Chief Mrs. Iyabosola Ninalowo is a beautiful woman who is also stylish too. She is tall. She is slim. She is a leading Aso Oke Merchant in Nigeria. She has been in the business of producing and selling Aso Oke for decades. She was born into a lineage of Aso Oke sellers. She is a 4th generation Aso Oke seller and she is happy doing business which she started as a hobby when she was small. She started off by helping her mum to sell her Aso Oke at her Isale Eko Shop before she went on to set up her own shop. And she has been at it since then. She has improved and modernised what she inherited and she has witnessed all the various changes that Aso Oke has gone through over the last 2 to 3 decades.
Despite all the vicissitudes of business, she has weathered the storm. She is the CEO of Culture Speaks, which is her Aso Oke business. Last week, City People Publisher SEYE KEHINDE spoke to her at her Bode Thomas Street, Surulere Shop in Lagos. It is a whole building filled with Aso Oke & Damask. She spoke about life as a big Aso Oke seller. It’s an interesting and revealing and revealing interview.
You have been selling Aso Oke for several years. What has kept you going all these while?
To God be the glory. Its God that has made me to be able to sustain the business. It also has to do with experience. I have said it severally. I was born into the business. I am actually the 4th generation of Aso Oke sellers. Its been tough through. You know how difficult it is to manage Nigerian workers. There are so many factors that have made it difficult and challenging. Basic infrastructures are down. The new generation of workers are not making running business easy. We have just been trying to manage them. Its been tough but God has been faithful. We have been able to sustain it and we have been able to climb higher and higher.
I know you do Aso Oke. Have you added new lines?
I do Aso Oke and that is basically all I do. I sell Aso Oke. I sell Damask. And to me, it is more of a passion. I don’t see it as a job anymore. I put in my best. I am doing what I know how to do best. The focus is just to make it grow, to make the business grow. I don’t want it to die. Its a culture. It is something that we should cherish. That is why I call my business Culture Speaks. It is something that the government should put in a lot of effort into. This has been my own focus. I don’t want Aso Oke to die. Very soon, we are going to make it into an everyday affair, into casual wear, we are turning it into something everybody can say, ok my bag is made from Nigeria and it is from Aso-Oke. Our everyday wear will soon become Aso Oke. We would soon get to that stage.
Why did you decide to name your business Culture Speak?
It’s just a natural thing. It’s about culture Aso Oke is about culture. Whenever you wear Aso Oke don’t need to say anything it speaks for itself.
At what point did you start your own Aso Oke business, as different from your mum’s aso oke business, because I know you were born into it?
Yes. I read Economics and I actually had a very good grade. I made a top 2-1 grade at the University of Nigeria, (actually, I wouldn’t say the University of Nigeria, because it is now Nnamdi Azikwe University. I left in 1990 I went back to UNILAG and I did an MBA. All I had wanted to do was to be a career banker. I started as a banker, in no time, with the wahala then, of deposits today, high target tomorrow I left. So, I happen to be an ex-banker. My dad died along the line, and my mum needed to sit at home for a very long time and you know, an Ijebu woman will do everything to sustain her business. So, she begged me to stay in the shop while she is at home for the period. I agreed I gave it everything. I gave it my all. I put in my best and I realised that what my mum has been doing for years, I can as well do it in one year. So, she was impressed at my performance. She did everything to make me change my mind and say you don’t need to go around in search of other things to do. This is just the place for you. And I could tell them that I could actually do the business.
Tell us about your mum’s role in the Aso Oke business. Where was her shop then?
She was one of the pioneers of Aso Oke in Lagos Island. She had a very big shop. She had a good name. We were at No 3 Daddy Alaja Street. I was actually born there. And she has been into this same business for a very long time.
Are you a Lagosian?
My parents are from Ijebu Ode. My dad is from Porogun, my mum is from Imolipa.
How did you now set up your own outfit?
When my mum came back. When she finished the Islamic prayers at home, she realised that I have been able to make so much money. I made so much money for her. I redefined her business. I was able to change a lot of her designs. I was able to change the work force, structure and everything.
So, she was satisfied. She was about retiring, she said why don’t I just continue from where she was about to stop. I said ok. I gave it a shot. Since then its been wonderful.
When did you call it Culture Speaks. At first it wasn’t called Culture Speak?
At first it wasn’t called Culture Speak, until much more later. I was actually with my mum. We were doing it together. In 2005 I got my own shop and I named it Culture Speak.
Were you at any point worried that Aso Oke will some day go out of vogue? And people will not want to buy it any longer…
No. That is not possible. I don’t see it going out of vogue. Aso-Oke is a vintage thing is forever. Its been with our great grand parents and it will forever be. The Chinese have tried so much to try and duplicate it. But they have only tried. They cannot duplicate it. At the end of the day if you are coming with $10,000 lace and I came in with my moderate Aso Oke, people will still look at me. I will stand out. You can’t replace it. It is irreplecable. Do you know the meaning of Aso Oke? Something that is up there. You put it up there. When you wear it you feel good, you feel on top of everybody. No. I don’t see it going out of fashion. Its not possible.
How do you produce your aso oke?
I have a lot of workers. I have a lot of weavers working for me. We used to have Ghanaians. We used to have Senegalese. Now, we have Ilorin people and Iseyin people doing it. I sketch out my designs and I sit down with my workers and we bring it out. We keep playing with possibilities like what if we do it this way or that way. My new customers, come in with their ideas and I advice them. I give them the expertise. I tell them don’t do it this way or that way. And everything comes out nice. As for my old customers, a lot of them believe so much in my judgements. They just say, look, we have this colour in mind what do you think? Sometimes, I change it. Sometimes I work with the colours. Sometimes we try to moderate things. I tell you, with all sense of modesty. I am so good in what I do, and a lot of my customers do appreciate it and they give me kudos for it. It is the only thing I am so good at. I know I am good at it.
How do you convince the younger generation to love Aso Oke?
Engagement, the younger ones have come to realise that nothing beats Aso Oke. Sometimes you still need to convince them. I am able to convince them easily. Aso Oke is unique. Very unique.