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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Adefunke Agboola, the Beauty & Brains Behind Ella Brown Couture


She is fierce, sassy, fun and gorgeous! A go-getter who has a very clear sense of what she wants, her fashion brand is sold at 30 high end boutiques and chain stores in the USA as well as 3 stores in Asia. Her designs have also been featured at Miami, Chicago and New York City Couture Fashion Weeks. Meet the beauty and brains behind Ella Brown Couture, Ms. Adefunke Agboola.

LADYBRILLE.com: [Laughing & chatting before we began the official interview]Hi Funke, how are you?
Agboola:[Laughing] Fine Uduak, how are you?

LADYBRILLE.com: How do you prefer to be called? Adefunke?
Agboola:Most people that know me call me Funke. But the whole American shortening thing, people call me Addy?

LADYBRILLE.com: Oh! [Spells it out] Addy?
Agboola: Actually, they spell it "Addie." When I write it out, I write “Ade.”

LADYBRILLE.com: Got it. What does Funke mean? I have been wondering. I know “Ade” means you have the whole royalty thing going on.
Agboola: Yeah. [Funke] means “mine to take care of, sort of? [She adds with a bit of uncertainty at the “sort of”]

JOURNEY INTO FASHION

LADYBRILLE.com: Ooooooh! Very nice. So, speaking of "mine to take care of" it seems like you are focused on taking care of the fashion-forward women who love luxury and want to look beautiful. Tell us about how you ventured into the fashion world.
Agboola:[takes a deep breath in a reflective tone] It all started for me at a very young age back home in Nigeria. Of course with needle and thread, packing and hiding pieces of my family members clothing so I would not get caught. Imagine how they reacted two months later when they found out their favorite jeans had been turned into a skirt.

LADYBRILLE.com: Oh my gosh! [Laughs]
Agboola:[Gives a girlish giggle]

LADYBRILLE.com: [Continues laughing] Serious wahala [problem].
Agboola:Chuckles] I know! In fact, my aunt told me I had been possessed by the devil.

LADYBRILLE.com: [Exclaims while still laughing] Oh my God!
Agboola:Growing up, I have always been very artistic and I had it in the back of my mind that this is what I wanted to do, period [adds emphatically]. So, when I moved back to the United States, I followed through with my passion for fashion and officially launched the line back in Chicago in 2001. Then, I was just having fun with it. No buyers, no trade shows, just college fashion shows. Then, I took things way more seriously in 2005 when I quit my 9-5 to put full focus on the label.

LADYBRILLE.com:Okay. [W]e are going to get into all that, but I know for non-Africans and certainly Africans in other parts of the continent this is not an issue. But I am aware some Nigerians have questioned and will probably question/wonder whether you are 100% Nigerian. What I really want to make sure of is that we certify you are. You know how Obama is constantly told he is not black or white enough. When I look at you, [y]ou look like you could be of mixed heritage with your light skin tone [now] matched with your beautiful blonde locks. Could you confirm for me that you are “Naija proper proper, real legit gan gan” for those that feel the need to certify you?

Agboola: For that, I’d have to say [Switching to a thick Yoruba accent] “Omo Naija ni mi,” {Literally translated to mean “I am a Nigerian child”}.

LADYBRILLE.com: {The accent is so thick and she is comical when she says "Omo Naija ni mi" so I burst out laughing}
Agboola:{Burst out laughing too}

LADYBRILLE.com: {Still laughing} Good! Okay.
Agboola: {Continuing in the accent} I am a Yoruba Chick![Major emphasis on the 'Yoruba Chick'

LADYBRILLE.com: {Still laughing} That’s awesome.
Agboola: {Continuing in her very thick Yoruba accent} Don’t, don’t let all that fool you!

LADYBRILLE.com: {Still laughing} Not that it would matter even if you weren’t. We would like to think you are just a very Ladybrille woman making things happen in a serious way.

LADYBRILLE.com: {getting composed} Delving back into Ella Brown. How did that name come about?
Agboola: {now composed} Ella Brown is a spiritual thing for me. [W]hen I was starting the line, [I] looked at different names and I [thought] Ella means . . . beautiful and Brown is for my skin tone. It was just one of those crazy brainstorming things. I then thought, “you know what? Ella Brown sounds kind of chic and cool.”

LADYBRILLE.com: {Chiming in} It is, it is! Luv it!
Agboola:I also thought it was a flexible name where I could have a T-shirt line, footwear e.t.c. and I could say a "footwear" by Ella Brown. So, I wanted a name that I could do a lot of stuff with.

LADYBRILLE.com: It’s a beautiful name. I really do like it. It's very easy to remember, easy to pronounce and seems to go well with the subsidiaries you have created with your accessories, apparel and other things you have going.

LADYBRILLE.com: We will continue with much Ella Brown talk but let me step back and ask about your prior career. What kind of 9-5 job where you doing and what was the deciding factor that made you say, "I’m gonna just take the jump and pursue my pasion for fashion”?
Agboola: After graduation from the University of Illinois in Springfield, I was a Senior Underwriter for Western Southern Financial Group and a Junior Underwriter for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Illinois. I was underwriting their annuities, 401Ks and things of that nature. So, when I quit my jobs, I wanted to move to New York. But then, I said, "no way." I am not going to New York. I am going to stay here [a]nd go for it.

LADYBRILLE.com:Whoa! How easy was it for you to find capital for your business?
Agboola: Yeah. I took out a small loan to create my first little collection that I was going to present at my first trade show, it was at Dallas. After my first trade show, it was a success and I decided to reinvest that money to continue everything I had been doing.

LADYBRILLE.com: You know Dallas has been an interesting market. It is now becoming a well respected market center and it did not use to be.
Agboola: You know Magic is the biggest apparel market in America, now Dallas Market Center is number two.

LADYBRILLE.com: Really! Whoa its grown so fast!
Agboola: Yep!

LADYBRILLE.com: So, now you’ve got capital, you’ve got your line and you have done your first trade show in Dallas. When I look at your brand Ella Brown, it’s expanding so quickly. It seems like you have the natural business acumen to know what to do not only creatively but also as a business woman. Continue with after your first trade show, what was the next step for you?

Agboola:Well after my first tradeshow it was more garments, clothing. From there, I decided to just go ahead and add accessories to my line. Because my mom is a [jeweler] so I learnt from my mom how to make jewelry. I was thinking you know what, “I don’t think a woman’s look is complete without the right accessories to complement the look.” So, I was like I’m just going to add accessories to that.

LADYBRILLE.com:How has the reception been since you launched Ella Brown, officially?
Agboola:It’s been great [changes to a pondering tone] but it is just the challenges I face. You know it’s the confidence and the guts to take matters into my own hands and to do that is just really hard. But you know, everything is about being positive. You just have to find your inner strength, trust your instinct, be positive and believe in yourself. It’s been positive so far and I have done more than 10 trade shows since 2005, when I launched officially; and every year it keeps getting better.

LADYBRILLE.com: It seems like [your exhibiting at tradeshows] is paying off. You are now carried in stores across the country.
Agboola: Yeah [but sounding unsatisfied] I mean the Dallas show, for example, out of 250,000 buyers, I might get like 15 buyers.

LADYBRILLE.com: That’s a good number starting out, isn’t it? Agboola:[Still in her uncertain tone] Well, those buyers call you up and they say “hey we want to cancel our orders" because they changed their minds. So, I had to learn quickly that when buyers do that, I had to let them know [upfront] that they will not get all their monies back because they wasted my time.

LADYBRILLE.com: [in a tone that says I feel you] Absolutely. Hmmmm . . .
Agboola: Being in this business has taught me so much about what to do and when people try to pull the plug on [m]e. At the end of the day, I can’t sell my line to everybody. I have some buyers that [a]pproach me and I say, "I am sorry I can’t sell to you." [I] have to be picky with whom I sell to because at the end of day, I want really good stores to carry my line.

LADYBRILLE.com: Uh-huh. Speaking of that, let’s run with that for a minute. If you are not selling to certain buyers, who is your target market?
Agboola:{Pauses} Well, my target audience is from age 17-50. I define my target audience as the woman that loves luxury and has an appreciation for luxury.

LADYBRILLE.com: [W]here exactly do you produce your lines? Do you produce in the USA or outsource to India, China, since that is the trend now?
Agboola: Everything is produced here in Los Angeles, CA. There is a factory that does my manufacturing here in California.

LADYBRILLE.com: Let me shift your attention to something very different and that is the need for sustainability and growth in Africa. Specifically, I believe, strongly, that Western consumers want to purchase items that are fashionable from Africa and in doing so know that they are also helping Africa’s economy. As an African designer, based in the USA, have you ever considered doing business with Africa and importing some of your fabrics or materials for your acccesories from Africa.

Agboola:I am very flexible I like to try different things. I’d like to do something in Africa and have thought about it for the past six months now. You know I was reading an article in Vogue and it talked about Duro Olowu?

LADYBRILLE.com:Yeah, he is out of London.
Agboola: Yeah. I am not trying to do a collection that is totally African but I just want to do a collection that is inspired by Africa. If you look at the runways, you look at DVF, she got her inspirations from Africa. So definitely I have Africa on my mind.

LADYBRILLE.com: Out of curiousity, have you showed in your home country, Nigeria?
Agboola: No. I have not showed anywhere in Africa.

LADYBRILLE.com: When was the last time you visited?
Agboola:[giggles almost like a girlish giggle] In 2001. But, I have been keeping in contact with some people [over there] because I will be launching my makeup line.We are adding a cosmetic line to the brand. I really want Nigeria to be my first flagship store for that and I am very excited about that! [Her voice rises in excitement].

LADYBRILLE.com: [Chuckles] Actually, let’s talk about that. Your brand Ella Brown Couture, you have a couture line that is distinct from your ready to wear, correct?
Agboola: Yes. Actually I also have bridal wear [custom made] that will be coming out this spring.

LADYBRILLE.com: {Trying to keep up and get the subsidiaries right} Whoa. So you have couture, ready-to-wear and bridal?
Agboola: Starts counting [then laughs] yeah you are right. Yeah, I have been doing bridal for the past two years but mostly for special shows/custom made. Actually, I did the bridal tradeshow last October and it went so great and the buyers were like, “Whoa you are doing great and you need to get it out there.” So, it’s more of a cocktail/bridal wear.

LADYBRILLE.com: Are you trying to make Ella Brown more of a lifestyle brand? You’ve got apparel, accessories and [cosmetics] makeup and a fragrance line, correct?
Agboola: Yes. My fragrance line, I was going to release it last year but I was like, let me wait.

LADYBRILLE.com: Do you know what the name will be?
Agboola:[Giggles in the girlish giggle again] I know but I can’t tell you yet.

LADYBRILLE.com: Alright, we will wait for the unveiling. We’ll be looking for it. I am very curious, from a business angle, with such diversified lines; and I know everyone is doing that now, especially the bigger designers who license their names to various companies to sell diverse fashion products. But, for you starting out and going into your third year, officially, of doing business, could you tell us the rationale for having such diversified lines at this early stage?
Agboola: What do you mean, you mean legally?

LADYBRILLE.com: No, not at all. There is the philosophy that when you start a business you start small and then expand later. All the diverse lines you have will inevitably need capital, either way you look at it. So, for a new designer trying to get into the fashion business, would you advise they take your approach rather than the traditional?

Personally, I think it is better to start one line first and then add. But with me, I am a huge multi-tasker [we think risk taker also] and I love to be everywhere. But seriously, I think it is better to go with the [traditional] method. But for me, I was like, “heck I am just going to go for it and see what happens.” So far, it has been great. I just always have Ella Brown at the back of my mind. For me, it is an obsession. Sometimes I have to tell myself to chill for a minute and take it one step at a time. So far, it has been good. You just need to know how to navigate things and work under pressure.

LADYBRILLE.com: Do you have creative partners you work with? Agboola:I have a team, pattern makers, designers. . . actually, I just hired one designer from FIDM.

LADYBRILLE.com: Excellent! FIDM has some of the best people coming out of their schools, especially San Francisco.
Agboola:Oh my God! [Agreeing with the quality of talents coming out of the FIDM schools] I still definitely do all of the sketching, fabric sourcing and all that. I am on top of that. But, at the same time, we all work as a team.

BALANCING ACT

LADYBRILLE.com: We’ve been talking business for a while. Let's switch course and talk about you [emphasizes "you"]. How do you create balance with all of these achievements you have attained at such a young age. How old are you?
Agboola: 27

LADYBRILLE.com: Oh my gosh! Very young indeed. How do you create balance? Do you have time for Adefunke?
Agboola:[More subdued tone] You know what? It is so funny because everything I do now is based on schedules and planning and it kind of makes me feel like a robot sometimes. But, the most important thing is surrounding myself with people that love and care about me. At the end of the day, you don’t want your body crashing on you but I am a pretty tough cookie. It is something in me that is always doing something. Sometimes it feels like I am lazy if I am doing nothing.

LADYBRILLE.com: {laughs} I understand that feeling.
Agboola:Yeah, sometimes I will be sitting and then I say, “What am I doing!” I need to be doing something, more.

LADYBRILLE.com: I understand that feeling and it is very hard to break that "go go go" pattern. You’ll sit and think “Oh my God! What am I doing. I am being very unproductive and lazy and then you get up and go at it again. It’s sad. [Laughs]
Agboola: Yeah and my employees that work for me are like that and have this fired up attitude towards working. They are always working and I just can’t sit there and not do a thing.

LADYBRILLE.com: What about vacations? Any romantic interest? You are single and gorgeous. Of course you know the men that read Ladybrille would want to know.
Agboola:[In a suprise tone] Ah! I am [stressing the words] ABSOLUTELY TOTALLY single.

LADYBRILLE.com: [Starts Laughing]
Agboola: [More emphasis] A 100% single.

LADYBRILLE: [Continues Laughing]
Agboola: Whomever my prince charming is, he is probably trekking somewhere because I don’t know where he is. I am not saying I don’t have time for romance but work takes up more time. I do take mini-vacations, though. For example, when I am done with this whole market thing [Magic Tradeshow in Las Vegas where we caught up with her], I will stay for two days and vacation. I will not return to Los Angeles. No more work for me.

LADYBRILLE.com: That's a good idea. Very good idea! Before we go, any last tips for our readers?
Agboola: [To know] as a young designer, fashion weeks are not cheap. If you are a designer or wanting to get into the business, focus more on selling and sell at tradeshows.

LADYBRILLE.com: That’s great advice. That’s an awesome advice because people don’t get it. They want a fashion show but it is really about selling your clothes, branding and then as you establish your brand, you can get into doing the shows.
Agboola: If you think Ralph Lauren and other big names, you have hopefuls watching them on TV and seeing models behind them, on the runway, clapping for them and they say, you know what, “that’s what I want to do.” Their first collection, they already have a fashion show. They should concentrate on making great clothes and selling them. The fashion show will come later. I will do a Fashion Week this year but not sure which one [plus] if the date conflicts with my tradeshows, then I’ll pass.

LADYBRILLE.com: You are doing so well at the tradeshows.
Agboola: Yeah!

LADYBRILLE.com:It has been so much fun and a pleasure. We’ve learned about your business, we know you work hard, you are single, need a little more time for romance [laughs] and you are “Omo Naija gan gan for real!”
Agboola:[laughs] Yes. "Omo Naija ni mi" and I am proud.

LADYBRILLE.com: Definitely, for sure, we get that. [Laughs] You should be. Last words and projects we should all watch for?
Agboola: Watch for my makeup launch in Nigeria. The fragrance will be here but my first trade show for the fragrance will be in Dubai at the Prestige tradeshow; and I will be in Japan in August for the Living Room Trade Show to showcase my lines.

LADYBRILLE.com: Congratulations! Keep up the great work.
Agboola: Thank you. It’s been fun!

LADYBRILLE.com: It has been. Ciao.

6 comments:

THE REAL ME! said...

NICE!
HARD WORKER SHE IS
NOW THIS IS ONE NIGERIAN DESIGNER AM PROUD OF.
GOOD JOB ELLA.............AND MISS LADYBRILLE I JUST LOVE YOUR BLOG!

shop liquorice said...

did not know she was nigerian and i thought i knew everything, lol. kidding. this makes my heart smile! thanks, ladybrille. love this!

Anonymous said...

Did you really think that that terrible wig/weave on her head was natural?

I wonder why she doesn't feature any black models in her ads.

Ladybrille said...

Anonymous 8:48am, feel free to say her updo, in your view, can be better but attacks on naturalness, HIGHLY unwelcome. Extensions, weaves, wigs e.t.c. are all not natural but perfectly fine in the fashion and entertainment world and among women across the globe, black, white, African, Asian, rich or poor. Funny, I just had a well known model colleague, White, who visited Northern CALI asking me for a place to get extensions. She finally bought her some extensions in San Francisco and will be using it in her new location in Asia.

Personal attacks on this site are again HIGHLY unwelcome and in future WILL be deleted. The site says "Constructive Criticism is appreciated." I believe every patron on this site should feel comfortable and intend to make the environment such.

You have a legit point as to black models in ads. It is an issue I have raised and is also the big controversy in the modeling and fashion industry now. I indeed raised this issue, off the record, during this interview with Ms Agboola. She is keenly aware of it and her future campaigns will strive to include that.

Thanks for being a reader!

THE HOUSE OF STYLE said...

Ladybrille kudos on fab interview! Adefunke of ELLA BROWN is talented and will keep going places.Keep on posting these fab interviews.
Stay inspiring and blessed,
Marian,
THE HOUSE OF STYLE.

Anonymous said...

Ms Ade should know that there is someone in Las Vegas impersonating her and asking for money to fund the business (?). If you want details of this, please email me at Jannie22@msn.com.

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