Nigerian designer Adesola (Addie) Elabor launched her Philadelphia-based ready-to-wear African fashion brand D’IYANU in 2014 after quitting a job she didn’t enjoy to focus on what she loves.
Born in Nigeria, she moved to the U.S. with her family when she was six. And although she struggled to fit into the American lifestyle, she would learn to accept and embrace her uniqueness and African roots. In the end, after seeing an opportunity for a ready-to-wear African-inspired line and seeking to express her heritage through clothing, she quit her corporate job to launch her fashion business, which hit $1 million in sales in two and a half years.
In this interview with Face2Face Africa, Elabor tells how her business began, what her challenges have been amid the pandemic, and how she is transforming the fashion industry.
1. Kindly tell us more about yourself
I’m Adesola (Addie) Elabor, the founder and CEO of D’IYANU, an African-inspired apparel brand based in Norristown, PA. I was born in Nigeria and moved to the U.S with my family when I was six. As with most children new to a foreign environment, I struggled to fit into the American lifestyle with different foods, vocabulary, and culture. As I grew older, I learned to accept and embrace my uniqueness and African roots. I graduated from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK with a Bachelor’s in International Business and French minor. College is where I solidified my life’s goal of creating a business that would enable me to give back to the African community. After receiving my Master’s degree in International Marketing, I was unable to find a job in the marketing field. I was also very unhappy with my corporate job and didn’t see myself struggling to climb the corporate ladder so I decided to launch my own business. Seeing an opportunity for a ready-to-wear African-inspired line and seeking to express my heritage through clothing, I launched D’IYANU in January 2014 from my small studio apartment in King of Prussia, PA.
I currently work out of the D’IYANU headquarter in Norristown, PA with my brother, Dara Ajayi, and 17 other employees. When I’m not working on my business, I enjoy spending time with my husband, friends, and family. I also enjoy reading, watching movies, traveling, and trying new activities. I’m passionate about self-development and empowering my community. Since launching D’IYANU, I have made it a priority to donate a portion of revenue to charities empowering the black community and providing clean water and education to underdeveloped countries. D’IYANU has been able to donate over $50,000 to date.
2. When did you start your business, and what inspired you to do so?
I was inspired to start D’IYANU at the beginning of 2013 when I realized that there was a void in the fashion world for ready-to-wear African-inspired pieces that were easily accessible by people like myself. There wasn’t a leading brand that allowed you to celebrate your culture uniquely and stylishly. I asked myself “why not me?”. I immediately had this vision of developing a brand that would be the African print version of H&M or Zara. I didn’t have a fashion background, but the vision was so compelling that I had to make it happen. Additionally, I was dissatisfied with my career and relished the opportunity to launch my own business with the vision of building a legacy. D’IYANU was launched in January of 2014 with 6 women’s styles and has grown exponentially since then.
3. After two years of launching your D’IYANU, you were able to hit $1 million in sales. How did you do it?
The beginning of 2014 was a struggle since I was still working full time and running the business on the side. I decided to quit my full-time job in May of 2014 to focus full-time on D’IYANU. I knew I needed to invest all my time and attention to get the brand off the ground. To gain more customers, I would set up at various festivals and even managed to get some products into 2 boutiques in Philadelphia, but I wasn’t gaining much traction. I knew that the best place to find customers was online. At the end of September of 2014, I took a course on creating FB ads. That course was quite an investment, but it transformed my business practically overnight. With the help of FB ads and email marketing, we were able to hit 1 million in sales by the middle of 2016 which took 2.5 years from the launch date.
I would say that the key to hitting $1 million within 2.5 years is having a great product/market fit meaning that there was already a demand in the marketing for ready-to-wear African-inspired clothing. I simply needed to present quality products to the right audience. FB ads made that job much easier and affordable.
4. Tell us how D’IYANU is different from other clothing brands.
What sets D’IYANU apart from other clothing brands in general is that we create beautiful and unique pieces that can’t be found anywhere else since most of our prints are designed in-house. Our pieces allow our customers of all backgrounds to embrace and celebrate the African culture while uniquely expressing themselves.
As far as what makes us different from other African-inspired lines is that we have always been customer-focused. Excellent customer service is our #1 priority. We are always thinking about our customers from our designs to our return and exchange policy. We make sure that our fabric and construction are of great quality and priced affordably. Our goal is to design clothing that our customers can wear for any life occasion from work to vacation and everything in between. We also explore the usage of different types of material to make garments that our customers love and appreciate. For example, we started using a new type of fabric for women’s dresses that looks like cotton and retains vibrant colors, but unlike the traditional Ankara fabric, it has stretch to accommodate every curve. No one else on the market is making African print on this type of fabric to our knowledge. We’re excited to keep expanding with more clothing made from this material.
5. What have been some of the challenges?
My biggest initial challenge was gaining brand awareness and trying to figure out how to reach my ideal target market. After I took a course on FB ads marketing in late Sept of 2014, I was able to figure out how to drive traffic to my website and the business took off from there. Finding quality employees who are also a good cultural fit is an ongoing challenge. Two additional challenges are learning to better manage people to bring out the best in them and finding mentors and advisors who are operating at a higher level and can provide guidance.
6. How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your business?
We’ve faced challenges similar to many other retail brands in March 2020 when Covid-19 pretty much shut down most businesses and created tremendous uncertainty. The uncertainty led to March 2020 being our lowest revenue month in a really long time. Thankfully, we are online based and don’t have a retail storefront, which meant we weren’t saddled with crazy overhead associated with physical stores. Our goal was to cut costs in order to survive the financial hit, but we wanted to keep our team intact. Instead of laying off our staff, I stopped paying myself and we cut salaries by 30% for our company of 13 employees. As a team we brainstormed on ideas for bringing in more sales and we launched a t-shirt collection at the end of March which helped us out a bit.
By the beginning of April, we started making cloth face masks and donating medical masks to organizations that distributed them to people most in need. April 2020 started looking a lot better and we began experiencing record months of sales due to the masks and the emphasis of supporting black-owned businesses. The next challenge we faced was having personnel to manage the influx of orders. There were days I had to help pick and pack orders in the warehouse and work on the weekends in order to make sure that we shipped out orders in a timely manner. As of today, we have a great team in place to help us get our orders out. Interestingly, 2021 has had a slower start than prior years due to still being in the midst of a pandemic. Face mask sales have drastically declined and people aren’t necessarily shopping like before since events and gatherings are still discouraged. We’re hoping that the summer months will lead to an increase in sales as we start to have more events.
7. What advice would you give to anyone hoping to start a business?
Firstly, write down why you want to start your business. Make sure the reasons are compelling enough to get you through the tough times (because you’re guaranteed to have those days). If your reasons are compelling enough, you’ll figure out a way to make your dreams a reality and continue to push in spite of failures and setbacks.
Secondly, make sure the product or service you’re providing has a unique selling proposition and tells a story that will resonant with a sizable audience. Set aside a marketing budget and make sure to leverage social media marketing platforms early. Start building your email and SMS list pre-launch so that you already have customers on launch day and continue to grow that list since email and SMS marketing offer the biggest return on marketing spend.
Thirdly, you have to have faith. You have to have faith that God will lead and guide you as you take each bold step. Also, you have to have faith in yourself– that you have what it takes to succeed.