Nigerian-born designer Adèle Dejak wants to be the Coco Chanel of Africa and she believes she is almost halfway there.
Her handcrafted jewellery and accessories, inspired by African tribes, textiles and cultural elements, are already stocked in shops in Nairobi, Lagos, New York, Johannesburg and London. Next in line is to expand to many more gateway cities around the globe.
Take us back to the beginning
Dejak was born in Nigeria and attended boarding school in the United Kingdom since the age of eight. This was followed by tertiary studies at the Blake College of Art, Design and Media in London and the London College of Printing (now London College of Communication). She went on to work as a typography designer in Rome.
“I have always loved the organised precision of typography. I believe it gives a good solid base for all design,” she says.
In 2005 she followed her husband to Kenya and started making jewellery for herself. People who saw it, wanted to buy it. Soon, other accessories followed.
Dejak had some experience owning and managing a business as she co-owned a studio to explore a more experimental approach to design while working at a magazine in Rome. Thus the interest in her jewellery led her, after three years, to open a shop in Kenya where she started selling her pieces to interested customers.
How did the company grow into the business it is today?
Initially Dejak designed and manufactured everything in-house. However, due to the demand for her bespoke, natural and recyclable pieces, she soon had to outsource some of the work to experienced artisans.
“I come up with the creative concepts and I have an incredible team that executes my vision,” says Dejak. “I try to ensure that at least 99% of the materials I use are recycled. I am big on maintaining a sustainable business that looks after its environment. I also appreciate turning what some see as waste into something refined and beautiful.”
So far, her business has been self-funded. But this is not easy, she says, which is why she is always on the lookout for investors. She adds that her biggest initial challenge was to find the right people and the right materials to achieve her design visions.
Adèle Dejak Limited now has 14 permanent staff members and contracts up to five external artisans.
Dejak says she takes branding and brand aesthetics very seriously, believing that when you know what you want your brand to communicate, the right people come knocking.
While designers are constantly on the lookout for inspiration, Dejak says she always has ideas in mind. “There is so much inspiration everywhere around me. Africa inspires me quite a lot. I don’t think I can ever run out of designs. Passion is what drives me, and I would not want to create designs I am not passionate about.”
Although there is always a chance that the market will not receive a new collection positively, Dejak says she tries all her designs on herself before anything goes to market. “I find that if I like something, people will like it too.” She says feedback from customers is very important and guides her and her team’s decisions.
As for other business aspects, Dejak says she had to learn a lot on the job, such as marketing, finances, bookkeeping and export logistics. “It is a crucial part of any business and I’ve learnt, the hard way, the need to educate yourself on all aspects of running a business. I have employed people who are good at what they do, and I have also outsourced other aspects, but I make sure I have a hand in all aspects of the business. I love designing and creating and that will always be my passion. However, it is so important to understand that this is a business and needs to be run as such.”
There must have been some challenges?
“The biggest challenge we face right now is finding investment for further growth of the business. There has been interest in African businesses, however translating this interest into actual capital pegs a challenge.”
She says another challenge they continue to face is copycats. “It is very difficult to copyright designs and people take advantage of this. We have had so many counterfeit Adèle Dejak pieces sold all over for half the price and half the quality. Luckily, my customers are loyal and are quick to distinguish the difference.”
Anything we can learn from her experiences?
“Be passionate about your business. Be ready to put in a lot of time and sacrifice,” she says. “Be aware that you may need to find alternative sources of income to fund your business because the road is very bumpy,” Dejak advises Africa’s entrepreneurs.
She says she is more than grateful for all the positive international interest in the brand and believes that hard work and passion are what resonate with people all over the world.
And lastly, she says, entrepreneurs should constantly research their market and what exactly it needs, as well as how their products or services are meeting that need.