‘I’m Proud of My African Heritage’

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Founder, The Potter’s Signature, Adebowale Odutola,, has over the years made a mark producing indigenous designs using locally sourced African prints. While unveiling her new collection of handmade bags recently, she told Mary Ekah about her journey so far and future plans 

Can you talk about your new brand, TPS Luxury?

TPS means The Porter’s Signature. We are now TPS Luxury because we now go beyond the bags, as we now do home and style, footwear accessories and anything that is used as accessory at home. There is really nothing we cannot do with Ankara ranging from curtains, bed covers, chairs, dinning set, table covers and many other household accessories.  We just launched some new TPS Luxury products. So, we are actually trying to introduce our latest products to the world. They are bespoke, luxurious and handmade and I make them all from the floor of my house here in Victoria Island, Lagos. This is not from China and every material here has been locally sourced in Mushin and Balogun markets. Initially, I was bringing them in from Australia but later I found out that they were cheaper in Lagos. My Ankaras are from Balogun but I make sure I take the veritable wax, for sustainability, durability and thirdly for the theme. I don’t just want a design but a design that carries a theme. This is our second season release, we had our first release collection but the whole 12 are all sold out. This is our latest collection which came out in February 2018 and our bags are named after prominent Nigerian women. The collection is a celebration of the best of Nigeria and great personalities that speak to the essence of our brand, TPS Luxury. I am proudly Nigerian, that is why I love to work with the Ankara, Adire and Aso Oke fabrics. We are proudly Nigerian, and proudly African.

What has been the response of Nigerians to your peculiar kind of products?

For me, Nigerians are beginning to appreciate what we have if they know the quality.  Right now, when anybody faces a direction, everybody is facing that direction. There are so many bags now in the country, everybody and anybody want to do a bag, but please there must be the good finishing. Let’s have international standard bags;  bags that can sit well on the shelves of international brands and not just any bag.   And because it is Made-in-Nigeria, doesn’t make it cheap; people need to have that at the back of their minds because there is no part of these bags that is imported. Most of the hardware are sourced at the local markets. Our leathers have been taken out processed and returned to Mushin Market. I think with the recession, a lot of people are beginning to appreciate what we have. I see a lot of people wearing Ankara now. I carry my bags with so much poise, elegance and glamour. I am proud of my African print, I am proud of my heritage.

So far so good, those who buy the $3,000 and £2,800 bags, also buy my bags. And because they are not mass produced but are bespoke, they are limited editions and they are not for everybody, so those who can afford them, buy them.

What inspires your designs?

My designs are inspired by God and humanity. When I say humanity, I mean that when I go out and I see your bag and the way you carry it so beautifully, it inspires me and I am always so eager to go home and sketch. At times I sketch in the car, I just sketch on anything. Other times, I get inspiration when I sleep while at other times, I look at designs on the internet and then modify them by subtracting and adding. So it is about my instinct and my mind set at every point that brings about my designs. So it is not about just talent or academic acquisition because I don’t have any academic acquisition on fashion. I don’t know how I do it. Even when I was in school as an undergraduate, I had tailors that were making my own designs. If you and I buy the same shirt, the next day mine would have be looking different from yours because I would have added stones or something that will make it just different. So, I think it is just about me. I like fashion and I like to be different.

How long have you been doing this?

I started in 2013 but got established in 2014. So, we are going to be four years on July 14th this year and we have won two awards so far. Within seven months in 2017, this brand won two awards for its contributions to the fashion industry: I won the President’s Special Recognition award from Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN), which I am a member, and then I also won the Best Emerging Fashion Brand Award at the 2017 Accessories Council Excellence (ACE) Awards by Bella Africana. So two awards in seven months, I think we are doing well and we are hoping to do better.

What do these awards mean for you?

It means I should work harder because some people will feel that we have been doing bags for so many years and so should relax but that shouldn’t be the case. It is not how long but how well. Just make sure you focus and know what you are doing. That is the bottom line.

Are you looking forward to winning more awards?

Yes, I want to win another aard this year and many more.

How do one care for an Ankara bags?

When you spot dirt on it, look for a very old tooth brush, which bristles would have been soft. Deep it into water with a bit of light soap and all you need to do is to brush gently and leave it to dry. And for those who have theirs on the cover of their bags, with ordinary baby wipes, you can pick dirt on your Ankara bags and they are clean.

What would you advice young ladies who aspire to be a designer like you?

They should start from the scratch and be focused. If you have a focus, you tend to gain a lot but if you keep dabbling into too many things, you might not achieve anything. Nigerians lack initiative, they just want to copy instead. Somebody has gone to do a classic design in China and then someone just comes and copies your design. We need to be focused in Nigeria because too many people are on the fast lane. I want to say also that if you are a woman, don’t stay in the house and be a house wife. Whatever you know how to do, even if it is chin-chin, do it well. Someday, it is going to grow. I started this business not just as a passion but because I needed to do it. I am a bag freak, I travel a lot and I buy bags as if I am running mad. So when I started this business, I said I was going to create bags that were remarkable and people will buy. So whatever I create is what I can carry and when I draw my designs, I look at myself and ask: Can I carry this? If I can’t carry what I create, it means I can’t sell it because if I do, I am not going to sell my brand well. So whatever you know how to do as a woman, just do it well, do it diligently and put your whole heart to it. Whatever I’m making out of this business today aims at celebrating Nigeria; I am celebrating my name, I am setting precedence for those coming behind me and eventually, it is going to become a well-known brand worldwide. I think I am half way and eventually we would get there. So government should help us by giving us electricity to work with. Most of the time we are on generator and by the time we run our businesses with generators, of course the prices of the products will be increased. So where do we go from here? Let’s encourage Made-in-Nigeria and let the government encourage entrepreneurs by providing working environment that is conducive and where entrepreneur thrives.

Tell us about growing up?

I grew up with the name, Wuraola. My full name is  Adebowale Adeola Wuraola Odutola. I am number 16 of 17 children, the last girl in the family, there is just one male behind me. I grew up in so much luxury. Of course we went to school in Mercedes Benz. As the last girl in the family, my father doted so much on me. My mother is from Niger State, she is Muslim while my father was a Christian. So growing up was fun. We had fantastic upbringing and pedigree. I enjoyed my growing up and I am still enjoying myself. I take out time to go on vacations and I try to buy the good things of life, may be not too many, if I have just one quality thing, I am fine. I don’t like junks and I am not one that says oh my friend has this and so I have to buy it. What fits my friend might not fit me. So I am myself. My boys are doing well. I have trained them like girls and they are very well domesticated. I have all boys, I don’t have a girl and they all work so hard and well.

What do you miss about your father?

I miss the envelopes of money he always gave me. I miss the love and everything about him. My mother is still alive, she is 93.

Why do you still operate from home?

I don’t want to give my whole proceeds to the landlords.