By Eric Elezuo
In the world fashion designing, one name stands out among the rest. It is HQ DESIGNS. In this brief chat, the Chief Executive Officer who doubles as the Creative Director, Mr. Akeem Oduwole, reveals the road to greatness, what makes the brand a household name as well as every other tiny detail that aids the growth of clothing business. Excerpts:
Can we meet you sir?
My name is Akeem Oduwole. I am the CEO and Creative Director of HQ Clothing. It is a fashion line that deals on men’s clothing and we have been on ground for eight years now.
Why deal on men’s outfit, when it is believed that women outfits are better patronised?
Well, I decided to focus on men outfits because I realised that this generation of men hardly wear native dresses. So, we re-modified the normal ‘buba and shokoto’ and called it ‘business wear’ meaning if you are wearing the attire, you will still look like you are putting on cooperate wears. For that, we concentrated on guys alone.
Since you started what has been the client response?
I must tell you that it has been very good. We started from the scratch, in fact, from a room in my apartment with a sowing machine, wiping machine, an embroidery machine and one staff, but as we speak today, I have over ten staff.
Did you from the very beginning study to become a fashion designer?
No, I never studied anything about fashion. I studied Accounting at The Polytechnic, Ibadan.
So, is this a passion, or how did it come about?
Initially, I called it a passion but when I had a chat with my dad, he told me that his grandparents were in the business, and that they were luxurious ‘Aso Oke’ merchants. After my studies, I ventured into Information Technology because it was in vogue then. I was into sales and servicing of laptops for a friend at the Computer Village. As fate would have it, I also had a friend that sews. When I need his services, I design what I want for him. With this, people started asking me why my outfit always stands out from others.
One day, my wife acknowledged that I dressed so good and advised that I go into tailoring business. Immediately, I told her she is the one that would be a tailor. At this time, my idea of a tailor is a person that sits in a shop and sews.
Again, a guy I never knew stopped me on the road and asked who made the shirt I was putting on; I told him I was the designer but not the tailor. He told me that though he didn’t see vision about me but if truly I designed it, I should forget whatever I was doing, and become a designer. I didn’t take him serious.
Two weeks after, some other person stopped me on Medical Road, and asked who made the dress I was wearing, and I just gave him a guys’ number. Thereafter, my brother abroad told me he needed some men’s suit. When I was going to get fabrics, somebody stopped me at Alausa Bus-stop, and asked who made my dress and maybe I can make it for him. I considered it, and because of the various promptings I have been getting about my designs, I decided to go for it. And to be honest, none of those that spoke to me about my designs has crossed my path again till date.
As time goes on, it became a passion and as people admired my designs, I was motivated to carry on. I have cloths for people from many places across the world. Most of them only saw my designs online. The job went full-fledged when one day I met a guy who helped me with my load. He told me he sews, and I decided to take him in. that was how we started building the company.
I never advertise except when Ovation promoted me even without my knowledge. It was great, and since then, we have not looked back.
How can you describe this creativity?
It was an inbuilt talent.
Did you learn tailoring, sewing, designing before you started sewing?
I didn’t learn anything from anybody.
What is the meaning of HQ?
It is a derivative of my first son’s name. His name is Haqq. I just combined the first and last letters and came up with HQ. I believe it is nice. That was how the name HQ came to existence.
Now, how do differentiate between a tailor and designer?
A tailor is a person who works on the machine. You can be a designer without being a tailor but in this part of the world we don’t know the difference. This is just like calling an architect a builder. If you are building, you can equally be an architect, but you still have to employ people that will do the building. The architect will be the one to draw what you want to build. A designer designs what the tailor is going to sew. Moreover, a tailor can be a designer and vis-à-vis. However, the designer has more advantages over the tailor. Why I said that is, a designer can design for 20 companies, but a tailor can only operate a sewing machine at a time. If you are serving as both, there will be clash of interest.
Over time, what has the job done to you as a person?
Sure, it has changed my fortune as a person. I know my worth when I started and I presently know my worth.
What advice would you give to those willing to join the profession?
My advice is simple. Whatever you are doing, you must be consistent and have the ability to endure, because no one expects huge profit at the beginning. Generally, those willing to join must work hard and pray harder. Hard work is good, but your prayer can take you to the right channel; the right people. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to pay the price. There was a day I went to deliver dresses to a client with the last money on me, and he said he would pay me the following Monday. I said no problem, and I stepped out to go source for money. Another day, I ran out of fuel about hundred metres from the filling station. I ran to the filling station with my last N100 and told the attendant to keep my phone but the attendant refused. Then, I asked for N100 fuel in the keg I was holding and the fuel took me to a secured place for my car, and I parked it. Those are challenges.
What other major challenges did you face at the initial stage?
Managing people was a great challenge then, especially paying my staff. At a time, I had two staff; one was on pay as you go, and the other on salary. Sometimes, when I had paid them, I might not be able to eat at all. But I didn’t give up because I know what it means someone who has worked for you. But today, to God’s glory, I conveniently do all these. I do tell people not to compare themselves to anybody. Set your goals, know your priority; you will definitely get there.
There was a time when I get to fast food, I can’t buy drink. Now, if I want the joint to be shutdown for a whole day, it will happen. This is because I set my goals right. I don’t compare myself to anybody. Yes, I let people who were doing good to challenge me, and it challenged in a right way.
The first time I went for an exhibition in Nigeria, I was like is this me. When I am done showcasing myself from the stage, a lady from South-Africa ran after me and marveled, asking if this is coming from Nigeria. Definitely, no business without challenges but you have to be ready for it. There was a time we needed to work and there was no light, no generator, and even money to get fuel. But today, it has turned around.
Let me ask, how was it like when you made your first million?
Hmm…I was so happy. And what prompted the happiness is that conveniently I can solve problems of hundred thousand up to 500 thousand naira. At a time, I decided the car I had doesn’t fit my personality anymore, and I bought another, two times better that the previous. Those who started thinking otherwise had a change of heart when began to see more changes in our operations and the determination with which we do our business. In fact, they also started patronizing us. When Ovation did the advert for me, I received contracts from everywhere. And my first call was from Saudi-Arabia. Thereafter, those from UK, US, South-Africa, Ghana, followed, and I was overwhelmed. That was in 2015, and since then, it has been open doors unlimited.
Who are your big clients?
I can’t mention names but they are very big.
Do they order or they bring materials?
They order, but you can bring materials as well.
What can you say about punctuality and timeliness in business?
The truth is if you need five staff for you to be more efficient, employ six. If you have a tailor that disappoints but charges N1000 and there is another that doesn’t disappoint, and charges 2000. You will go for the N2000 because he doesn’t disappoint. Although, most people will think of the six staff cost, with time, you will get the money. If people know you are effective and efficient, they will definitely come to you.
How affordable are you?
I am very affordable; not too cheap, and not too expensive.
Let’s come to family, how many kids do you have?
I have a wife and six children.
How do you manage your family and busy schedule?
I give my family a lot of time because my work demands I see my clients on appointment. I have my designs ready; I have a manager who oversees affairs. I have spread my tentacles in a way that I have time for myself and family. If I decide not to go to the factory in a week, it won’t affect production. And with the advancement in technology, everything is possible. I can easily get my designs across to the factory from wherever I am.
So, how do you relax with your family?
We go out and have fun. Most times, I am always at home. I can be at home for two, three days; that’s me.
Do you have a mini factory at home?
Yes, and whenever I have something to do, I will just give it to my manager and that’s all. With technology, even when I am at home, I am busy online, and I am still with them. Whenever they need me, I can pause what I am doing and attend to them. Even when my kids are around me, I am still working.
Now you are a society big-boy, how do you give back society?
I train people for free, but I stopped at a stage because people abused it. In truth, for one to learn a standard fashion designing business for 6 months he can’t pay less than N200, 000. And if anyone offers that for free, it should be appreciated but most people don’t appreciate because it’s not their passion. They just saw people in it, and joined.
Also, in HQ, we make cloths that we give out to the less privilege, students, and many others.
What food do you enjoy most as a person?
I enjoy pounded yam with vegetable or ‘egusi’ soup with goat meat. Also, I like plantain with sauce.
As a Muslim do you plan marrying more wives as it is permissible even up to four?
I didn’t create myself; one can only stereotype himself on what you want in life, but there are some things beyond your capacity. However, I don’t have plans for second wife, and if it has been destined, well. I never thought I was going to be a fashion designer. If I had known, I would have gone to school to study fashion designing.
So, who was your greatest inspiration in business?
If I had anybody that inspires me, I would have been in the business long before now. I only noticed people admiring my works, ever before I went into it. It was thereafter, I started asking myself if those who sew for presidents, governors, people like Dele Momodu, are not human beings. For a very long time, we have heard of Vivid Imagination and the other names, but it didn’t even cross my mind to think of what they do. It was after I started that I began to realise that several people are into what I do. So, if these people can be in the business and make it, I can also.
Do you intend going into general fashion like shoes some day?
Yes! I am in it already but I have not finalized the process. We are still test running because I prefer the best for whatever I do. Any sincerely, to get a quality shoe, it has to be Italy. But I would rather do my designing and take it to Italy for production.
If you find serious people, will you be ready to train them for free?
It takes a lot of work to know if the person is serious. As a result, I am planning to have a fashion school, some of the serious people that come in could be given scholarships, and they will appreciate it more.
In two, three years, where do you see HQ?
My plan is to have a shop in at least five African countries, if possible in two years. However, it is only God that can do that, but my next target is South Africa.
Where is HQ apart from Lagos?
Presently, it is only in Lagos.
What other location would it be?
Some people don’t even know us and they place order. That’s why being sincere is another thing. For Dele Momodu to advertise me in Ovation, people felt I must have integrity. They don’t know me and they trust their money with me; some people who have not seen or known me will send money to my account till I deliver their goods. Some send measurements, some send pictures for us to work with. I have clients all over the world, and most of them I don’t even know.
Do you have names for your cloths at HQ?
Yes, we have luxury ‘agbada’, normal ‘agbada’, we have native, we have casual, we have royal caps and royal outfits as well.
That means HQ is about what the clients want?
Yes! We are about what the clients want but sometimes, when clients bring poor designs we would advise them that we can’t work with this; that our name can’t be on it, because we treasure our brand, and our brand is a classic.