Introducing Autumn Adeigbo: Ethical Fashion Designer, Entrepreneur, and Columnist for Forbes
The Rai Report interviews Autumn Adeigbo about her experience as an ethical fashion designer, how important it is for her to keep women and her African heritage at the forefront of her brand, and the importance of her column for Forbes.
Interview by Jerrica Rai Whitlock and Alexis Rai Gaynor, Editor-in-Chief
Ethical fashion entrepreneur, writer & designer, Autumn Adeigbo started a colorful, women focused, fashion brand with the vision of positively impacting the lives of women in Africa and the United States.
After being named "Fashion's Next" by Essence magazine, "One To Watch" by Marie Claire and "All Eyes On" by Uptown magazine, Autumn's collection went on to be featured in over 50 publications including Vogue, EBONY, ESSENCE, Glamour, and Nylon and seen on MTV, BET, VH1 and the Oprah Winfrey Network.
In 2015, Autumn began sharing her entrepreneurial journey via a biweekly column for Forbes. She is also a winner of the New York Public Library and Citibank annual business plan competition, as well as a Global Good Fund fellow.
She has been a featured speaker at The World Bank, Capital One, The New York Public Library and The Fashion Institute of Technology. She sits on Parsons School of Design Reunion Committee.
She is a graduate of Spelman College and Parsons School of Design. She designs clothing for women who love to stand out from the crowd, who make educated purchases with compassion and embody sophistication of the heart.
Alexis: Hi Autumn, thank you for joining us on The Rai Report podcast. Tell us more about your brand.
I have a design and ethical women's wear brand that invests in women along the supply chain. We're a brand that is centered on women supporting women through beautiful, vibrant fashion sprinkled with African culture.
What was your inspiration for becoming a fashion designer?
I just really loved getting dressed every day. The morning was like the funniest part of the day for me. It was like an adventure to go into the closet and see what I could create. It also helped me, as a sensitive person, to put a barrier or mask on so people would be so intrigued by the exterior that they wouldn't try to get to the interior. Also, my mother used to design a lot of my clothing when I was a child. I was voted "Best Dressed" in fourth grade because she would dress every day.
That's amazing. Would you say that your mother inspired you to be a fashion designer?
Absolutely. My mom has got incredible taste. She dresses really well and she's also a really great interior designer. My dad's an artist too.
…so you grew up in the art community?
I did. My mother is actually a physician but she's always has an artistic streak. She'll work in the clinic or hospital all day then she goes home and she bakes these incredible cakes until like 3 o'clock in the morning and sells them to people in her community.
Phenomenal woman. (laughs)
Before you decided to be a fashion designer, did you have a different plan for your career?
I thought I'd be a lawyer or a veterinarian. You know-when you're young and you're just trying to figure out what you're going to do. I liked animals so I thought I could be a vet. I liked to argue and I'm a Libra so I thought I could be a lawyer.
What is a typical day of work for you?
Every day is different. I honestly have to make myself focus and stay in to get work done. Usually, it's me running around the garment district getting things made with my factory. I might be trying to set up another program in Kenya so reaching out to my partners out there to see how we could hire women and what the training process is going to be like. I am often times working with my network of female collaborators, whether that's developing branding materials, working on videos and videography, doing legal things, doing accounting things, just doing all things to keep a business afloat or get one started. Sometimes, I am looking into ways to raise capital and reaching out to investors. Other days, I am focused on writing my column for Forbes.
Fabulous. Can you tell us more about your column at Forbes, how you got involved, and what the message is?
My column for Forbes is about my personal entrepreneurial journey and the exciting entrepreneurs that I met along the way. I think that as people start businesses, it's really scary and if you're not a serial entrepreneur, you don't know what's normal or what's not normal or what steps to take next so I have a very raw and honest column about what the journey for me has been like. I also write about other inspiring entrepreneurs that I meet because they often serve as my mentors along my path.
You mentioned that there is an aspect of your brand that is in Kenya. Can you tell us a little more about that?
We have launched three pilot programs in different countries in Africa. The first one was in Ghana, the second one was in Nigeria, and the most recent one was in Kenya. Figuring out how to produce fashion product on the African continent, whether it's working with female owned small factories and paying them fair trade wages to produce garments, or training women in hand-beading and having them execute the hand-beading on the collection, it was always my dream to work with the Maasai. I am Nigerian, but Maasai are one of the tribes known for their hand-beading so it was always my dream to travel there and work with them. We were just there in June. We worked with eight women. None of them spoke English but we trained them how to hand-bead the samples in our collection and they executed it. We paid them fair trade wages and those efforts paid them twice as much as a man with a full-time job in the local tourism industry would make in Kenya.
That's really admirable.
What has been your most memorable moment as a fashion designer?
There have been so many. Of course, there's the things that drive attention which drives people to know about the brand like the magazine features, the first time you're featured in a magazine and building those relationships with the editors. Seeing your name in print is always really cool. And then, there's the times when the high-profile women who have access to anything in the world decide to wear your clothes-that's always amazing. Besides that, besides those "being the center of attention" sort of things, it's definitely been working with other women--whether it's women who are at my level or above me, mentors, or working with the women in Africa who I get to train and see the pride that they have in creating a product and earning a fair-trade living wage for their work has been amazing. I just love every day, going to work, inspiring other women and being inspired by other women.
Do you remember seeing your first magazine feature?
Yes, I do. It was Ebony Magazine, the one with Sade on the cover, and Elaine [Welteroth] who's now the Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue was the Editor of Ebony and she is the one who featured it and she did such an amazing job on that layout and I am not surprised that she's ended up in the position that she's ended in in such a short amount of time.
I love Elaine. And Elaine, if you're listening [or reading], we would love to interview you. We think you're amazing.
What's the greatest challenge that you've had to overcome as a fashion designer thus far?
Capital. (both laugh) It took me a long time to get capital. Any designer will tell you that. It's cashflow. The traditional industry is you're always chasing after cash. That's been the toughest thing and a lot of investors don't understand fashion. They want to invest in tech, they want to invest in restaurants, even though restaurants fail nine times out of ten, an investor will be more willing to invest in a restaurant than they will a fashion brand.
Because they can understand the bottom line a little better, probably?
Fashion also has a really long runway for profitability. It usually takes about five years to build a brand and investors want their money back soon.
Where do you see your career going next?
Right now, we are just focused on improving the model. We are in a beta test for the year and now that I have secured capital, testing the model and the market and seeing how the collection sells and then circling back and trying to do things bigger with a bigger team. I am not a solopreneur, I do get to work with people. They tend to be consultants; I don;t have any employees so it would be being able to hire a small team and execute properly on a larger level.
What's the most valuable lesson that you've learned in your career?
The thing that I struggle with the most is stress and having that balance. Just making sure that I have fun because if you get to the point where everyone is driving you crazy-which they will, that's what people do, they just drive you crazy- you have to be able to step back from that and be like "this is not going to steal my joy" because if you let it, there will always be a different fire everyday that you're having to put out and you'll hate your job. If you're pursuing your dream, you have to be able to find that balance of still having fun because that's why you decided to pursue your dream. Every day for me is making sure that I am still having fun and I remind myself "stress is a choice and you do not have to choose to be stressed out".
Who's your female role model?
I love Coco Chanel. If the odds were against anybody, it was her. She built this brand, and what other fashion brand? -Okay, maybe Hermes, but her bags increase in value every year so if you buy a Chanel bag, you can sell it for more money the next year. What other handbag besides maybe a Hermes is like that? So, I just have so much respect for her and the brand that she built with the odds that were stacked against her.
Are you currently involved in any humanitarian efforts?
Yes, my business I consider a humanitarian effort because I know what it's like to go to a job that you hate every day just to pay your bills and I want to create an environment for work that people love coming to and they thrive working within. Even the women we were working with in Kenya, if they wanted to take a break, they took a break. Even though we were paying them, they were their own bosses. You have to trust the people that you hire to be responsible and not have them working under a whip. I do consider myself a humanitarian because of the kind of work environment and the environment of trust that I want to build with the people that come onto the team.
Jerrica: Would you say that your mom inspired you to go back and do these great women with these women as far as production and manufacturing?
It's funny that you ask that question. I am going to answer it in a funny, round-about way. If you ever want to see me get really passionate or even quite aggressive with someone, let them tell me that I'm not African. It's happened to me a few times in the past and it always ends up in a verbal altercation and it's ended one of my very good friendships because they told me that I wasn't African and even though I don't speak like I'm African, even though I wasn't born in Africa, my entire lineage-my mother, my father, all my grandparents, all my aunts, all my cousins are Nigerian so for you to try to take that away from me-who are you to try to take that away from me? I am very proud of my heritage and that's why it's important for me to always reinvest back into people in the African continent.
Alexis: Do you consider yourself a leader?
Last year, if you would have asked me that, the answer would have been no but because I was given the opportunity by a single person who invested in my company to prove that I am a leader, yes, now I feel that I am a leader. Something actually happened this week. We are finalizing our look book and the person that we’re working with-a female who owns a branding company down in Miami, who's doing our branding-I just wasn't happy with the look of the look book and initially, I was just telling her criticisms. "Not this way, not that way". It didn't work until I opened the book in Photoshop and spent four hours on it myself and then sent it back to her for her to perfect. It made me think of these meme that I've seen about the difference between a leader and a business owner. The business owners sits in the back and shouts, the leader is at the front, pulling the weight. You always have to be able to go in there and know how to do every aspect of your business and get it done if that person steps out or doesn't understand the vision that you are trying to bring them towards.
What can we expect from your upcoming collection?
I had to look at the people who have invested in the collection in the past. The past customers and who those women were and they tended to be leaders of industries. Professional women-whether they're CEOs or a president of a University. Older women who actually have the income to shop so it tends to be work to after work, like appropriate to wear from work and then afterward but fun, colorful, classic silhouettes with unexpected twists. A bit of a global flair, fabrics that came in from UK, Italy, France, Holland, hand beaded in Kenya. I'm making sure that it's a global brand and bringing that worldwide representation to the customer.
Where can our audience go to view your collection?
They can visit us at www.autumnadeigbo.com. We're always looking to partner with creatives so if you see something on the website that resonates with you, reach out to us and we will see if there is a way for us to work together.
Alright Autumn, so now we're going to get into some fun questions, okay?
If you had to choose, what would be your life's theme song?
Oh, you're putting me on the spot. I have to really think about it. I'm a big music lover, I love music, it gets me through. Honestly, "Ambition" by Wale. And he's Nigerian.
How do you define confidence?
I'd have to really think about it. This is the thing, being close to the entertainment industry, I've seen a lot of [famous] people who their fans probably think are confident but I know that they're not. I think confidence is who you are when no one is looking. Or being able to squarely look at yourself in the mirror and in the eyes. I feel like confidence and integrity go hand in hand and if you're a person with integrity then confidence is going to come naturally. Confidence is being able to trust in and believe in yourself regardless of whether you have a million likes on social media. It's being able to believe in yourself regardless of what other people think or if other people are supporting you.
Three words to your younger self?
Don't get tattoos. I am getting one removed right now and it is so expensive and painful.
What do you love most about being a woman?
Women are smarter than men. (all laughs)
Absolutely. Perfect answer.
I hate to say it. That's also what I find so disappointing about me. I'm like "Really, there's nothing else? There's nothing more?"
And we expect for there to be more because there is so much within us.
Oh no, they're so simple. (laughs)
Last question. What female, dead or alive, is your spirit animal?
I think it's Chanel but she had a bit of controversy in her life if I'm not mistaken that's a bit swept under the rug so maybe I need to do a little more research into that before I just take that on. I also really love Freda Kahlo. Everything that she went through, including being involved with probably the most famous artist in the world who was notorious for cheating on her, and standing by his side. Having a debilitating ailment so she wasn't able to walk but that didn't stop her pursuing her art and creating some of the most beautiful works that have outlived her. Just her personality as she created a legacy. I love people that create legacies.
Absolutely. Alright Autumn. Well, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for interviewing with The Rai Report and we look forward to having you again in the near future.
Oh thank you. Thank you guys for having me.