I don’t sell clothes to make money alone, I’m here to change the narrative – Anne Ekwueme


Anne Ekwueme, is the creative director at Zibah by Anne Ekwueme, a fashion outfit that has been in existence since 2015 and caters for those she refers to as “Royalty” in this interview with Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, she spoke about how it all started, her passion for Nigeria and the children as well as why both parents cannot afford to be out there chasing daily bread and leaving the children at the mercy of the society.


Give us a bit about your background and how it has influenced your work?

My name is Anne Ekwueme. I’m a married mother of four. At Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, I majored in history for my undergraduate degree. Later, I completed an MBA in addition to a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Management. Although I didn’t really do anything about it until 2002 or 2003, I have sort of always had a sense for fashion. I diligently pursued it for a few months before realising that it wasn’t my main goal at the time. At the time, I wanted to concentrate on starting and raising a family. I essentially gave it up to be a full-time stay-at-home mother with my kids.

So in the process of raising my kids, I was able to find myself. I am also a graduate of Rhema Bible Training Center, Nigeria. I’ve gone on to do a couple of courses in public policy because I also have a knack for policies for the nation, Nigeria. I’ve been involved in a few things around but basically when you say Anne Ekwueme, the next thing that I carry on my heart is the nation Nigeria, so yes, that’s me in a nutshell.

What inspired you to start Zibah by Anne Ekwueme?

Like I said, I had a knack for fashion. I remember when I was either 18 or 19 years old. I had asked my mom for N10,000 as a loan so I can make clothes from Zaria and take them to Lagos to sell. Then my sister used to live in Lagos. I was basically trading because when I make clothes in Zaria, during holidays I take them to Lagos to sell and then go to Balogun, buy shoes, and bring them back to the north to sell. So I’ve always had a knack for that. Like I said, I picked it up again in 2002 but not for long, this was when I was living in Port Harcourt. I moved to Abuja in 2008, started a restaurant business but that wasn’t really me to be honest. It was more like okay, we need to have an additional family income so I pursued that. It didn’t do so well so I shut it down. And while I was in that season of Okay, Lord, what do I do? I got another place and I was thinking in my mind, okay, it probably will still be a restaurant but somehow the whole thing for sewing came up again.Ezoic

So yes, I started it again officially in 2015. In 2015, I had stopped the restaurant but because I didn’t want to be idle I said, okay, you know what, let me go to Turkey and buy household items to come and sell. On the second to the last day of my stay in Istanbul, my friend saw a fabric store. I just went in there to buy one fabric for myself. And as soon as I walked into the store, it was as though I just walked into heaven. You know, so I bought fabrics from that store and I started sending pictures to people and saying I have these fabrics. The fabric I went in there to buy was just $20 but I ended up spending the remaining $2,000 on me for the fabrics. That was how I started selling fabrics and then sewing again in 2015. So, that’s how Zibah by Anne Ekwume was born.

I had fabrics and people wanted to make clothes because a lot of people say oh, the reason they don’t buy fabrics is because there’s no one to make them. So I started, but there was no clarity in that sense. I was just doing tailor work right and as it went on, it became clearer to me. It was more like I perceived the Lord said to me, clothe my daughters, and in my small mind at the time I thought he was speaking about a specific group of people right, you know, but as you stay with the Lord, right, he opens up his instructions to you. Yeah, so it’s been a very, very interesting journey. And I will say to be honest, this is literally one of the easiest things that I’ve done. People ask me, how are you able to do this? I’m like, I just do it. For me, it’s not work. It is almost like having fun.

So what’s the unique selling point of your brand? I see you bringing old school and modernising it. I follow you on social media and I hear you talk about Kathryn Kulman being a mentor as well as bringing back her fashion. Why?

The brand is supposed to be a classic contemporary brand. The aim is that I want to remain in your wardrobe for as long as possible, right, even though we follow trends but that doesn’t define us. Right because we want to remain classic. Because there are some things that you buy that you can wear come rain come sunshine. Yeah? So that’s the kind of brand that we are.

So talking about fusing, the old and the new. This is due to the abundance of historical material, especially from my work on Kathryn Kulman’s collection. In my opinion, it seemed more like she was a woman who was a God sent to both her generation and ours. Obviously, she was a stylish lady. Her understanding of the Holy Spirit was profound. For those fortunate enough to read about her life, she was far from a perfect woman. It was my intention to remind myself and those around me that we all have potential and much more by revisiting and highlighting that experience. So as a practising believer in Jesus Christ because I don’t like using the word Christian in that sense because there’s a difference. So there’s so much more that you are able to bring to life in everything that you’re doing.

This woman had such a deep relationship with God that during her meetings before she appeared on stage, people were healed of terrible illnesses. And as you can imagine, it’s crucial for us women to embrace who we are. Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, and whether the men want to agree or not, women still play a very important part in everything that concerns the country. This must be acknowledged.

So it was more like, “Yes, we are young,” in my opinion. Even though we are here now, we must never forget the struggles of those who came before us and paved the way for us. We have to keep them in mind. What did they do well? And what were they carrying? in order for us to be capable of far more than they were. In summary, though, it was about being able to inform all the women out there that, despite her apparent perfection, this particular woman was not without problems. She even married someone else’s husband at that point, but God still used her in spite of her repentance. So God is not looking for perfect people to use. He says, come and give me your heart. Give me all of your mess and I will turn it around and use it as I desire.

Women have fought to stay on the table whether in governance, the corporate world and then all of a sudden there is drama with women in government you know, the story of stealing and embezzlement and all that. Is as if women are being painted with the same brush right now. What’s your advise, especially to women in the marketplace at this time?

So, I think the real problem is that we have bought into the narrative of the world. We have allowed strife, we have become reactionary to the way women are treated. So I think first and foremost, the slogan “what a man can do a woman can do better”, is very wrong. That’s because a woman is a woman a man is a man. So, first I must accept that I am a woman. I am a nurturer. Take for instance, in the animal kingdom, there is the lion and the lioness. So what happens is that when the pride is hungry, what happens is that the lion will go up and roar. And when he roars, every animal in the animal kingdom knows that there’s a problem right, and then they all scamper away. Because he’s roaring into the ground, the animals don’t know where the sound is coming from. So he steps back and it is now the turn of the lioness to come and get the prey and then once she does that, she steps and allows her cubs and the lion to come and eat before she eats.Ezoic

So there’s no competition between a man and a woman. A woman has her role the man has his role. So I think that what has happened is that rather than understand that we are nurturers, we are a blessing. We play a vital role in the society. And we took the narrative of competition with men. And then when you take that kind of narrative, you can’t really operate very well. So what I’ll say to women especially women in the marketplace is that, you are a woman, there’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, I say that if there’s another life, I want to be a woman. I love my position as a woman. It’s a position of strength. You know that if we embrace it as God designed it, we will function in our real identity. We will not be going to and fro basically trying to be what somebody else has designed for you. So the thing is, you are a woman God created you like this. You are valuable to him. You are his female expression. We must embrace that truth rather than embracing the truth of the independent woman, in that sense, being reactionary to the men. For me, I don’t think that is anything like a table in that sense. As a woman, if there’s a table the value you bring as a nurturer, nobody can deny it. So let’s stop being reactionary to men. Let’s find our identity, who we are in God and then we will begin to operate from there.

And when it comes to governance?

So when it comes to governance, understand that women are the ones who…because every policy in every nation, no matter how big or small it is, still boils down to the family unit. So, if women understood that they are the ones representing people are supposed to protect that family unit, our approach to certain things will be different. We must understand that we have been gifted with intuition. We’ve been gifted with the ability to solve problems. So when we come to the table, not as an independent woman, but as a woman that has the strength and the intellect to be able to preserve that family unit, we will do better in governance. Because whatever happens in the society, it still comes down to that family unit.

Earlier you mentioned that your focus is on classic designs but I know that is not cheap. Do you have something for everybody?

So because we’re classic my clients are between the ages of late 20s to 80s. A couple of young people like what I do, but maybe affordability is the problem. Obviously, we’re not the cheapest brand out there, that’s the truth. My clients are from all walks of life because everyone would like a bit of classiness in their wardrobe. Right?

What has been the biggest challenge in establishing and growing your brand?

I mean, it’s important for me to always say that I started this business when Nigeria officially entered recession in 2015. People are thinking that the recession just started now. No no no it started in 2015. Right? My biggest challenge at the time, I will say, was not even human resource because I harness my gifts as a woman. I am a nurturer, so I didn’t have a lot of problems with human resources because I don’t bring you in as a staff, I bring you in as family. I help you see the vision so we can work together. The main thing at the time when I started was electricity, right, but now, it is that plus the extreme issue of inflation. As you know, we don’t necessarily produce anything as a nation. Nothing. Every single thing is imported. And that’s really sad for a nation that has so much, we are blessed people. There’s nothing you are looking for in Nigeria, particularly in the human resource that you can’t find. So it’s sad that we are not able to produce anything. So those are the challenges really. Another thing I see as a challenge is that we are not able to cater for the children as a nation. Because if we had certain infrastructure in place, we would be able to cater for our children, I say our children because the next generation there’s really nothing that we’re leaving for them. No hand work in that sense. No skills acquisition centres. Even the education itself is faulty. So this has done a disservice.Ezoic

I’m sure there is a remedy. So what would be your advise?

I mean there’s not one answer to the issues but the first thing I see is there need to be a reorientation of the people but then when you reorientate the people, you have to give them hope. Our children have lost hope in us. I think the first thing is a reorientation, bringing back hope because if you take away a man’s hope there’s nothing left. So, first is let our children even know that we care. Because they don’t know that we care. We may think even as parents, coming down to the family unit, we know the way our parents brought us up, they did everything for us, hoping that we know that they care. But we didn’t necessarily know so it was important for us to hear I love you. Thank you. Get a well done hug. So as a nation, our children need to know that we care for them and they need to see the legacy that we are leaving for them.

Does that explains why everyone is running away?

Yes, the hopelessness and once you remove hope from anyone that’s it. It is not the role of the child to be wondering whether my father loves me or not. It is your responsibility as a father and as a mother to assure the child but now our children are struggling. They’re fighting to almost reassure themselves that okay, they are loved, but it’s not supposed to be that way.

In the midst of all these challenges are there memorable milestones from your business you want to share?

Of course. When I started the business, like I said, there wasn’t a lot of clarity initially, but as I went on, clarity came and I realised that I was not on the scene, just to make clothes and make money. I saw that I was on the scene to change the narrative. So I say to people that I don’t sell clothes in that sense, I sell a lifestyle. I sell the lifestyle of “you are royalty”. You may not know it, and it doesn’t necessarily mean oh until you buy my clothes. No! But when you come in contact with me, I help you see how valuable you are to God. He created you. He puts himself in you, so you are valuable. So as I’ve been on this journey, I’ve seen the lives of the people that I have worked with me as a team changed. We’ve gone on to have this leadership initiative, where we’ve reached over 2000 women, just teaching them about their identity and leadership and how to start up a business. In fact, we had a lot of people who were not necessarily business people, nor in the corporate world. But then they attended our leadership initiative programme and it made them see who they are, it brought out their identity and they began to walk in it. So for me that’s like one of the biggest successes of my journey as an entrepreneur, that I’m able to see lives change.Ezoic

Like I said over 2000 Women have been reached and a few men here and there. There was a time we opened up the leadership boot camp to men. I saw it in a community somewhere in Karimu just before they demolished it. We were there for two and a half years. We were there every Sunday for almost three years, we had these children we would feed and share the gospel of Jesus. So every Sunday we were feeding over 230 people, you know, and this business paid for that. Because one of the instructions I had was do not solicit for funds from anyone. And we were able to empower the women with money and stuff to start businesses, we just put a lot of value on them.Ezoic

With the dollars skyrocketing, one will wonder how you cope to bring in materials and still make profit?

This might sound like a cliche to some people but God has been extremely good and faithful to me. What I will say is that everyone needs to hear God, it’s so critical because it will save your life. In 2019, I remember when the Lord said to me, start another line a cheaper brand. I launched that line in June 2019 exactly. It was cheaper than the normal ZibahbyAnneEkwueme line, and in 2020 COVID happened, the lockdown happened. Can I tell you that in those months that we had locked down I didn’t loose one naira. I was making money every day and in fact right after COVID I increased the salary of my team members because I was able to hear God and implement his instructions. And after the lockdown ended, I couldn’t do anything with that line anymore. It just doesn’t work somehow. So I look back and I say to myself, it is so important to hear God.

For me right now I don’t focus on inflation in that sense even though I have children schooling abroad as well, the exchange rate is hitting hard and my bills are not in Naira but in foreign currency but God has been faithful. I have seen businesses closed but I take it one day at a time. My focus is, keeping providing value. If you are a valuable person, you can’t be ignored.

Another reassuring thing for me is that, when there was famine in Egypt at the time, the priests of Pharaoh who were priests for their gods, he ensured that their own portion was not tampered with. In spite of everything, they didn’t go out looking for food, everything was brought to them as the priests of Pharaoh. How much more a priest of God according to the order of Melchizedek. So, my focus is “continue being my priest, continue working with me” on a daily basis. Of course, distractions come but I don’t frame myself in them. Because, by faith the world was frame by the Word of God. So whatever you see, you are going to put yourself inside. I take one day at a time and trust in God’s leading and guidance. I sell every day, my business is expanding everyday. We are in Ghana, Lagos, everywhere but I don’t have a physical store, I partner with people.

How does ZibahbyAnneEkwueme approach sustainability and ethical practices in its production process?

That’s a million dollars question because with the volatility of our economy and because of how I feel for Nigeria I am not able to produce outside of Nigeria right now. I don’t take people’s fabrics anymore, I do ready to wear. I can easily go abroad and produce but my joy is that it is made in Nigeria pieces. So sustainability first is believing God that our economy, our nation will become more stable as the days go by. By the way, I am on assignment for Nigeria, I pray for Nigeria on a daily basis and I believe what I am praying. I believe the economy is going to get better but in the meantime, I believe he is going to give me the strategy to go on.Ezoic

Secondly, we are trying to get our team to perfect the art of sizing and all of that because we know once we are able to do all of that, then we will continue to produce valuable pieces. So operationally, the first thing for sustainability is how valuable will I remain? Because if you continue in business but you are not valuable who are you going to sell to? Secondly, it is to continue horning my skills to be better and to solve problems. So at ZibahbyAnneEkwueme, we don’t just make pieces we solve problems in clothing. Because, for most women, even if you go abroad, you have the money but is either is too short, tight, sleeveless etc. so, we solve that problem for you.

Let’s not even talk decent dressing, but you are royalty and royalty doesn’t dress anyhow. There’s a comportment with royalty so we solve that problem for people who understand that they are royalty. That is why our slogan is “for the woman who understands royalty”, we help solve your wardrobe problems.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own fashion or lifestyle brand?

Solve problems. You are on earth not to make money but to solve problems and to transform lives. I’ll give an example. I had a client who wanted a white two piece suit but she said to me that she had a white shirt already so I shouldn’t bother making a white shirt. But because I know that no two white fabrics are the same, I went ahead and made a white shirt. When it was delivered, she said she didn’t ask for a shirt, and I told her to try and match her white shirt with the white piece we delivered and she was shocked it didn’t matched. She asked me, how did you know and I said this is my job, to help you solve problems. So she asked how much is it and I said no, you are not paying for it, I just took the burden off you.

Another one came and we made an outfit for her because she was going for an appointment event. But I saw that the fabric was dirty, there was a stain on it. I could have given it to her but since I had a retainership with a dry cleaner, I sent it to them to clean and asked her to delay her coming to pick it for some hours because I sent it to the dry cleaner. She said that is what has made her stick with me all this while because of the thoughtfulness I put into my work. I was thinking about her. So my point is, look for problems around you and solve them, you will be rewarded.https://d5eaf017d7d2cd93f53763f17f8e1bdb.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-40/html/container.htmlEzoic

What other things are you passionate about aside from fashion, leadership and how are you pushing them?

I said earlier that I am passionate about children. I started this thing for teenagers in 2014. It’s called Purity Rocks. A lot of children don’t know their right from their left. They don’t know why I should not have sex before marriage aside from the warnings from their parents or adults around them that don’t have it. Or why they should stay away from drugs. So I am passionate about children and teenagers.

While praying for Nigeria, what the Lord told us was that if we are able to restore honour in our homes, teach our children the first commandment, honour your father and your mother so that your days will be long, that is in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, it says honour your father and your mother so that your days will be long and it will be well with you. He said to us that if we will teach our children that, the first problem with the next generation will be solved. Our children lack honour, they don’t even know what it is. Because if you complain about the adults of today, the leaders of today, they were once children. I also believe for the Muslims, that thing about honour is also captured in the Koran.

So that means anything your father and mother says, you hold it dear to your heart. To honour means to reverence. So if our children learn and know that my father and my mother are not old school, and that the words that come out of their mouth are almost sacred, half of the problems in our society world wide will be solved. So I’m passionate about the next generation getting it right.

How do you juggle your many roles as an entrepreneur, a minister of God, a wife and a mother?

First is that I have an extremely supportive husband, he gives me wings to fly. In fact at one point he used to call himself a stay at home dad. So I’m grateful to God for that. So that’s where it starts from and the rest I just do it. The thing is I am never under pressure because God that calls me to do these things has graced me to do them. My domestic workers, which like I said earlier are family, have been very supportive. The last driver I had worked with for 17 years plus before he passed. The housekeeper has been with me for 13 years. My manager for the business has been with me for 13 or 14 years. So I have that strong support and that helps. I didn’t start doing business until my marriage was 10 years and by this time the children were already grown. So, my youngest is 14 right now and that affords me the flexibility. Remember I said I started a business and then shot it down, so that first 10 years I have it to my family. I was so active in their school because I took them to school in the morning. I was there till 2pm whether it was in Port Harcourt or Abuja, in fact I currently sit on the board of one of the schools. So I am one of those mothers that literally gave my all to the children and their school at the time. So, for young mothers, I say particularly now, first contentment is key. If your husband’s income can sustain you, please be a stay at home mum and raise your children. If you can get a job that is flexible, fantastic. Right now, both parents cannot afford to be out there. Except you have your mum living with you and that is even if you have the same values as your mum. I say to young people right now, forget about the wigs, hand bags, flashy things, you can look nice. Just decide that you want to be wearing boubou for now, go to Wuse Market, buy affordable fabrics and make boubous for yourself and say in this season of my life this is how I want to be dressing, nobody needs to know anything. But now, you are sitting down, you are the lioness in that household because your first responsibility is these children. Because right now, it is becoming increasingly difficult for both parents to be out there and leave the children alone.

Source: The Sun


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