By Candice de Beer
Nine years ago, South African born fashion stylist Gareth Cowden had an idea to create a contemporary African accessories brand. He believed that the world wanted more from Africa. That they were tired of buying functionless artefacts such as wooden giraffes, which too often are relegated to book shelves or floors. His vision was for people to attend gala dinners wearing a touch of Africa. And so, Babatunde was born. Fastjet sat down with Cowden to find out more about this endearing artisan brand.
Was the evolution into a business owner a natural progression in your career?
I swore I’d never be a designer in South Africa. It’s such a difficult climate and I didn’t want to struggle (only about 2% live comfortably). I travelled to Dubai and London. And it was in London that I realised I wanted to come back and start an accessories business. So I went to Gabon in 2007 to see how people wear prints. I’ve always loved African print, particularly its bold striking colours. My imagination was ignited and I came home ready to start creating.
Babatunde is a Yoruba name, which is Nigerian and means the father returns. However, you are South African and your line is manufactured locally. Why not choose a more South African name? Why specifically Babatunde?
There are so many reasons; one I wanted Babatunde to be an African brand, not a South African one. The other very important reason was that so many fathers in Africa are absent. I believe this gravely affects children growing up in Africa. They have so much potential, but they miss out on opportunities because they don’t know how to help themselves. What we, at Babatunde, try to promote is strong family values. Changing young lives starts at home.
There’s thinking that as Africans we have a responsibility to promote and economically advance Africa. Would you say Babatunde is living up to this sentiment?
Yes, I do have a responsibility to Africa. Ideally I’d like to try to improve the lives of South Africans. The reality is quite different. Due to the recession Babatunde has not grown as I would have hoped, but I’m optimistic about the future of the brand.
Our materials are sourced throughout Africa and all our products are handmade in SA. I currently work with an NGO factory just outside Diepsloot who are training up local ladies. Here my clutch bags, waterproof umbrellas and sleeves are manufactured. All other products are made in family-run factories across the country.
Your catalogue is limited to ties and bow ties, ladies cravats, clutch bags, laptop sleeves, umbrellas and headwear, why is that?
When I started Babatunde, I chose accessories largely because of capital – they are cheaper to make. Also you can’t get the cut wrong, like with pants. The clothing market is also saturated, so I’m thankful for choosing accessories.
Can we expect more from Babatunde?
I have big dreams. I’m working on my business plan, and I have a potential investor. If all goes well I’d love to create quality one-of-a-kind luggage, limited edition stationery lines, rain coats (with interesting cuts) for adults and children, and I’d pair them with matching gum boots.
Local and international celebrities such as Erykah Badu, Hugh Masekela, Stevie Wonder, Lupita Nyongó and Solange Knowles to name a few have been seen in your products. What behind-the-scenes work has taken place in order for this to happen? Has it helped the brand?
These were all surprises. Stevie Wonder was the only request and I honestly thought it was a scam. It creates excitement. Celebrities are essentially giving my brand approval and it’s amazing to think that my product can end up in their hands. But it hasn’t impacted my business commercially as one would think. I’m still a small start-up business.
What does a clothing brand need to be successful in Africa and in fact the world?
It needs to be creating jobs and ultimately improving lives.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs in Africa? Is there anything you have learnt over the past nine years that you believe could aid them in achieving their career goals?
Don’t listen to friends. They want the best for you and they’ll stroke your ego. Rather get guidance and advice from mentors within the field. They’ll tell you what is right, not what you want to hear. Keep your overheads down. Don’t get ahead of yourself. And save costs wherever you can.
You can buy Babatunde products online at www.babatunde.co.za. It’s also available in Nairobi, Lagos, Johannesburg and Cape Town.