Tunde ‘Ethnik’ Owolabi: Promoting culture through contemporary designs

Tunde ‘Ethnik’ Owolabi: Promoting culture through contemporary designs

When you hear the name Tunde owolabi, what automatically comes to mind is aso oke and that is because the creative designer’s winning edge is using th

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When you hear the name Tunde owolabi, what automatically comes to mind is aso oke and that is because the creative designer’s winning edge is using the fabric which is currently experiencing a resurgence, to create contemporary urban accessories for the fashion-forward man and woman. His decision to use the fabric as his core raw material also stems out of the need to promote culture, preserve the Yoruba heritage as well as the social responsibility to help keep local artisans in business. I spent a sunny afternoon with the unassuming and talented multidimensional artist who spoke passionately about his one of a kind craft and his dreams and vision for his fashion brand, Ethnik.


Your designs stand out majorly because you use aso oke. Did you in your wildest imagination think it would be a hit?
I was just experimenting and thank God it paid off.

Why the use of aso oke?
Well, because it is truly Nigerian and it is one of the surviving fabrics that we have left besides adire. And also because I am Yoruba. The fabric caught my attention and I decided to explore with it.

Where do you source your materials from?
I go to Iseyin in Oyo state and give them specifications of what I want. I design the aso oke that I use myself

Are you from Oyo State?
Yes but where I am from had nothing to do with my use of it.

What is your fashion story, how did you find yourself in the fashion business?
I never thought I would go into fashion. I am an artiste and I was just researching for something I could use for my solo exhibition three years ago and head wraps kind of caught my attention. So during my search for images and the different types of head-wraps from different parts of the world, a lot of gele came up from searches in Nigeria and most of them were aso oke. I subsequently got curious and began to dig into its history. There wasn’t much I could get from the internet so I had to travel to Iseyin to experience firsthand how it is woven. I used the fabric for my exhibition which was successful. I exhibited photographs, paintings, and a documentary on how aso oke is made. There was a segment of the exhibition where the weavers actually came to weave aso oke live for those who had never seen how it is made. After the exhibition, I had a pile of fabric left and wondered what I could do with them. There and then I decided to make sneakers with it after all, most sneakers are made of fabric and since aso oke is fabric, why not.



Why sneakers?
Because I wear sneakers a lot and I thought, if the western world can make sneakers from chinos and the likes, why not aso oke? It also occurred to me that aso oke can be used to make fashion accessories as opposed to only usuing it to tie gele. However, I also thought about the sustainability of the fabric itself. Usually after traditional weddings, the aso oke which is mostly used for it, in the Western part of Nigeria, is kept somewhere and hardly ever used again and I wondered how the weavers of this fabric are able to remain in jobs if that was the case. I also wondered about the fabric going extinct if the trend to wear aso oke for weddings alone dies off. This fate is what has befallen akwete. People hardly wear them anymore and only a minute number of people still make them. I fear that might happen to aso oke at some point. Thinking about this made me realize that there must be other ways that people can use aso oke without having the fear of it being too heavy to wear. Because that is really the fear. I mean if one can wear denim, why not aso oke? Besides aso oke is beautiful and denim isn’t and depending on how the fabric is woven, aso oke can be woven very light. And that was how I decided to use aso oke for sneakers.

How long have you been at this?
The accessory brand started in January 2015 but I started the research about four five years ago.  I saw an endless possibility of what can be done with the fabric and so after trying out the sneakers and saw that it could be done, I decided to go fully into it. Later I tried out belts as well. With belts, there is a limit to the width you can weave aso oke into because the width of the fabric itself comes in a certain way. With the fabric, I began to see possibilities; things people never imagined, things the weavers never thought was possible. For instance, the regular aso oke doesn’t come with patterns. What you would perhaps find on them is monogram or embroidery but I actually weave patterns into my own fabric. So I literarily had to push and convince the weavers on what was possible.

How has the reception been?
It has really been amazing because a lot of people didn’t think aso oke could look so good

Were you discouraged at any point during this journey?
Yes just like any other entrepreneur? The discouragement was from staff who were complacent; their attitude towards work. I hate to say the Nigerian factor because not everyone is like that but it seems to be a problem with our local artisans because a lot of them are short minded. They don’t think beyond where they are and are only after what they can get now. I have been fortunate enough to have travelled a bit and I have seen quite a few things so I know how I want my product to look, I know the kind of organization that I want to run however small and I know the quality of product that I want to turn out. If I want to command certain brand values, then I need to be able to give people that value so that when they are holding the product, they will understand the reason why they are paying a certain amount of money for it. I am very particular about details, finishing and customer service.



With this new found love, what happens to your first love, fashion/documentary photography?
I still do it, it is still my day job even though this is taking more of my time because it is still a new baby and I need to nurture it to a certain level.

What inspires your designs for the aso oke fabric itself and designs for the sneakers?
First of all, I am an advocate for culture. Culture plays a big role in the things that I do so I take a lot of inspiration from different cultures, their way of life, their food etc. People also inspire me. I look at other people’s work and see what they do and try to get into their minds through their designs to imagine how they work.

Are you looking at expanding into clothing with aso oke?
There may be a possibility but I don’t know yet. It is a grey area for me. I already have ideas and I am sketching out some but at the moment I want to remain in my comfort zone. Even if I want to, I would probably just collaborate with people.

The sneakers you make are for casual wears. Have you ever thought of making something for formal wears?
Yes we make loafers and proper shoes for men with plain fabric instead of the patterned one.


What is your take on ‘buy made in Nigeria goods’?
You know how Nigerians are; people join the band wagon, make noise about it and after a while, forget about it. For me, I am not about buying made in Nigeria, I am about making a product that can be accepted anywhere. However Nigerians have really upped their game and designers now pay more attention to details. But it will get better if we have better infrastructure that won’t restrict creativity.

Being in the creative industry means you should belong to a fashion body, say Fashion Designer Association of Nigeria (FADAN), for instance. Why aren’t you a member?
I am just worried about boxing myself into associations.

Are you into mentorship?
Oh yes as I get a lot of enquiries for training but I need a bigger space before I can do that, big enough to take only people who are serious and ready to learn. I say only serious people because not everyone is serious; some of them just like the glamour of the creative industry while others are only after copying designs and what not. That is not to say that I fear competition, I don’t. I welcome it because it puts you on your toes to work harder. But if you have people who water down what you do with their own design, then it doesn’t really help your brand and you end up looking like a superman.

Where do you see your brand say five years from today?
With stores around the world