Very few people are able to make a successful career out of their passion. But Banke Kuku, a Nigerian-born fashion entrepreneur has been fascinated with knitting since she was five, subsequently growing such passion to become one of Africa’s inspiring entrepreneurship stories.
Banke kuku is now the CEO/Creative Director of Banke Kuku Textiles, producer of bespoke woven and printed fabrics for the fashion and interior industry.
Making her way in the fashion industry, Banke has worked with a number of fashion brands including Burberry, Duro Olowu, Jewel by Lisa and Jasmine di Milo fashion house where she earned the name “The Queen of Colour.”
Her designs – a fusion of African and western culture has been featured in a number of international fashion shows in Milan, New York and Paris as well as the world famous UK store – Selfridges. This year she won the Women n making 2014 competition organised by Triumph International, a global lingerie brand with sales exceeding billions of dollars. She is also one of the top ten finalists at the She Leads Africa competition.
Ventures Africa spoke with Banke about her about what it takes to be a successful textile maker.
Have you always know that you will end up in the fashion industry?
I have been fascinated with textiles as far back as I can remember. I was knitting at age five. I would always pick the floral dresses and draw patterns on everything with a felt tip pen! So it was a very natural and easy decision for me.
I chose to study textiles design after school, and I went from Central St Martins to Chelsea College of Art and Design, specialising in woven textiles, and published a book: “The Unwoven Threads of Nigeria’ which was an assessment of the state of the Nigerian textiles industry.
What led to the name Queen of Colour?
I was given the name Queen of Colour whilst working for a fashion house called Jasmine Di Milo, which was a UK base brand owned by Jasmine Alfayed who is the daughter of Mohammed Alfayed, former owner of Harrods. The creative director named me the Queen of Colour as I was able to dye fabrics to the exact colour specification.
Starting out, what was the most challenging aspect of the business?
There have been many challenges but I think the biggest challenge for Banke Kuku Textile has been to develop a strong and tailored business model. The business is just as important as the design. I would say I spend 75 percent of my time dealing with the business aspect and 25 percent designing.
I got over the challenge by taking part in business short courses, and reading books and articles on business start ups.
Can you speak on inspiration behind some of the unique designs you have created?
My designs tell an African story. Currently my work is inspired by the work of the photographer George Oshodi, in his collection ‘Paradise Lost’ who like me has taken his subject matter from the Niger Delta region.
I chose to explore, tangentially, the theme of the oil production and pollution in the Niger Delta, using bold patterns to bring life an otherwise bleak theme.
The main print tries to capture the intensity of an oil spill in the Creeks, water reflecting into the sunlight. Tales by Moonlight, the secondary print, is inspired by the sight of the Delta at night. I was struck by the vision of multiple gas flares – gas wastefully is burnt or ‘flared’ by oil companies – erupting like little volcanoes against a backdrop of a pitch black Delta night-sky.
What goes into the development of a good textile design?
Textile is an art form it is subjective. It is very hard to say what is good and not good. My work entails the ability to capture moods through pattern and colour.
What are the cost implication of creating a fabric design?
My designs take from months, sometimes years to complete. It is expensive because of the fabrics I work with and the amount of time and craftsmanship it takes to design a print.
You later branched out into interior design. What are the unique opportunities for budding designers within this field?
Working with interiors for me is very liberating; I get to see my patterns on a much larger scale. The interior industry has a different way of working; the pace is very different at the same time it was easy for me to transition as this is also an overlap of ‘fashionable interiors’ which has a very similar structure to the seasonal trends in fashion.
The positives about working in the interior industry are that it is less saturated unlike the fashion industry and you have a lot more time to create.
Where does the pressure come in your work?
There is pressure from every department. To have success all departments within your business most be working well at the same time. Designs have to strong. Your manufacturing process has to be spotless. You need to be seen in the right magazines. Most importantly you need to be selling.
In your opinion, what does it take to be a good textile designer?
One of the important qualities to have as a textiles designer is being able to be versatile especially at the start of your career as you like to create designs for other brands before you start your own. It’s important to be able to design in accordance to their brief and adapt their style.
What are the unique experience(s) that has shaped your career so far?
Winning Triumph International’s ‘Women in Making’ competition earlier this year was a great moment. Triumph International is a huge UK lingerie company, and each year they launch a global competition to unearth creative female talents. I was lucky to succeed from out of thousands of applications worldwide.
What are the future plans for Banke Kuku Textiles on the African continent and globally?
Banke Kuku plans to continue its plans to expand the brand globally. In Africa specifically, the plan is to continue to roll out to high quality retail outlets, as well as to adopt a selective pop up store strategy in Lagos and Johannesburg. BKT will also continue to collaborate with fashion designers and to work with boutique hotels across the African continent. In the medium term, the target is a diffusion line with local manufacturing capability.
Nigeria is on the cards for me. It’s an exciting and growing market which I will be tapping further into. Watch this space!
Your story has been an inspiration to young people. What advice do you have for people venturing into this space?
The textiles industry is extremely tough, so keep going and never stuff. Good work takes a long time, so be patient. Finally don’t compare yourself to others.
As a fashion buff and young fashionpreneur, what book(s) on textile design and entrepreneurship will you recommend to inspire creativity for new comers?
I read Business of fashion, a website that gives a fantastic insight into the fashion industry.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in, and “Mindset- the new psychology of success” by Carol Dweck are books that I will recommend.