By Christine Onwuachumba
NENI, a name coined from the first and last two letters of Nneka and Ini, is a Nigerian collaborative fashion start-up, co-founded by two female fashion entrepreneurs, Nneka Nwaligbe Etayokhai and Iniobong Obinna-Onunkwo in 2022. Their goal of d ‘Offering a luxury retail fashion line designed exclusively for career-focused young women who love the “billionaire Bougie look” on a budget, inspired Nneka and Iniobong to share their dreams and create statement pieces. Their brand was first launched at the 2022 edition of the African Fashion Week Nigeria (AFWN) show, which took place in Lagos recently. It was a fabulous opportunity to leverage their vast platform and network.
Tell us about the “NENI” collection
The Bougie Woman collection by “NENI” is inspired by the beautiful butterfly that flutters playfully in the lush garden. The metamorphic transformation of a butterfly’s cycle is phenomenal. From childhood to adulthood, the butterfly experiences life. The best part is the chrysalis stage where it emerges as an adult. At this point, growth becomes a place of curiosity, questioning, struggles, and the compelling need to succeed. This emergence in every budding woman is called “Change”.
The butterfly signifies the modern woman. She is scared but grateful, dares to explore the world, fearless, determined to grow, sees and values every moment as a luxury on her journey to yearn for more and challenges, which makes her confident, courageous, bold, beautiful and intelligent .
The garden is the environment and the greenery is life. The combination of all plant species means different people, diverse cultures, different places and multiple opportunities that await the woman to explore and learn.
What were your expectations? And who were your role models?
The models were beautiful ladies. When we went for our fitting they were very proud of what they were wearing. They were also very excited. So I knew that when they come out on stage, they are going to really showcase the brand, because they have to be told that our brand is a masterpiece, and this is our first outing on African Fashion Week Nigeria . We also told them that the coin they put on should mean they are a Candle Woman. So it just changed the perspective and gave them a sense of confidence, courage and bravery.
Now about my expectations, I tried to send a message to everyone who came to see us, but look, it’s not just about the colors, or the damask fabric pieces we put together. But, how do these pieces tell a story for each of these models that would wear each of our masterpieces, and how does that connect to everyone sitting there in the audience?
Is there a coloring between the damask fabric and Africa?
Damask is a heritage fabric, just like we have Adire and Aso Oke. One of my core values is heritage. So when it comes to anything heritage that will promote culture or luxury or sustainability, I think anything you’re dealing with has to have that heritage feel.
How long have you been in the industry?
For me, next year will be 10 years in the fashion industry. And it’s been an incredible journey with ups and downs. As I said, the NENI collection, like my partner and my colleague, we have been through a lot. I mean from the setup to the growth phase, but we are grateful.
Did you do other jobs before joining the fashion industry?
Initially, I was an investment banker and portfolio manager, and it was very interesting, because when I started out, I was an engineer by training before heading into investment banking and portfolio management. What really inspired me to get into fashion was when I made pieces for my kids, and they went to an elite wedding where all the mothers looked at my kids, wondering if the designers could actually weave pieces of ankara, and do something really cool on the kids. No one had thought of that at the time. It inspired me. So we started the brand, “Little Weaver’s”, and now we’ve been in the industry for a while, and we also found another niche which I associated with my friend, Nneka, where we collaborated to create “NENI”.
Does that mean you got into fashion even as a portfolio manager?
No, not really, as a portfolio manager I loved fashion and heritage. So every time I put on some of my outfits. I reflect this African heritage. Sometimes I came to work on my costume, with pearls on it. I save a bit of heritage in the contemporary urban and in a mixture of everything. Imagine someone wearing these costumes with beads and all. I love that heritage feel. So it has always been a question of fashion, of creativity.
When did you completely transition from your fashion career?
It was a personal journey, and I felt in that moment that there was more for me to deserve. Again, I felt it was time for me to leave. And then the inspiration that came with societal marriage, and I just felt like it was an opportunity. Let’s take advantage of it and get started.
You design primarily for women. Is there a plan to start conceiving for men?
It will be in the pipeline and we will think about it as well, because I make pieces for my husband and he presents them almost every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or whenever he decides to put them on. So we’ll think about that.
Is this the first time that your brand “LittleWeavers” participates in African Fashion Week?
Yes, this is our first outing on African Fashion Week Nigeria.
So is this the first outing on African Fashion Week for the two brands?
Yes, this is the first time that we are participating in African Fashion Week in Nigeria, because “LittleWeavers” has participated in other fashion shows, and we have had our own fashion shows.
How do you feel when two of your brands are featured at African Fashion Week Nigeria? And what should we expect
I’m excited. So a quick one for people who actually go through different life endeavors or challenges (you know whatever it is you’re doing, whatever investments or plans you have), just stay focused on the goal. I say this because the journey to creating the collection for NENI and for LittleWeaver’s has been tedious, very difficult and very competitive for me, as I have two brands that are making their first releases. So I prepared to assume it because whatever happens, we know that we will succeed. So we had to stay on target. And we have here.
What is your perception of the Nigerian fashion industry?
I think Nigeria is a consumer economy and I think we could do a lot better. I also think the government could do a lot by supporting aboriginal businesses. I don’t just mean fashion because in the fashion industry we have the value chain. So I feel like there is so much to do in terms of investing in young people. There are so many talented young people. I feel like we could do better, turn around and become a productive economy. So I don’t want to compare ourselves to other countries because I think Nigeria has the skills, we have the talent and I think we might be underutilized.
As a designer of clothing for adults and children, what is your biggest challenge in putting your pieces together?
I strongly believe in an Ibibio proverb that says Ewo ado iyene, which means people are your wealth. You might have a room full of money, an entire estate, or even own a bank, but you need people. You need the right network of people. You have to empower the good spirits. You have to change the mentality of people around you. You have to build people. These are the people who will bring the wealth, create the infrastructure. Fabrics will not weave or export to Apapa Port; you need human beings to do it. So I believe the first step in everything we need to do is invest in people. These are the people who make or break your business
Many have the idea that women do not unite. So what is the force that unites the partnership in NENI Collection?
Usually what I feel is that for everyone, the first thing you need to pay attention to in yourself is your personality. Find out who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and if you can find someone who can support you. For example, if I’m not a good time manager, then I should have someone who is a good time manager. Or I’m probably really good at math (calculating numbers), so I should have someone creative. Or, if I’m the creative, then I should have someone who knows how to work out the numbers or has the skills.
So there should be something that would merge these two personalities. So based on your question, I think it’s a personality thing. It’s not just in women’s culture; it is also in all genres. People generally need to know what their personalities are and who they can do business with. So you have to understand if Personality A can merge with Personality B. Again, what is our vision? What do we hope to achieve? What is the purpose of why we even got together?
Nneka Nwaligbe Etayokhai
What was the essence of this collaboration?
We came together to create the “Bougie Collection” collection, aimed at women. We aim to satisfy women of substance, women who want to stand out in society.
How long have you been in the fashion industry?
I have been in the fashion industry since 2014. I have worked with most of the top Nigerian designers. I was a former Secretary of Funmi Ajila-Ladipo, President of the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN) and also coordinated designers at all kinds of fashion shows.
Before this partnership, tell us a bit about your fashion brand?
My fashion brand “Nene-Hotie” aims to create women’s clothing that makes fashion statements in society. We come out with different forms of outfits that stand out. So along the line, my friend, Ini came up with the idea of a partnership. We’ve done really well and African Fashion Week Nigeria is our first outing, showcasing what we can do as designers.
Did you start your fashion business from scratch?
Yes, I acquired the business skill after working with and with a designer. I also coordinated designers. So I’m a designer. I went to design school. I have always had a passion for the fashion industry and have been in the business for over seven years.