“We want to promote Nigerian leather designers”
Mrs Femi Olayebi is the Creative Head at MWob, a bag manufacturing company based in Ibadan. Her leather handbag line FemiHandbags has also become a household name both home and abroad. She tells GuardianWoman about her upcoming project, the Lagos Leather Fair, her passion for bags, and more
What should we know about Femi Olayebi?
I’M the Chief Creative Director of a bag and manufacturing company called MWoB, which was established in 1992. I also own a leather handbag line named after me- FemiHandbags. I live in Ibadan. I’m married to an amazing man and I have three gorgeous daughters.
Considering your educational background, what inspired your venture into handbag designing?
It certainly wasn’t planned and I just stumbled on it by chance. My dream was to become a translator after my French degree, but translation jobs were not easy to come by. It all started when I was expecting my baby in 1992, and I needed to buy a baby bag. I went baby shopping and simply couldn’t find a diaper bag I liked. I had only just learnt how to use a sewing machine so it seemed pretty natural to head to the market, buy some fabric and make my own. It seemed that the logical thing to do was to cut a rectangle for the body, a circle for the base and a long strip of cloth for the handles. I then added the little details to make it really pretty. Soon requests from friends trickled in, and I proceeded to make baby bags and give them out. I made the first bag and the second and the third. I would sit at my manual machine, having lots of fun, cutting up pieces of cloth, turning and turning away at my sewing machine and churning out colourful pieces.
Did you get support and encouragement from your family and friends?
I most certainly had support from my friends and family, but most especially my husband, who always had my back and went all out to support me. He and my daughters are my greatest cheerleaders.
What challenges have you faced while running the business and how did you overcome them?
The challenges we face as practitioners in the industry are enormous. First there is the major problem of getting the primary raw material which is the leather itself. Then there is the persistent problem of getting artisans with a specific type of skill set needed to manufacture our products to a certain standard. And of course as with most other businesses, there is the challenge of funding.
When did you decide to focus on the leather industry as a resource for making bags and why?
I started making 100 percent leather bags in 2010. Before then I had used a wide variety of materials because, when I started out, I made fabric bags. However, in 2010, I was invited to take part in my first international exhibition and I was advised to use leather by a very well known British-based Nigerian designer. Once I used leather, not only did I fall in love with leather, I also found that in order to reach my target market I would have to up my game and use a material that had great quality. The feel and texture of leather is so beautiful and it’s a really versatile material. I also knew that leather would appeal more to my target market, which is the discerning woman with the financial capacity to purchase my exquisitely made products. And there’s a way fine craftsmanship shines through when leather is worked properly.
What is the Lagos Leather Fair all about?
The Lagos Leather Fair is a purely private initiative designed to promote Nigerian leather designers, bring together the major players along the leather value chain and attempt to unlock the massive potential within this niche industry. The event will bring together all these players, and feature masterclasses by an amazing line-up of speakers and workshops by the masters of the craft, catwalks and so much more.
As an avid supporter of the Made-in-Nigeria initiative, what are your words of encouragement for those who are yet to embrace it?
I think it’s really the only way to go and the best way to go. There is no country in the world today that has the potential for growth better than Nigeria. We must start to produce Made-in- Nigeria, by Nigerians, for Nigerians. What is also so amazing is the quantum of talent and skill in this country.
What drives you as a person and as a woman?
This may sound cliché, but it is passion. It is a restless spirit inside me to be better, to do better. And I don’t think it has anything to do with being a woman. I just have a lot of energy and I love to colour outside the lines, explore, and discover the new.
Having accomplished sustainability, would you say that FemiHandbags has reached its peak?
How can FemiHandbags reach its peak? The Guccis and the Pradas are still working at improving their game. So for my brand also, it’s all about constantly improving my craft and trying to be the best that Africa and the world can produce. So there is no peak for FemiHandbags, not just yet!