Vogue CS in English

Interview with Akudo Iheakanwa of Shekudo

Foto: Rhys Frampton
Dress, Lisa Folawiyo (sold at Koibird); blazer, Gloria Wavamunno; shoes, Shekudo (sold at Koibird); ring, earrings, all Vintage.
Ooooota: What was it like moving from Sydney to Lagos? These cities couldn’t be more different from one another.
Akudo: It was an interesting journey to say the least. Going from Sydney where things were often too orderly for me to Lagos and its organised disorder (if I can call it that) was hard, but also created great opportunities for ‘character building’ as my dad would say.
Akudo Iheakanwa of Shekudo
Ooooota: Production and manufacturing of Shekudo is solely in Lagos. As a Lagosian, I know how inconsistent resources we take for granted in other parts of the world can be when operating a Nigeria-based business. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced? How do you work around them?
Akudo: You’re absolutely right, we do take it for granted. When I started sourcing materials and trying to create an organised production process, I came across one hurdle after the other. However, these hurdles allowed me to look for other opportunities. One of our biggest hurdles was getting access to new leather. We have a lot of amazing leather in Nigeria that is often sold off internationally or only sold in large quantities making it hard for brands starting out. I then found all of this amazing remnant leather in the local market that had been sent here / purchased as rejected off-cuts and I thought ‘how can I make use of this discarded goodness!?’  So I decided to work solely with this leather and consciously design our leather collections around colours that would be easy to find (in case larger orders came in).  We also had issues being able to source our heels locally - there were certain styles in the market, but they would run out very quickly. Of course we could’ve imported through contacts in Italy and China but the order minimums were too high for us when starting out. We ended up using local wood and hand carving them the old-fashioned way. This allowed us to create more employment locally and use our local resources at the same time - we could control the order minimums. I am trying to find better solutions daily and it’s a process, but we are getting there.
Ooooota: The Aso Oke is a beautiful woven fabric which is emblematic of Yoruba tradition and creativity. Why does it feature so prominently in your accessories?
Akudo: I didn’t want to just be another shoe brand focusing solely on working with leather. I wanted to have a point of difference and figure out ways that I could use local skills, traditional material and craftsmanship to create a unique identity. My dad is from the Igbo tribe and we also have our own traditional cloth which I soon plan to use in an upcoming collection. But for now I was first drawn to Aso Oke and really enjoyed the fact that I could play with colours, lines and designs. The material is super strong and of course it never runs out! I will continue using weaves throughout my collections in the attempt to keep the tradition alive (in my own small way) and share such a historically relevant Nigerian craft with the world. 
Ooooota: You’ve spoken of discovering local craftspeople in Lagos and across Nigeria. What surprised you most through these encounters? What did you learn in the process? 
Akudo: What surprised me? 1. How differently I saw colours to my artisans. My ‘red’ was their orange!  
What did I learn? To be more flexible. Just because something couldn’t be done exactly the way I wanted, it didn’t mean that it was the end. There was always a way, I just had to be open to other possibilities. 
Ooooota: Many contemporary African brands generally do not focus on accessories beyond jewellery or decorative items. Why have you chosen to focus on jewellery, shoes, and bags (shoes in particular)?  
Akudo: I just love the shoe making process and of course, no outfit is complete without a good pair of shoes.  I mainly wanted to showcase the shoe making skills of our artisans here which is a growing industry and many people don’t know that Nigeria makes a sh*t tonne of shoes. There is a big focus in Lagos however on slipper and sandal production and I noticed a select few shoemakers who delved into high heels, so I wanted to explore this further and refine it. There’s so much more work to be done and I can’t wait to grow our team and skills further.
Ooooota: Do you intend to move beyond accessories or carve out your space within this fashion segment?
Akudo: For sure, footwear and accessories is just the beginning. We plan to move into garments soon. We want our Shekudo women to be able to come to us and get a full outfit for whatever occasion they need to go to. 
Ooooota: Who is Shekudo made for? How does the ‘Shekudo Sisterhood’ intend to promote a sense of caring, empowerment and celebration of women?
Akudo: I have always surrounded myself with circles of strong women very early on in my personal life and wanted this attribute to also translate across into the brand. I genuinely feel connected to all of the customers who reach out to us and support the brand - it’s like a global sisterhood of women who are conscious about the story behind their products. I want women to not only feel connected through the brand and its beautiful products but to know that there is a bigger story behind their purchases including employment creation, empowerment through capacity building and training also being part of a new narrative for Nigerian fashion.
Ooooota: Would you describe Shekudo as a Nigerian brand, an African brand or a global brand?
Akudo: Well it’s a tough one because many publications and others in the industry will unknowingly pigeonhole you with these labels. In my opinion, being an African brand, let alone a ‘Nigerian brand’ has only recently held more and more clout in the fashion world. You see brands like Charles and Keith and Zara being listed as Singaporean and Spanish brands, so I’m also happy for our brand to be labelled as such. We work hard to showcase the amazing skills, craftsmanship and traditional materials that we have on ground in Nigeria, but we still aim to reach global audiences just like Marni, Rachel Comey, Miista etc.
Ooooota: Has COVID-19 taught you to pivot your brand’s focus or has it strengthened your resolve in your direction?
Akudo: Bit of both! We have not only been able to strengthen our brand’s foundations and really refine our policies and procedures but also look at the direction we are taking and consider whether we can diversify our offerings in the future in case we are ever faced with a similar situation (hopefully not). I did see some footwear and clothing brands immediately start selling mugs or house plants etc - we wouldn’t go this far, but it’s always good to have a diversification plan. No one needed shoes and bags for a good chunk of this year - people were staying home (unless they were house shoes of course). We mulled over bringing out more everyday styles that women could whack on and go or wear around the home for upcoming collections.
Ooooota: Why is it important to support local artisans?
Akudo: They offer a wealth of knowledge that in many cases is at risk of being forgotten. For example, not too many young Nigerian men and women are interested in sitting behind a loom and creating weaves – it’s hard, painstaking work and many don’t have the patience for it. We want to help bring new life to these traditions where we can and show the younger generation that it’s such a beautiful art form that can provide a livelihood. Shoes are no different, we have less and less young men and women interested in learning this craft A to Z. Many learn just the basics from their senior instructor and then leave to start their own business without completing their training. We want to keep supporting the artisans in this industry and bring in more pride to the craft and opportunities for skill transfer where we can.
Ooooota: Has it been more challenging to establish credibility with Nigerians/Africans or with a global audience? 
Akudo: Nigerians more than the global audience funnily enough. Nigerians always fear that quality is not there because many local artisans and producers cut corners and don’t finish products well. We’ve been able to grow a strong following of customers who know that we only aim for the best, and if satisfaction is not there, we work hard to rectify this. We have had some apprehension with international buyers who want to buy in bulk but have never bought shoes from a Nigerian or African brand, but most are very open to giving it a try and we love the support.
Ooooota: Is there anything about Shekudo you wish people knew more of? 
Akudo: We are trying to bring in more female shoemakers as it is a male-dominated industry. Earlier this year we started collecting $5 from every sale to go towards an inhouse training program to train at risk Nigerian women in the art of shoemaking. COVID-19 stifled our efforts temporarily but we are back and hope to start the program in early 2021. Very excited.