Sunday, June 16, 2013

Six questions with Kunmi Otitoju aka minku

My sister was born an artist.  She was raised in Lagos, passed through the USA, and settled in Barcelona, Spain.  
At Tade Nursery School in those days, her favourite subject was PATTERNS.  She loved art throughout school (St. Mary's Private; Queen's College), and at home, she loved cutting and tearing, then stitching and glueing and just making things.   
Many years later, Kunmi attended the real HU, graduating summa cum laude in Computer Science in 2005.  She was a programmer and usability engineer and design fanatic who got to intern at Goldman Sachs and FAST (Microsoft), edit a magazine, see Europe, present research, learn languages, design corporate websites, and earn a Masters in Human-Computer Interaction from Virginia Tech, ...before making a return to creating objects, products, and culture via Minku, her bespoke leather goods company. 

For my second-ever UpNaira interview (see the first), I thought to ask minku to share some of that magical ability to be authentic, brilliant, creative, distinctive, eloquent, fashionistique...ok, I'm getting carried away here.  Let's go...

What do you love about working with leather and fabrics?
minku: I generally enjoy doing fun things with colour and texture: this exploration is the one thing that is consistently evident in the bags I make. When I was in art school here in Barcelona, I did not really care which media I used for my projects, as long as the colours and textures I was conveying felt right to me. So working with leather, which comes in so many colours and textures, is for me like being a child that can eat all the candy she wants.
The Fagunwa bag is a minku classic
Is minku loved by all, and if not, describe the typical minku loyalist.
minku: Ahh, loved by all ;-P
The typical Minku loyalist gets a kick out of knowing that hours of skilled blood sweat and tears went into making something, of which there is probably only one in the world. Maybe this makes them art collector-type people. They may not care much for Campbell soupcans arranged in a certain order, but they will spend hours lost in the intricate brushstrokes of Yayoi Kusama's White Infinity Nets, for example. The typical Minku loyalist has a strong ability to respond emotionally to everyday objects made in an unusual way.
This "man bag" is another minku classic
What is the financial potential for a company like yours?
minku: I ask myself this daily :-) Oh man. Considering that Louis Vuitton started similarly to me (as a malletier, making travel trunks for wealthy people on a one-on-one basis) and is now worth about $25.9bn, I think there is hope. It would take time though, years and years of building a base of trusting customers. But I am fine with this consistent-climb approach.

For me, part of the reason I love doing this is that I dream of a day that more sub-Saharan leather goods makers, with their heritage of excellent craftsmanship, would be as renowned as Hermes Paris, Prada Milan or Loewe Madrid. 
minku did Barcelona Fashion Week in January
Why did you study Computer Science in uni if you knew you were going to end up in design?
minku: I think that even though I used to make things by hand when I was younger, I did not know the word 'design' as it exists now. Fashion design seemed like something tailors or Paris Fashion Week designers did, and both seemed distant from my reality. Yet what I do now is somewhere between product design and fashion design. I did not know such a realm existed until during/after my masters studies at Virginia Tech.

My journey to design has been an interesting one, and I think my work is all the more interesting because I haven't been so schooled in design and materials use, so for example I don't care if a certain type of leather should only be used for shoes, or if aso oke should only be worn on heads and waists -- if I conceive a bag I can make with it, I will just follow through.

Actually part of the motivation for starting Minku was that I finally, for the first time in my academic life, got accepted into a design program - Stanford's mechanical engineering masters with the product design option. This was in April 2010. By this time, I was just loving Barcelona life and not sure I wanted to leave (the folks at Stanford were very understanding and let me defer for a year). During the year, I got to experiment answers to the question: "can I build a product-design project that would be on a similar level to if I were a Stanford graduate?" I had Virginia Tech's human-computer interaction masters and a handful of art courses under my belt by this time, and I managed to convince myself that though Stanford would be a super cool place to be, my combined educational and travel experiences had already given me a great foundation for what I wanted to become.

Having said these, computer science has been good to me, even as a designer. Knowing how to create the precise brand identity I want online, and how to modify my site and e-store without having to rely on someone else's timelines, have made my life easier.
What will your next collection be about?minku: My next collection will be about rebels. A working quote is "She wore her crown as an eyepatch and declared mutiny on the land."  I came up with it, if you were wondering, a few days after reading some Yalla poems on your site... you awakened my poetic side :-)
We did a preliminary photoshoot for the collection last month, and it is about subtle subversions of authority through dress.
Earlier this year, I attended a job interview wearing an afro. And that got me thinking: I had to wear my hair that way because the resources for the management of 2-inch long African hair in Barcelona are quite scarce. But in wearing an afro to an interview, something unexpected happened -- I felt cool, powerful almost, in being so "rebellious", considering how university career services counselors used to advise that we wear our hair for interviews.
For the collection, I am also creating a limited line of menswear and womenswear to help convey the theme. The bags would still play the prominent role of course.
The designer, chilling
You live in Barcelona but grew up in Lagos. Which is the more exciting city? 
minku: Both are exciting for different reasons. Barcelona has metro, Lagos has traffic. Exciting life can be witnessed while traversing the city in both...

minku's Twitter, Blog, Shop, Facebook


Femi said...

Lovely..minkudesign bags are awesome!

Anonymous said...

Love minku

Folarin Kolawole said... minku is your sister...that's so cool. Being a lover of extreme creativity, I think she'z just awesome!

Anonymous said...

I like minku...I would buy one for my girlfriend if I had one.

t said...

FK: too sweet.
nogf: we could do something about that?

t said...

Nice. minku founder named a 30 under 30 entrepreneur to watch by Forbes Africa.

Also featured in Kenya Airways inflight magazine, Forbes Africa magazine, and here at cre8tive entreps.

Doing it in Diaspora
by Adewole Ajao
on September 5, 2014

Fresh from a Forbes listing as one of 30 promising young entrepreneurs, Minku CEO Kunmi Otitoju spoke with Cre8tiventreps on her business of making bags, wallets and other fashion accessories with an African flavour.

Birthing Minku in 2011
“After my studies [at Howard University and Virginia Tech],and after working as a technology consultant for some years, I was missing creating things with my hands. So I enrolled in a year-long art program, where I learned metal and wood work. Working with metal and wood opened up the possibility of working with other materials, and leather work came into the picture. Minku was founded shortly afterwards.”

Bringing the Designs to Life
“I think it is difficult in design, but is worth trying for different or game-changing ideas.”

“I won’t go as far as to say the bags have reinvented anything {such as European fashion tastes]. I feel fortunate to be able to bring my ideas to life and to have an audience to share them with.”

Starting Minku on a shoestring budget
“Financing came through a lot of decisions, which led to Minku being what is often called a ‘lean startup’. Generally, the main costs for a new company are labour, rent, and raw materials. I am inspired by the story of many entrepreneurs who start their business from the kitchen table, or from a shared workspace. So I was determined to proceed in a similar manner.”

Distributing the Bags
“Minku is a company where each bag is made by hand in an atelier, often in very limited editions. So for us, distribution has been about finding small boutiques that can understand the brand, and of course, selling directly to clients via our e-store and fairs like the Barcelona Fashion Week and Lagos Accessories Fair.”

Hard work complements Optimism
“I think good old hard work and optimism are still key ingredients for starting a company and keeping it going. [With a Forbes laurel in the bag, what's next] I am as excited as you are to find out.”

t said...

Some 2014 customized bags by minku here

t said...

The first four (of five) pictures had disappeared so I just now changed them to pictures from the same periods with similar themes. FYI.

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