By the time triplets Tola, Tayo and Tunde Alakija completed their degrees in occupational therapy, radio therapy, and childhood and adolescent studies respectively, they knew their destinies were not apart, but together.
They were three bodies with one mind. The result – a common passion for fashion, and a business named Talakija.
The trio had flirted with the idea of doing something in the clothing business when they were younger but as Tola puts it, “we knew we would never go into fashion as a profession, especially coming from an African background – that is something that just does not go down well.”
For their parents, as with most African parents, the only respectable career paths for their daughters were law, medicine or banking.
“Initially I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to study. Before I went to university, I knew I wanted to help people so I looked for different subjects and occupational therapy came up. After researching it, I immediately knew it was what I wanted to do and so I went to Coventry University [in the UK] to study it,” says Tola.
Always playing the role of designated baby-sitter for her nephews and nieces from a young age, Tunde opted for childhood and adolescent studies at Bedfordshire University while Tayo decided to help people cope with cancer through radio therapy at London South Bank University.
“I chose radio therapy because I enjoy the practicality of it and helping people to get better from cancer is very rewarding. There is also a lot of problem solving that takes place in the practice,” says Tayo.
Now at 24, the girls have decided to return to their first love, initially inspired by their older sisters.
“We all grew up in south London in a council flat with six siblings. Our love for fashion started from our big sisters. They used to be into fashion so we would borrow their clothes and we thought they looked so cool. Now we have taken over to show them the real meaning of fashion,” laughs Tunde.
The inspiration for this new focus however was no laughing matter. In 2016, just as the girls were finishing their university degrees, disaster struck.
“Our dad passed away suddenly in September 2016. It came as a shock. The same day he was supposed to come back to the UK to get treatment, he passed away in Nigeria. We all flew to Nigeria the following day. He had been unwell before but always recovered, so this one was a big shock. It brought the family closer and we decided to create this brand and build it stronger in memory of our dad. So we called the brand Talakija,” says Tayo.
Their unique sense of fashion was honed at London’s West End, home to the city’s many tourist attractions, trendy cafes, shops and theaters.
“I can literally go around West End with my eyes closed. We would walk for hours looking at all the different styles from the high street. We used to dress up to church and started being creative with it. Every week we would wear new outfits and people used to compliment us and would say ‘why don’t you guys start a blog’? So we started a little blog called 23 Fashion just for fun to see how it would go. The blog was about clothes we liked, where we bought them from and how to match them,” offers Tayo.
The demand for African-inspired clothing has created a huge market for some of the continent’s designers and brands. The patronage of African prints by international personalities like Michelle Obama, Thandie Newton and Beyoncé has led to an increase in its popularity with designers vying for a piece of the exploding market.
This has led to the proliferation of e-commerce fashion platforms that not only widens access to international markets for African designers but also caters to homegrown demand.
“Nigeria’s e-commerce market is currently worth $13 billion and it is expected to rise to about $50 billion in the next decade and with the increase in internet penetration and mobile technology, there are massive opportunities for fashion brands online,” says Dotun Bello, a financial analyst at the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
Talakija is looking to cash in on this trend. Launched in August 2017 as an online store, the triplets have managed to create a buzz, both in Nigeria and London, where their ready-to-wear blazers and suits intricately detailed with African print are selling at $95 to $120 a piece.
“We were invited to showcase our pieces at the one Africa fashion show which was a huge event and then following that we styled one of Nigeria’s biggest artists, Flavour N’abania, in two of our pieces for his music video and that is how all the attention started,” says Tayo.
The online shop also sells African-inspired bags, crop tops, waistcoats and trousers.
“I love the originality of the brand. Not a lot of people can make blazers with African print and make it look like a bespoke piece and that is the one thing that Talakija does really well,” says Bimbola Ahmed, a social media influencer.
Each of the three Talakija entrepreneurs plays a different role in the business.
Tayo is the creative one in the group, usually with the final say when it comes to sketching and the look of the pieces. Tola handles finance and Tunde manages PR and social media.
Building the brand has brought the girls closer and helped them cope with the difficult time in their personal lives.
Together, they have made it work.