Nov 2, 2020
In 2009 Femi Olayebi—the founder, CEO, CCO and designer of FemiHandbags—was making her way through Italy by train. There as a visitor of the international trade shows, including Lineapelle Milano, MIPEL, and MICAM, she had with her one of the colorful bags she had created. A woman and man were sitting not too far away and chatting to one another for most of the ride but just before disembarking, the woman approached her to inquire about the colorful purse sitting atop Olayebi’s lap. She wanted to know what brand was behind it. When Olayebi responded with a simple “me”, the woman looked at her curiously and said, “Who are you?”
A self-taught entrepreneur, Olayebi laughs heartily when she recalls this story over a phone call with Industrie Africa. “I suppose she was expecting to hear me respond with one of the big brands. I said to her, ‘My name is Femi and I’m nobody’ to which she responded that I just had to participate in Pure London. When she said that I pretended that I knew what Pure London was,” the designer continues, letting out another chuckle at the memory. The woman gave her card to Olayebi, promising to try and arrange a concession stand for her at United Kingdom's leading fashion trade show. That February, FemiHandbags participated in its first stand-alone foreign exhibition.
Photo: The Ameena Midi. Courtesy of FemiHandbags
Olayebi deems the encounter a serendipitous one as she does many of her subsequent career milestones. And to think it all began with a diaper bag. Way back in 1992, Olayebi decided to make a baby bag for her first child. She had just learned to sew and had no idea that this little side project would alter her path entirely, placing her on the trajectory toward fulfilling what she now declares her destiny. “When I started out I didn't think it was going to end up as it is today. It was something I was doing somewhat carelessly and not really thinking about it,” she explains. “All I did was make the diaper bag because I needed one, end of story. So there was never any real plan, it was just something I did. I went to the markets, I sourced the material, made the bag and before I knew it, I was getting requests from others to make one for them… Years went by and this thing I was doing with these bags wasn’t slowing down. So I thought okay if this is what I am going to do, if this is what I am destined to do, I need to be really good at it. Then in 2008, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to do my very first business course. That was a pivotal point in my life and in my business.”
Though she has a plethora of achievements under her belt (including being a recipient of the Goldman Sachs ‘10,000 Women’ scholarship, founding the Lagos Leather Fair, and winning the WEConnect International Certified Women’s Business Enterprise Award), there’s a marked humility about her, one that belies her immense success and longevity. She’s a self-made woman who worked as a translator for France’s Institut de Traducteurs d'Interprètes until 1992—a job she initially thought she’d do for the rest of her life—when she had her daughter and constructed that first bag. Initially adamant that this new project was nothing more than what she calls a “break in transition”, it ended up unlocking a genuine passion that Olayebi quickly embraced.
She ultimately found herself at the head of her own handbag company, her perfectionist streak and deeply embedded work ethic serving her well on her and FemiHandbags’ road to success.
Bold, bright, and handcrafted from the finest Italian leather at Olayebi’s factory in Ibadan, FemiHandbags is a luxury leather handbag line that offers a range of showstopping arm-candy inspired by simple, classic shapes and vintage-styled silhouettes. Elements such as whipstitched sides, hand-stitched, rolled handles, and hand sewn straps have become some of the brand’s signature features. There’s also an unabashed confidence to the brand’s artisanal creations, a confidence that it no doubt imparts to its wearer: the color blocking and combination of unexpected shades speak to the brave while the touches of nickel hardware, Aso-Oke (a type of hand-woven cloth created by the Yoruba people of west Africa), and fringe detailing bestow upon them a little fun, movement and cultural significance. The pieces saturated in color, prismatic tones and a vivid color palette have come to form part of the brand’s signature.
Take, for example, their Ameena Midi bag: though its structured, almost rectangular silhouette, and flap closure is that of a classic shoulder-bag, the rainbow stripes and elegant touches of fringe render it anything but basic. Then there’s the brand’s office-ready Aliyah, an eccentric spin on the classic doctor’s bag, whose solid structure and tasteful color combination serve to smarten up everything from work attire to a lunch date look. But when it comes to Olayebi’s favorite, she’s quick to name the FH Maxi-Maxi Tote: available in three different colorways, the oversized bag is primarily made from aso-oke cloth, features leather side panels, and has short, double rolled handles. Despite the size, the tote was expressly designed so its wearer does not carry it over the shoulder, something its designer considers a chic and unique touch. “I’ve always been intrigued with vintage styles and shapes,” explains Olayebi. “I wanted to take a style that could perhaps be considered outdated and transform it into something really modern and wearable.” As for the type of customer she’s designing for, the “Femi Woman” she tells us, that woman knows exactly what she wants and is not afraid to stand out with something that's strong, bold, and captivating.
Photo: La Petite Ameena. Courtesy of FemiHandbags
As the creative driving force behind FemiHandbags, Olayebi oversees the entire manufacturing process, right from conceptualisation to production of each and every bag. Inside her factory, a team of skilled artisans and leather workers dedicatedly work to bring her beautiful designs to life, paying close attention to special touches such as whipstitched sides, hand-stitched, rolled handles, and hand sewn straps, all of which have become synonymous with the FemiHandbags aesthetic.
Over the years, the team behind the brand has come to understand the favoured styles and works to reproduce them on a consistent basis, albeit in different sizes; according to Olayebi, there’s a maxi, a midi, a mini and a micro version of each.
Though the brand is proudly Made-In-Nigeria, one thing its designer has little patience for is the term ‘African Fashion’. “That’s something that I think about a lot”, she says, “this term ‘African Fashion’. Where does it even come from? You don’t hear people referring to it as ‘American Fashion’ or ‘European Fashion’. I think it is such a limiting label that comes from stereotypes and has boxed a lot of designers in. It feels like the Western world has tried to create an identity for us.” Still, Olayebi remains optimistic about the continent’s fashion industry and its future, declaring now the time for African designers and creatives to flourish, and finding validation in the growing number of young talent emerging.
“They’re making their mark,” she says of the new generation: “and carving out their own space, as they should. Africa is filled with immensely talented creatives and we must start to disrupt. We have the chance to bring something authentic to the fashion world and we absolutely have what it takes.” And when it comes to her own label, Olayebi is equally positive about its future. Ask her where she’d like FemiHandbags to be in the next few years, and her answer will tell you all you need to know about the ambitious and creative businesswoman: “Everywhere!”
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