Charles Oronsaye started out with a career in law and music before the fashion business, and is now painstakingly growing his brand to craft couture for all Africans.
Charles Oronsaye chose fashion as a career not because he was passionate about it, but simply because he didn’t want to become a lawyer. A rebel since his early years, he tried his hand at various professions, including music.
“I wanted to prove to my parents that I was not a good for nothing,” says Oronsaye.
And that is exactly what he did. His original dream was to study in Malaysia but due to his parents’ break-up, an outcome of financial misfortune, Oronsaye had to find other ways to make ends meet.
“My dad wanted me to go into the sciences but I never liked it because I was more interested in the arts. My dad said if I was going to the arts, I should go to the apex, which is why I studied law at the University of Benin. I wanted to explore three things: music, law and computer science.”
“I saved a little and with my uncle’s money, I decided I was going to start a fashion business, but I didn’t know how.
Music turned out to be his first love. Oronsaye created his alter ego, Tony Cream, and began taking part in music competitions and even got shortlisted as a finalist to be an MTV video jockey. The popularity he gained from his creative endeavors landed him a gig on the local radio station where he began to leverage his position as an intern to make ends meet while still pursuing a law degree at university.
“I got exploited on the radio. I was not getting paid because there was a culture that you don’t get paid as an intern and I worked there for two years without being paid,” says Oronsaye.
But what he lost in earnings, he gained in a strong fan following. With an audience of about 5,000 followers on Blackberry Messenger at the time, Oronsaye decided to monetize his platform. His opportunity came when his uncle gave him N100,000 ($276) to complete his final year at university.
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“Growing up, I still had a sense of fashion. I could tweak everything I saw to my style and people would love it. I understood early that almost all ideas are not original. I saved a little and with my uncle’s money, I decided I was going to start a fashion business, but I didn’t know how.”
The plan was simple. Oronsaye noticed there was a need for personalization in the fashion industry. He knew that fueled by social media and the Generation Z effect, luxury was rapidly becoming not about what you have, but who you are, and all that helps you project that image.
Buyers in 2010 no longer wanted monogrammed collections of expensive things, but instead, unique pieces that offered them exclusivity. Thus, Tony Cream Fashion was born. Oronsaye’s idea was thus: “So, I will go to the market and ask ‘who is the best person here’, and I say ‘this is my idea, can you do this for me’ and they say ‘ok’. I would ask ‘how much will they charge and I will double the price on the one condition, that ‘you will train me also’.”
With over 5,000 contacts, Oronsaye had no need for a physical store. He would simply take the photos of his new creations and post them online, and the orders would come thick and fast.
“I started making money and kept developing from the online base to real-time base. People began to know me but people needed to have a brick-and-mortar place where they could find me. I couldn’t do it in Benin so I needed to go to a place where I could flourish, so I moved to Lagos,” says Oronsaye.
Lagos is currently one of the most exciting fashion destinations in Africa, with the likes of Michelle Obama, Solange, Beyoncé and Lupita Nyong’o all supporting Nigerian designers.
To thrive in this competitive environment, Oronsaye had to create a bigger vision. And Africana Couture was born.
“So, I took my iPad and my [photo] collection that I shot myself, and I would go to luxury hotels like Sheraton and Oriental, and I would approach everybody I met that I felt was my ideal client. When I approached them, I would say ‘hey, this is what I make’. Of every ten people, five would give me their cards and three would order and maybe two or one out of empathy, would make an advance payment to just support me.”
His formula worked and soon, people began to talk about Oronsaye’s products. The business, which began on Blackberry Messenger, is today on course to become an established Nigerian fashion brand with the opening of its flagship retail store in Abuja.
“We are launching our Africana X which will be the Africana experience store. Because couture is quite expensive, I built a brand of kaftan that’s more affordable but without the same level of detailing… The goal is to build stores across Africa and change the narrative, which is clothes for Africans by Africans,” says Oronsaye.
Pieces are from $400 for a bespoke kaftan and Oronsaye has added new creations including an innerwear line as well as his own fabrics. But the journey has not been easy.
Like many industries in Nigeria, Oronsaye is plagued by the power crisis as well as a lack of technical knowhow in the sector and negative consumer behavior.
“The average African will give value to Gucci and Zara because they come from overseas but then when it comes to you, because they can see your label, they begin to devalue you.”
In spite of all these challenges, Oronsaye is more determined to provide quality products with a global vision.
“Africana means Africa is beyond the jungle of lions and mountains. “Africa is a spirit. I chose Africana because I have a vision to clothe Africa in the long run.”