Nigerian designer carves niche for her ‘Made in Africa’ luxury handbags

Nigerian entrepreneur Zainab Ashadu has had an eye for fashion since she was a child. Growing up, she “fell in love with a beautiful Art Deco-style clutch bag” that belonged to her mother.

Zainab Ashadu, founder of Zashadu Bags

Zainab Ashadu, founder of Zashadu Bags

Ashadu told How we made it in Africa that when she started working and making her own money she would visit vintage markets in London and spend her entire salary on well-crafted, timeless and quirky vintage bags.

“Soon enough I amassed a collection of over 200 bags, but I still felt something was missing from my collection.”

This love for handbags and the desire to find that missing link eventually inspired Ashadu to start her own business.

Ashadu is the founder and creative director of Zashadu Bags, a sustainable luxury leather handbag company which specialises in handcrafted leather pieces. Zashadu Bags makes clutches, bags, backpacks and pouches in Lagos, Nigeria, using locally sourced materials including leather, exotic skins and rough cut semi-precious stones.

Ashadu started the business three years ago when she returned to Nigeria after living in London for 12 years. She operates out of a Lagos-based workshop with a team of local artisans, who hand craft the products.

Ashadu previously worked as curator and director of African Artists’ Foundation and was head of public relations for the LagosPhoto Festival. She says that although these are causes she believed in, after a while Zashadu demanded her undivided attention.

The young entrepreneur says her bags have been well received in the market.

Zashadu sells its luxury handbags locally and internationally on its website. Items listed on the online shop this week have a starting price of £320 (US$524) for a box clutch bag while the priciest are bags from The Justice python collection selling at £1,100 ($1,800) a piece. The unique bags are described as a “collector’s dream”.

Zashadu Bags has been picked up by London-based retailer Wolf & Badger and products will be available in Paris, France later this year.

The British-Nigerian designer is confident that her brand will do well even in the face of competition from international and well known luxury handbag brands.

“You know, the market is huge and there really is space for everyone. There’s a place for mass produced ‘luxury’ bags, low cost cheap and cheerful bags, as well as artisanal handmade pieces.”

The business of fashion

However, she explains that for ‘Made in Africa’ fashion brands to flourish across the continent and beyond, there is need to improve infrastructure, increase investments and create a better understating of the “business of fashion”.

“For a country as culturally rich and diverse as Nigeria we have a very long way to go in supporting all factions of our creative sector in a way that is sustainable. We are all affected by the same issues: the sometimes poor infrastructure, the lack of institutional support and the struggle to understand a potentially huge but underdeveloped market base, to varying degrees.”

The biggest challenge Ashadu faces is blending the business and creative sides of her company in a way that one does not negatively affect the other.

“I think that as a designer it is very important to keep creativity and business separate. When one starts to affect the other the soul of the brand suffers. It is important to feed one’s creativity and remain focused on what excites you; it makes facing challenges that much more enjoyable.”

Organic growth

Moving forward Ashadu plans to work with more women in the production of Zashadu Bags.

“In terms of expansion, I strongly believe in organic growth as there is nothing more motivating or satisfying.”

Ashadu advices other African entrepreneurs “to look inwards for self-development and self-actualisation”, adding that they are not obliged to follow any “western blueprint”.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to dream big, but start small. Also to trust your instincts and allow it to guide you like a compass, know who you are and believe in yourself.”

Ashadu explains that African economies will greatly benefit if citizens allow negative experiences and the challenges they face to unite them in finding solutions.

“I think that as Nigerians… for example, our electricity situation is shameful and dire, and we have been living with it for years, dolefully compliant. We are yet to find a united voice to challenge it, yet we all suffer for it. There is strength in unity.”