In Benin, there is a legend about a young girl who ascended to the throne following the death of her father, the King. Strong, brave, intelligent, and filled with charisma, Queen Yeba was respected by her warriors for her strength and loved by her people for her great sense of humanity. She also achieved something during her reign that no other monarch had before her—forging alliances with tribes, and managing to bring long-lasting peace to the region. The Queen gave birth to three sons and had no daughters. Before she died, she made each of them promise to give her name “Yeba” to their first daughter, so that like her “they would never forget they were born to follow their own destiny and reveal their potential”.
Yeba Olayé, the designer and founder of Belgium-based leather handbag brand Yeba, shares her name with this legendary queen; a fitting moniker for a woman who has, too, forged her own destiny. Born in Benin, Olayé was raised in Europe and left her eleven-year-long career in finance and strategic marketing to pursue what had long been a passion of hers—starting Yeba. Creative expression, she says, was a calling that she could not ignore and, like her namesake Queen, she put aside her fears and jumped headfirst into a world that she didn’t really know, but was determined to conquer.
Yeba founder, Yeba Olayé. Photo: Yeba.
“Queen Yeba’s name meant, among other things, ‘the one who was destined to fit the crown’,” Olayé tells Industrie Africa. “But she said she wanted all her descendants to pursue their dreams and to fulfill their own destiny and I really wanted to get this story across in what I am doing with Yeba.” The story she is referring to is one of community and empowerment, something that she strives to communicate through the brand that she’s since built.
“That's why I say join my tribe,” she adds of her brand’s messaging. “Because we can all do this together. If we have something in our hearts, we can do it.”
When Olayé started her eponymous label, she had to begin from scratch, she says. With no formal training and no real connections to the industry, it was a big learning curve. What served her well, however, was a clear vision of what it was that she wanted to create. “It took me a long time and the growth was gradual, but I knew why I was doing it. I thought it was really important for a woman of color like me to create a brand that could speak to every woman of the world.”
A few years later and it's evident that Olayé has succeeded in her aims. Founded in 2011, Yeba has become an aspirational leather accessories brand that strikes the perfect blend between modernity and tradition. Inspired by the classic, minimalist sophistication of brands like Celine, Dior, and Hermès; every Yeba piece is handcrafted by fine Italian artisans to last a lifetime, their structured design drawing inspiration from aesthetics including modern African art and architecture.
Cream Mino Medium Bag.
Grape Ayo Mini Bag.
Caramel Oshu Medium Bag.
“I love strong lines and the way you can build an object that makes sense but that is also beautiful and functional,” Olayé explains. “I was very inspired by architects who are building natural shapes where you can feel like if you had to scale down their creations you could have a beautiful handbag.” What she loves about architecture, she continues, is its experimental and organic nature. “These shapes are seen everywhere and they are familiar enough that you feel attracted to them, so this is what I am trying to do; create something that looks and feels like it belongs to you naturally.”
This strong simplicity is emblematic of the Yeba brand. Devoid of any kind of ostentatious logos, Olayé chooses subtlety over the conspicuous every time. Her handbags are identifiable through their pared-back elegance, their expert craftsmanship, and the use of the highest quality materials. The brand produces in small quantities to maintain sustainability in their production practices and is constructed by hand in Olayé’s Italian atelier. Elements such as polished gold-tone hardware and leather panels positioned to form a “Y” for “Yeba” have become some of the brand’s signature features and there’s a quiet confidence to their artisanal creations—a confidence that Olayé aims to impart to its wearer.
Orange First Medium Bag.
Cream Ayo Mini Bag.
Volcano Oshu Mini Bag.
It’s this desire to inspire and empower the women who choose to carry a Yeba design that lies at the heart of the brand. Olayé emphasizes over and over just how important the fostering of a community of strong and ambitious clients is to her, how she wants her bags to become a part of their lifestyles and to be by their side as they move through the world in pursuit of their own dreams and accomplishments. So passionate is she about this that she’s even made sure a portion of every Yeba purchase goes toward the funding of educational scholarships for young girls in Benin.
“It’s my way of giving back,” she says of this altruistic element of the brand. “In essence, I want Yeba to unite women as one community, with roots all over the world. We all have something inside of us that we are yearning to express and achieve and I want the Yeba woman to feel that our pieces can be by their side through all of it. It’s not just about creating bags, it’s about creating and following a dream.”
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