Bag it…

msafiri sent Mfonobong Nsehe to meet Kunmi Otitoju, the Nigerian entrepreneur creating a global fashion brand 

BagKunmi Otitoju, a 30-year-old Nigerian-born entrepreneur is the founder of Minku Design, an Afrocentric brand that designs high-quality leather bags and other fashion accessories by subtly blending African cultural elements and an artisan approach to contemporary bag making. All Minku’s products are handmade and sold in high-end stores in Nigeria, Spain and online.

Tell me about yourself
My name is Kunmi Otitoju. I’m a leather goods maker and designer. I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, the second of five children.

Tell me how Minku Leather Goods came to be.
Minku came about while I was in Barcelona, pondering over what to do about my future. I hold two computer science degrees (a Bachelor of Science degree with first-class honours from Howard University in Washington DC and a Master of Science degree from Virginia Tech), yet I enjoy making things with my hands and, at the time, I had just completed a year of art school. Minku answered the question of what to do with all that knowledge, and fortunately, I haven’t looked back since.

Tell me about the three products you are most excited about.
Some ladies, like me, can’t bear a heavy bag on their shoulder for a long time. Some handbags, even when empty, weigh up to 5kg. I wanted to reverse that a bit, to give women a choice of an elegant, 100% leather bag that has a starting weight of 200 grams. So I created the Afefe bag. It features our trademark Eleko Wave technique on the exterior, and it is a durable bag. Earlier this year, a store in Spain placed a special order for a set of Afefe bags, and their clients loved them.

The Minku Ore Atata (meaning ‘good friend’ in Yoruba) messenger bag was designed for men. It is minimalist: it features some hand-stitching, but unlike in my other designs, the stitching is hidden. I conceive designs for men very differently than I conceive women’s designs. For women, I love frills and froufrou; for men, my approach is a lot more austere, and I let the leather do the talking. With the Ore Atata bag, I think I achieved that.

About a year ago, I started making some expandable leather wallets for women. I am not sure what I expected, but women love them. They make great gifts, especially since they come in a branded Minku dustbag and gift box. They are time-consuming to hand-stitch despite their small size, so I am not sure if I will continue with this design.

All your products are handmade. What’s the process for designing each item?
For me, design starts with great materials and an idea. I don’t sketch; I just plan each design in my head then start bringing it to life. I can get away with that because I make each item myself. I have a board of directors helping me with the running of the company. I work from wherever I happen to be at the time – usually Spain or Nigeria.

Where and how do you sell your products?
There are three primary avenues: our online store, www.minku.com; shows such as the Barcelona Fashion Week, and our own private showroom held annually in Lagos as well as selected stockists. Earlier this year, we designed and made a collection of bags for LaOrange, a chain of boutiques in San Sebastian.

What have the major milestones for your company been?
A lot of work goes into making each bag, and it is always an exciting milestone when we get an order for one. Though I do also feel sad because sometimes I don’t want to part with the bags – there is often just one of each design. Another exciting milestone  was being named on Forbes Magazine’s list of 30 most promising young African entrepreneurs for 2014.

Is the international market buying into African fashion?
The international market is buying into African fashion for several reasons. First, it is one of the few parts of the world where you can still find authentically handmade items. You would be surprised to see what passes for handmade in more industrialised parts of the world. People who recognise authenticity and skilled craftsmanship buy into African fashion for this reason. Secondly, Africa is rich in culture. In Nigeria, for instance, there are over 300 distinct languages, each with its own individual way of life. This wealth of cultures translates into some of the most interesting fashion pieces you can find anywhere.

Where do you see Minku in 5 to 10 years?
In 5 to 10 years, I see Minku as an African Hermes: a leather goods outfit focused on authenticity and craftsmanship and recognized worldwide for the originality and durability of its output.