“The youth of Nigeria are the country’s secret weapon.” These are words by CNN presenter Richard Quest, who was in Nigeria late last month for a filming. Gbenga Ayo Dada, founder of Artsmith Collections, embodies Quest’ words with a striking precision. Even more, he bristles with the undying, frothy enthusiasm and drive that has kept his brand aloft through hardships and difficulties. His jewellery and intricate neckpieces have been worn by women, men, Nigerians and non-Nigerians, and it has blurred the lines between the elitist circle and the ordinary-class in terms of consumer purchasing power.
His pieces have been used in movie projects like the long-running, Nigerian TV series Tinsel and the Kemi Adetiba-directed, box office-smashing Nollywood movie The Wedding Party. And that’s appears to be only the start. With an unassuming air, Gbenga Ayo-Dada’s die-hard spirit shines through in this Happenings interview, in anticipation of SME Anatomy.
What was the original mission of your business and how has that evolved over time?
Originally, I just wanted to create, you know. I’d say I didn’t start it with any designed mission because I’m just a creative person. I have done everything in the art, from acting to singing. So this was just another avenue. That was the intention, do you understand. I think it’s still guiding me right now. So I don’t create because I want to make money. I don’t create because I want people to be wowed or I just want to get people excited. I create because I want to, you know, and that helps me push myself. It keeps me ahead of the pack so that’s the benefit of it. It metamorphosed into my vision.
How have you been able to build a consumer culture around Artsmith Collections?
It’s about knowing what the consumers want; you just can’t force things on them. And it’s ever-evolving, trends are ever-evolving. As trends evolve so are the preferences of people. What was trending last year is no longer trending this year. This is my vision, proudly African, I’m sticking to that and that informs my design ethos. But at the same time I want it trendy. That’s why you see I’m creating pieces like this, I’m creating pieces like that. There’s a mixture of the ethnic and the urban. And that way, you know, it makes it appealing to different kinds of women—women that are not African. I find situations whereby even white people, they tell me that on a good day, they won’t wear this, but I have made them fall in love because they can identify with it. There’s an element they can identify with. So I am constantly doing that, finding out what do people want to wear. Ladies love collared neckpieces nowadays—
Is that really a trend?
Yes, open, front-collar neckpieces, so I just incorporate that with my beading and create designs out of them.
You certainly should have faced obstacles when you started. So tell us about those obstacles you faced and how were you able to overcome them?
Ah, I’m still facing obstacles and the thing about me is that I never remain at one spot, I’m always going. If something doesn’t work, my creativity is not just limited to hand-crafted pieces, my creativity extends to the way I use my brain. So If I one thing doesn’t work, I devise another method to make it work. Earlier this year, even last year, starting from last year, things were not going well. The demand was really, really low and I had to do something about it. I was doing things that I that I thought was going to help me improve, you know, creating stunning pieces and all I was getting was just compliments and no purchase. I just thought of it that OK…you have to try another method…you have try another route. And what was the route I took? I decided to study the market. OK, there’s a recession, people want to look good but they don’t want to spend so much on looking good. And, in looking good, they don’t want to buy just anything, just because that’s what they can afford. They want a good bargain, they still want to get something good, something of good quality in terms of design and value. Most of my pieces, as at last year, was from 35,000 upwards. I said: “How many people can afford that?” I discover that it was just a very, very few categories of women. And then I decided to break it down that, OK, if I should make pieces that costs half of that price or even less than half of that price, will people buy? It was creative. It was an ambition. I decided to carry it out…I started creating pieces…beautiful pieces, you know, and then sold it for as low as 15, 000 and 10,000, and the response has been massive. Because someone who on a good day wouldn’t want to spend 45,000 on a piece, ends up spending even more that 45,000 on getting three or four sets. Nigerians love variety a lot. They don’t want to have one piece and just be able to wear it one particular outfit; they want as many as possible.
What has been your approach to marketing your business?
My approach has been to connect to people in a way that many other businesses don’t. I realise that Nigerians are not very imaginative. So I put together shoots, beauty shoots where people can actually see the way they can wear some of these pieces, how they can style them. Because a Nigerian comes to you and says they want a simple piece, and then you make it and they say they don’t like it but when they see it on a model and that way I connect with them. Many other businesses don’t do that because…it costs a lot of money actually to put together these shoots. And many of these people aren’t risk-takers. There are like, “I can’t spend this much on a shoot and am I going to make this money back?” But whether or not I make this money, I still try. And that’s one thing about me: I never say never. I try it and if it fails, no problem, I learn my lesson. It’s either I win or I learn a lesson. I don’t see it as a failure.
Was there any major competitor when you started and how were you able to out-compete or out-pace them?
Actually, I see myself as a competition…because…the way I see it, there are different people—we have different styles and different paths and I’m running my own race. It’s my race and I should the only one in the race. I don’t look at the other person. What I mean is that I look at them and learn and then not looking at them and I feel intimidated, and feel I have to copy. I say something: be inspired but don’t copy. And that’s the problem with many people—they are so conscious with the competition that whenever they feel they are losing, they look at the competition and say this is what he or she is doing that’s making he or she win. And they copy it, not knowing that this is the person’s style—it’s exclusive to the person and can’t do it like the person. And many of them do themselves in in the process.
How do you think evolving technology will impact the way we do business in the next 10 years?
Well, it has already made a lot of difference in the way we run our business…because I just realised it has made things easy whereby you don’t have to visit the store, you don’t have to sit down for hours, you don’t have to travel all the way to any location to get what you want. It’s by logging on to Instagram and then you see what you want and ask for it. And some people say it’s deceptive when you shop online that what you see isn’t always what you get. Things have gotten easier. What I do is…I have clients who are skeptical, so we video-chat on WhatsApp and they see it live. They see everything. So, I mean, how real can real get? They see the video without the photoshop, without anything. Things can be better…I’m sure there are technologies whereby…let’s say 10 of my pieces are in different stores all over the world and I can track them, you know. But we don’t have that in Nigeria.
Share with us one of the high successes you have had in your business?
I have had quite a number. Growing up, I have fantasised about being on the runway, walking down with my models or having my pieces showcased on the runway. But [chuckles] I woke up to the reality when I started this work because I discovered that there was a lot discrimination towards accessory designers. At fashion weeks, you won’t find an independent accessory designer showcasing on the runway. What you would have is collaborations. A fashion designer getting pieces from an accessory designer. I discovered that I was disappointed. Whenever blogs talk about what a celebrity is wearing, they talk about the makeup, they talk about the hair. The fortune turned for me when I was invited to Glitz Africa Fashion Week in Ghana. And also GTB Fashion Weekend, one of the best fashion weeks that happened last year. Also, I have always fantasised about having my accessories used in a movie project, watching movies like Coming To America, the costume was very vibrant, you know. A lot of headpieces, a lot flamboyant neckpieces. I just found it interesting. Or movies like Sex and The City, a lot of interesting accessories, especially on the lead actress Sarah Jessica Parker. The dream came good last year (twice), for Tinsel and from The Wedding Party, the part one and the soon-to-be released sequel, my accessories were used in it. So it’s a plus because that doesn’t happen all the time And not just used, I was credited for it, so it wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s just help him, let’s use his accessories.” I was given the credit.
The jewellery that you make are African-inspired and indigenous—why is that?
Because I’m proudly African. The thing is most Nigerians don’t value what they have just because they haven’t been anywhere outside Nigeria so they see what we have has lesser than what the western world has. But I see the way our works here are appreciated over there. I see the way they creatively incorporate it into—
Do you exactly blame them, if I say I want to be a beadmaker and I really don’t have the tools or funds. I’m meant to walk into a bank and I get a loan. The bank has advertised that they are going to give me a loan and they are asking for a certain ridiculous interest rate.
I’d like to borrow the words of the famous actress Taiwo Ajayi-Lycett that you create your own luck. What you are talking about, I’m wearing those shoes right now. I’m working on a major project, a mass production project at the moment. I sought for loans everywhere, individual loans from private investors but what did I get? Stories, and [chuckles] it was funny because what I later discovered was that these microfinance banks discriminate against we business owners. They’d rather give employees loans than give us loans because they feel we run on uncertainty. They’d rather give a salary earner whose monthly income is fixed, do you understand. So I stopped seeking for loans. I started to create my own loan. What did I do? I started saving, you know, massive saving. It cost me a lot; I had to cut back on a lot of things, and I started reinvesting, different kinds of investment. I started growing my own my own money. So you just have to create a way for yourself. As a business owner, you cannot afford not to be dynamic.
What advice do you have for would-be entrepreneurs who want to become jewellery designers or bead makers?
Never make money your goal because you will get to a point whereby you are frustrated by so many things, by clients frustrating the life out of you. At that point, what matters is your passion, and not the money. Keep advancing your trade. Keep evolving.