It’s always been reflected in my personal style. After becoming a mum in 2012, I wanted to be able to dress my daughter in cool, modern afrocentric cloths but there was literally nowhere I could find anything! I found myself getting my tailor to make different outfits for my daughter. Needless to say, she always stole the show in cute outfits. I began to receive enquiries and requests for the type of my daughter’s outfits. At the time, I was a full time consultant. This meant I could pick and choose my work hours which also meant I had more free time than most other working mums. I decided to make the best of that time, and I enrolled in the KathyAnthony Fashion Academy. Of course, the training was in women’s wear. However, I chose to translate my knowledge to kid’s fashion as I realised there was an obvious gap in the market which needed to be filled. And that was how Maison Loulabelle was born.
What was it like at the beginning?
The beginning was a very difficult phase. Filled with lots of mistakes. However, I wouldn’t trade that difficult experience for anything as every challenge served to strengthen the brand we have today. At the beginning, one of our greatest difficulties was even finding tailors interested in making children’s cloths. When we found them at all, they charged almost the same for the mainstream women’s fashion as they did to make the kid’s cloths. However, we couldn’t sell our kid’s cloths at the same margins as women’s fashion. So, it was quite tricky finding the right balance.
In addition to that, one of the major issues I faced was a lack of reference point. Everyone I knew in the fashion industry was into women’s fashion. I soon realised that women’s and kid’s fashion were totally different. Literally, it was not possible to replicate the average women’s wear business strategy in the kids’ wear market. Owing to the fact that at the time, there was no one (at least around me) in the kids’ wear sector, a lot of my learning was done the hard way. However, in the years that followed, the growth of social media especially instagram would act as a fantastic reference point for the newer brands. And also gave them direct access to older brands. This helped provide the advice and guidance that those of us who started much earlier weren’t fortunate to have.
That said, the most significant challenge of our inception phase was a strong resistance to ankara kids fashion. One of the most common feedback we got at the time was “oh it’s GORGEOUS but my kid’s won’t wear ankara.” Afrocentric kids’ fashion was snubbed by many people within our target market. I believe, at the time, ankara for kids was viewed as a thing for the less privileged.
What were you doing before this and what was the experience like?
Prior to starting Maison Loulabelle, I was a strategic human resources/institutional development consultant for the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID) programmes. Prior to that, I had worked for the British Council and other DFID and World Bank programmes in similar capacities. It was the only work life I knew as my first job was with the British Council in 2005/2006 and that followed through all the way to the birth of Maison Loulabelle. Working in an international, yet culturally diverse environment has always given me a different perception of what a work environment should be like and feel like; of interpersonal relations in the workplace – there was no ‘oga’ or ‘madam’ or crazy internal politics. Relationships were based on respect. Respect based on what you could achieve. This helped to further sharpen my culture of excellence and has also been very instrumental in how Maison Loulabelle is run today.
In general, it was a wonderful experience. I got to build organisational structures and systems from the scratch and watch them grow into well-oiled entities. I guess in a lot of ways, it is the same kick I get from creating beautiful outfits from pieces of fabric, thread and embellishments! Nothing beats the feeling of being able to build something out of nothing. So whether it’s systems or clothing, it is always a rewarding experience for me.
It is worth noting that I’m still involved in my strategic HRM&D /Institutional Development consultancy. I absolutely love both worlds and I feel privileged to be able to do the two things I love.
Let’s talk about some memorable moments in the sector.
Oh there have been so many! The first would be getting into 41luxe. It really helped with the penetration of our target market. The second would be selling our first $300 ankara kids dress – effectively proving that we had successfully dissociated ankara kid’s fashion from poverty and confirmed that it could be truly luxurious. Our third most memorable moment would have to be winning the African Creatives and Exhibitions – best creative kids brand award. It felt really good to have our efforts in the sector recognised in such a way. Also, one of our most memorable moments has to be being invited to participate in the London Kids Fashion Week. Our brand had been on their list for a long time – oblivious to us. They were taking stock of the depth and growth of the brand. It felt like such a wonderful nod of approval from the global kids product sector! Finally, 2018 saw us delivering our dresses to customers in far away Australia and even South Korea, Brazil, DRC and Guinea Bissau, amongst others. It was confirmation that brand MLB is now being seen across the world. You are participating in the UK kids wear event next month. What are you looking forward to at the event?
Being invited to participate in the London Kids Fashion Week is so monumental for us as a brand and for the Nigerian kids product sector in general. As you know, we will be the first brand domiciled in Africa to participate at the event. I’m really looking forward to flying the flag for Nigeria and Africa in general – showcasing modern luxury afrocentric kids fashion on a global scale. I am also looking forward to networking with key global players in the kids product industry. Most importantly, I am looking forward to potentially meeting and engaging with major industry buyers from key global children’s wear retailers. I am truly looking forward to making history for the sector in such a way.
Who or what do you consider as the greatest influence in your life and career?
To be honest, there’s no one person I can point to as being ‘the greatest influence’ as it’s taken the proverbial village to get me this far. However, in the journey of brand MLB, our story would not be complete without mentioning the impact of brands like 41Luxe. I’d always be grateful to Tata Yinusa, the founder of 41Luxe, for being the first person in the fashion industry to believe in the vision of brand MLB and taking us on in her luxury retail store – 41luxe – just three months into our inception. We remained at 41luxe for two years before opening our flagship store. This played a significant role in our brand positioning. KathyAnthony has also played a significant role in brand MLB. I was part of the pioneer set of the KathyAnthony Fashion Academy and four years on, we still receive support and referrals from them.
How’s life compared with when you started doing this?
Back when I started, my time was split 90% consulting and 10% for Maison Loulabelle. Maison Loulabelle which was literally run from money from my consultancy practice. Now, the reverse is the case. As at 2018 – 2019, my consulting/Maison Loulabelle ratio is 20:80. This has resulted in monumental growth in brand MLB. As much as I had hoped I would have more time for myself as a full time entrepreneur, that hasn’t been the case as it’s resulted in me working even harder and at pretty much all hours of the day. The key difference is that it’s all geared towards building a sustainable brand – an inheritance for my children and that is a truly rewarding feeling.
What are some of the changes that you would like to see in the sector?
The sector has come a long way in the past four years, thanks to social media. However, I’d like to see the consolidation of the sector. We need to come together to build a sector worth reckoning with. Children’s fashion has never really been part of mainstream fashion anywhere in the world. So as a sector, we need to come together to take the market back from the Chinese.
I would love to see diversification within the sector. More people doing boys fashion, casual fashion, night wears and undies, costumes, kids shoes etc. There’s so much to be done! But most of the current focus is on bespoke princess dresses. If the sector is going to come into its own, we need to have development of a proper diverse made in Nigeria children’s product retail sector.
I’ve learnt that there is so much room to grow in this sector. In Nigeria, we are reproducing at one of the fastest rates in the world. In 2019 alone, our population is expected to increase by 5.4m – with an average of 22,066 life births per day! The children’s product sector in Nigeria is prime! The Chinese recognise this. As a sector, we need more brands to come in so we can begin the process of reclaiming and catering to the needs of our people.
What are some of the things that you treasure most in life?
Without doubt, my family. I have been blessed beyond measure with both my birth family and my family by marriage. Without a doubt, my family is my greatest treasure.
How do you relax?
I take myself out once every week. Me time! Maybe to dinner, the movies, the spa, or just hanging with my friends. At the moment, “me time” has become such a sacred and rewarding part of my week… it offers me a few hours to just relax and be ME!
Let’s talk about the people you admire and role models.
My mum has always been the biggest influence on my life. Incredibly strong, yet fiercely loyal and loving. She’s always taught me the value of staying true to yourself as a woman. She’s also taught me that kindness trumps all. Even today, she has a multitude of children – not born to her but fiercely loyal to her because of one random act of kindness or the other.
Another major role model of mine is Mrs Mo Abudu. I’ve never met her. But her achievements as a woman, as a mother and as a businesswoman are simply inspiring. Look how far Ebony life TV has come since she started it! A woman – in Nigeria – through sheer hard work and determination. I pray to be able to impact generations just like she is currently doing and be a point of reference for my generation as well.