Zainab Aliyu, the founder and Creative Director of Aaboux is one of the women changing the fashion industry in Nigeria. Aaboux is a stylish luxurious leather brand that creates limited edition statement pieces from exquisitely and ethically sourced leather. All Aaboux items are produced in Lagos by third-generation skilled artisans, using the brand’s signature stitch-less technique. In this interview, Zainab tells us about her journey and the impact of social media on the African fashion industry.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career as a designer and entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurship wasn’t alien to me, as my mum had ventured into business after nearly two decades of being in the corporate world. Both my sisters are creatives (one a fashion designer, and the other a web/graphic and UX designer).
My first graduate job was for one of the top four accounting firms in the UK. After a decade of working in the energy industry, and 4 years after relocating to Nigeria, a trip to the Lekki Crafts Market in April 2017 with a friend opened my eyes to the fascinating world of leatherwork. I was intrigued by what I saw but couldn’t find a style I wanted, so I decided to sketch, design and select leathers for the production of two handbags.
I had never considered myself an artist and was shocked to discover that I could draw and bring ideas to life. I felt blessed to have finally discovered my creative side, which felt natural and fulfilling and stirred a fire in me.
I resigned from my job mid 2020 to do it full-time. It’s been an exhilarating, fulfilling and amazing journey thus far.
How did you start Aaboux?
Shortly after discovering my creative side, I attended the maiden edition of the Lagos Leather Fair in May 2017, which opened my eyes to the multi-billion-dollar global leather industry and opportunities. Deep down in my heart, I knew I wanted to key into this sector and develop my hidden talent. I was also super inspired by the amazing designers and vowed to return someday as an exhibitor. So, I registered my company AABOUX in September 2017, a spin-off of my name that my mother fondly called me.
My research mission began – off to Kano, Milan and Paris, I went early 2018, to fact-find, gather information, meet suppliers, and key players in the industry. I returned and started looking to assemble a team which took the better part of more than half a year. I made my first product in October 2018 with a team of three, including myself.
The vision is to be a global luxury brand of African roots, that could contend with any leather brand world-wide. AABOUX is a stylish and luxurious leather brand, that creates limited-edition pieces using exquisitely curated leathers. Our focus is quality, creativity and making a statement with your leather accessories.
Where do you get inspiration for your designs?
I have always had a flair for timeless fashion, combined with my love of travel and nature, provides me with unending options. Creating unique and beautiful pieces whilst maintaining functionality and style remains at the core of design.
From incorporating architectural structure to symmetry, into the design of our distinct signature stitch-less constructed bags, using rivets, to combining beauty and an infusion of a range of colours from nature’s earthy tones; to bright and colourful flowers, insects and birds; to sparkly and shiny treasures.
We are not influenced by trends nor are we into fast fashion.
How do you want women to feel carrying your designs?
Our range of appealing silhouettes with fascinating combinations of plain and textured leathers cater to all types of women who appreciate timeless design, elegance and style.
Whether they are looking for a fun bag, a work bag, or a more muted bag or to make a statement with their exquisitely crafted piece, we want women to feel special, empowered, bold and chic. Our custom order options make women feel even more unique and very important.
What is your favourite part of being a designer and entrepreneur?
Oh my goodness, there are so many amazing elements – from being my own boss for starters ha!; to creating/birthing a new design, to sourcing exquisite and gorgeous leathers; to the numerous firsts like Aaboux’ first international exhibition at prestigious Coterie, New York in September 2019, or first international buyer order, or our first corporate order; or our first magazine feature being the September 2021 Edition of the American Essence Magazine.
But the ultimate for me is knowing that all the hard work is geared towards building a legacy and making an impact locally and globally and also positively changing the narrative and perception of Africa and African-made goods.
What was the most difficult part about starting?
The hardest part was finding the right people to employ, goodness! It took me almost a year to find my team. I was seeking not just skills and experience, but also an alignment with my values, vision and work ethic.
I met with all sorts of characters, but I patiently persevered until I eventually found “my people”, who are now family! It was a journey of teaching them things the AABOUX way and sharing the vision and goals with them. But I never gave up hope or thought it was impossible. It’s still an unceasing process of learning, un-learning and re-learning, and continuous improvement.
What advice would you give women who want to start their own business?
My first would be, what is your why? You need to dig deep and discover, from within and for you, why you want to venture into business. It will keep you going during the lows and tough times for which there will be!
Secondly, you need to research, research, and more research to find your passion, skills you have or can get, the current market and future opportunities, level of competition, how you can differentiate yourself, and how you intend to market and sell your product or service.
You also need to be resilient; I find that entrepreneurship, especially in Nigeria, is an extreme sport and you must be super-ready for all sorts of challenges (planned and mostly unplanned).
Lastly, make sure your business has these three key elements: is fun/passion, is profitable (unless it’s a not-for-profit venture, but still requires funds to run), and is beneficial/impactful.
Who are your mentors or role models in the creative/fashion industry?
My sister, Fatima, was my first role model as a veteran Fashion Designer in Abuja, Nigeria, and brains behind of House of Farrah.
Rihanna is a bold and amazing businesswoman, that has shattered several ceilings and broken many records at such a young age, and she isn’t afraid to cut her losses on an idea that doesn’t work.
Sukeina, a ladies clothing brand rooted in the cosmologies of Africa, the aesthetics of Europe and the canvas of reinvention that is America. Their A/W 2021 collection is to die for!!
In the leather industry locally, Timabee and Madam Coquette, have been amazing and supportive sounding boards. Femi Handbags and Zashadu have also been sources of inspiration.
What’s the best advice you have been given?
In this journey of life, do not tie your happiness or worth to an outcome or end-goal, otherwise, everything in between becomes an obstacle in the way. Love the journey, enjoy the ride, slow down and smell the roses.
Do not aim for perfection, but progress. Small consistent steps could lead to exponential growth
Take full responsibility and accountability for your actions or non-actions.
What role do you think social media play in African fashion today?
Social media has absolutely disrupted the way most businesses are run and is making the traditional marketing channels obsolete. It is now a critical marketing tool and sales channel not just in Africa or for Africans, but on a global scale.
Being part of the online or digital arena, social media is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for brands and businesses in this world. It provides an avenue for achieving sales, increasing and reinforcing brand awareness, visibility and credibility on a global playing field with potential access to millions. Providing relevant content and keeping customers engaged creates brand loyalty and trust.
For AABOUX, Instagram has been our primary sales and marketing channel from inception to date (although our website is launching on the 30th September), and apart from trade shows and a few stockists, remained our sole sales channel until we opened a physical store in 2020. It has catapulted and accelerated our business growth, exposure and access to global markets. It was easy, almost cost-free, minimal/no overheads, and giving us access to a global audience in such a short amount of time, that may otherwise have been impossible, expensive or taken years to achieve.
Social media also provides instant access to real-time consumer needs, likes, dislikes.