Dede Reelia Kouevi: It’s okay not to have it all & still make your vision come to life

Dede Reelia Kouevi: I bought a Christmas ornament from a $1 store & turned it into an earring Click To Tweet

When your grandparents, mother and aunts are tailors, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be a fashionista. Dede Reelia Kouevi was born in Togo to a fashion-forward family, now she’s made her mark as an accessories designer. Her brand UniqueByReelia features vibrant, colourful jewellery and accessories but Reelia isn’t limiting herself to accessories.

In the three years since UniqueByReelia launched, Reelia has showcased her designs in shows such as Black Fashion Week Montréal, Fest Africa 2014, African Fashion Week DC and Ankara Fashion Week Miami. Now she’s trying to host her own show in Italy, the Afro Expo Fashion Week. Reelia is very familiar with the difficulty that comes with getting into shows as a young designer and wants to provide a platform for designers like her.


Why start Unique by Reelia?

I started UniqueByReelia because I always knew I was going to be a fashion designer. I started showcasing at different fundraisers since I was in high school with clothes my mother used to make me from Togo. I knew that I wanted to move to New York to pursue my dream and find a way toward my goal.

When I moved to New York, I was hoping my school will have a few designing classes. But that wasn’t the case! It was just a regular private university. In my sophomore year, I decided to start making accessories. One day, I went to a $1 store, bought a Christmas ornament and turned it into an earring.

I wore it around my campus and my friends loved it. That was the beginning of UniqueByReelia. I thought to myself if I can start with accessories and make my way up, in the future I will be able to dress people from head to toes.

Dede Reelia Kouevi: I wanted to be ambitious and a go getter, somebody who empowers others Click To Tweet

What was the spark that lead you down this path?

When I was in high school, I attended modelling and acting classes at John Roberts Power. I wasn’t getting gigs and I met other young dark-skinned African girls who were in the same boat as myself. There are people who are driven to be models and willing to learn, yet they were not given the opportunity to do so.

I thought to myself; instead of waiting for other people to give me the opportunity I’ve waiting for, I can create that opportunity for others. I loved the idea of being a designer and helping other young models live their dreams. Since I started UniqueByReelia, I have inspired other girls to find confidence through modelling as well.

I’ve worked with all types of models, curvy, skinny, tall, starters, pregnant women, as well as some super models and top models.

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Tell us about being at the Black Fashion Week in Montreal. How did you get there?

The Black Fashion Week in Montreal, was an amazing experience. I’ve been looking up to Adama Paris ever since I started my brand. Adama is ambitious and fashion icon, I felt like that was the woman I wanted to become. I wanted to be ambitious and a go getter, somebody who empowers others.

So, when an opportunity presented itself, I did everything to make it happened. I’ve became friends with her on Facebook and Instagram. She posted about the Black Fashion Week event and was looking for designers.

I applied, they loved my designs and accepted me in. The show participation fee, the transportation and my accommodation came up to a total of $3000. My school refund checks, my fiancé and my dad helped me go to the Black Fashion Week project.

Reelia realized at an early stage that many people don’t really value accessory designers Click To Tweet

Do you believe you’re limiting yourself by focusing solely on accessories?

No, I am not limiting myself by solely focusing on accessories. I recently launched my clothing line 6 months ago and I’m currently working on my swimwear collection for spring/summer 2017, which am very excited about.

I just wanted to push my accessories line to the top. First, because I get to create them myself and I wanted to do something different through my brand. I realized at an early stage that many people don’t value accessories designers the way they value clothing designers.

So, I promised myself that I will be the best in order to inspire other accessories designers. Being an accessories designer is not easy, we brainstorm too, we sit down and create stuff. We use our hands more than machine. How can you not value something like that?

Sometimes I cry when I bring some of my designs to life. I remember going to shows where I had the privilege to showcase my pieces on my own. At these shows, other accessories designers had to pair their pieces with clothing designers. Don’t get me wrong, pairing up designers is not as bad as it sounds. Still sometimes you just want the stage to yourself, you know.

Sometimes Dede Reelia Kouevi cries when she brings her @UniqueByReelia designs to life Click To Tweet

We stumbled upon your IndieGoGo page for the Afro Expo Fashion Week Italy. Can you tell us how you first heard of this event?

Well, Afro Expo Fashion Week Italy, is my own fashion show. This is a show I’m organizing in Italy. My initial idea was to tour Europe and to do shows like I’ve been doing it here in the States. I wanted to start with Black Fashion Paris. But I thought about it and realized that, with all the experiences that I have already acquired, it was time to do my own show.

Then again, most of my friends have had their shows here in the States already. I wanted to do something different, so I decided to bring my fashion week to Italy. The idea is to bring the celebration of diversity and culture, and to give a platform to young designers to showcase at this event.

It is hard for young designers to showcase at events that I showcase at. This is because entering these shows can be pricey and unaffordable for some young designers. I wanted to break that barrier and give the opportunity to other designers to showcase their talent.

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Why did you decide to go the crowd-funding route to make Afro Expo Fashion Week Italy a reality?

I didn’t have all the fund necessary for this project. Plus, I didn’t have the luxury of time where I can sell and save the money for this project. Being a full-time student and managing a business is frustrating, especially since I am in my last semester. I knew it was going to be a tough year for my business as well as for my education.

However, I wanted to get my networks involved in my project, I wanted people to contribute in a project they will be proud off. I wanted to inspired my peers through this campaign, as well as let them know that it is okay not to have it all and still make your vision come to life.

Being the first person doing a crowd-funding campaign from my country, it was also a way for me to put bring more awareness to Togo. I was raised in a community where we don’t ask for help, we are too proud. Even though we might need help, we let our pride get hold of us, so my crowd-funding was meant to break barriers.

How has growing up in a family full of tailors influenced your business choice?

To be honest, I think fashion chose me because I was born in a family full of creative tailors. My maternal grandmother was a tailor, my mother was a tailor, my mother’s sister is a tailor, my father’s mother was a tailor, my dad’s father was a tailor…so for me I think it was more like a calling.

Looking back at my mother making my clothes, and how she used to dress me up and how stylish she was, growing older I knew I had no other choice but to follow that path. It was a shared passion of ours.

Do you think it’s necessary for women who want to work in fashion to go to fashion school? Why?

Personally, I will say yes. Even though some people grew up in an environment that enables them to know how to sew clothes on their own, I do value education. It makes everything perfect and teaches you different strategies.

Things are improving everyday so in order to be at the top, you must keep your game up. Today, I look back and wished I just went to a fashion school instead. The good news is, it’s never too late to rewrite my story!

Going to school to perfect your passion helps you master it!

Tell us how you live your dream through your business?

The best part of my business is when I get to inspire other young women to pursue their dream. I often receive messages that say, “because of you I want to do something”.

And when I go to fashion weeks and hear Togo read next to my name, I get excited and feel fulfilled. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to live my dream.

 


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I started Cartik with less than $3 to my name

I started Cartik, an ethical fashion and social entrepreneurship brand in 2013 while studying abroad in Ghana. A significant part of my program as an International Relations major at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, Minneapolis, was to study abroad for a semester or a year. So, I spent a semester in Paris, France on a scholarship sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of educational and cultural affairs. After my time in France, I planned to go to Ghana to study the culture, the people, and their political system.

My scholarship to Ghana was declined but I was already enrolled in the program that summer. So, I worked every job I could find and saved enough money to purchase a ticket to Ghana.  My tuition covered the fees and the only issue left was my survival for the rest of the semester. Struggling to go to Ghana made me realize how much I needed to make extra income back in USA.

My Ghanaian experience

While in Ghana, my aunt in Togo paid me a visit and we travelled back to Togo to see family. It had been 15 years since I last visited and I felt like a complete stranger in my own country. My aunt and I had gone to the market in Lomé, the capital city of Togo. As we walked through the market, all I saw was beautiful African wax prints everywhere. My aunt, being the queen of prints asked me to help select them.

My interest was piqued when my aunt advised that I consider doing something with prints. In need of extra income and knowing the demand for prints in the US would be huge, I considered it. Soon, I was making inquiries in Ghana and during trips to Togo on bags and accessories with African prints.

Carmen Attikossie

Breaking through the business world

A young woman I met at the University of Ghana, Legon where I was staying, showed me some bags that I liked. Originally, I was going to just buy bags and sell them in the USA but I didn’t like some of the ones I saw. This led me to start sketching my own designs and jotting down ideas of what I’d like. Though I had no background in design and could barely draw to save my life, I was willing to try.

When my time in Ghana came to an end, I had used all the money I earned to start Cartik. With $2.85 to my name and no books for the coming semester, I returned to the USA with 30 bags and some jewelry. It was an audacious move but I told myself even if I failed, at least I tried.

Within two months, I had sold everything and even needed to get more products. I went from ordering 30 to 60, then 200 bags. I was running Cartik’s operations from my dorm on campus with the help of my aunt and cousins in Ghana and Togo.

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Growing Cartik

I started getting invited to events to showcase my products as everyone on my campus and even local colleges around the city in St. Paul and Minneapolis knew about my business.

In my last year in college, a friend invited me to her economic development class. As I listened to a professor speak about economic development in developing countries, I realized how everything spoken about came naturally to me.

I decided that very moment, what I wanted to do with my brand. I was going to grow Cartik into an ethical fashion and social entrepreneurship brand that works with artisans in Togo and Ghana. I was going to fuse my knowledge as an international relations major into my business.

Although it’s been 2 years since we started, I still consider Cartik a startup. We’ve done many local fashion shows in Minneapolis and more recently, we did something for RAW in Phoenix, Arizona. RAW is an international artist coalition group that serves as a platform for designers, musicians, etc.

I truly believe I have started a brand with the potential to make a huge impact in Africa.

The future?

In the future, I hope to expand into producing my own African textiles, provide education and development for women and children. Also, I would love to go into cosmetics, agriculture, and start a foundation to mentor young individuals wanting to start a business.

Of course, I am trying to create an altruistic brand that will stimulate economic development and prosperity. I want to create jobs and opportunities for people in Togo, Ghana and other parts of the African continent.

Carmen Attikossie: I want Cartik to contribute to a better Africa

In these days of ubiquitous African wax prints, only a few businesses stand out. One of them is Cartik, a brand started by Carmen Attikossie. Carmen used her links to her homeland of Togo, along with new networks formed while studying in Ghana to start a fashion label that uses African wax print. Here, Carmen gives us insight into Cartik, explains why she plans to venture into agriculture and schools us on the Nana Benz.


What sort of artisans does Cartik you work with?

I work with artisans from all walks of life in Ghana and Togo. In Togo, there is an artisan village in the capital city Lomé and when I started Cartik, my aunt took me there. I met artisans who were shoemakers, leather-workers, jewelry-makers, etc. I took my time, picked the artisans I wanted to work with and went from there. In Ghana, I had the opportunity to travel to Kumasi, and I met some artisans at Bonwire, Kente village.

Throughout the time I was Accra as a student, I took my time to search for individuals who were skilled in bag-making and were interested in making my designs. There was difficulty in finding these artisans and I spent weeks and months trying to find the right individuals to bring my designs to life. Most of the artisans I work with are people who have either left their countries due to conflict or lack of jobs and have settled in Ghana or Togo. They are young individuals who have graduated from university but due to lack of employment, they picked up artisan skills and are looking to have a steady income.

I like working with these young individuals because I am young myself. As a university graduate, I understand the difficulty of receiving a degree and not finding work in your field or employment in general. Today, I work with a small group of artisans in Accra and in Lomé, I still work with artisans at the artisan village.

What is the fashion scene in Togo like?

Togo is a small country and the fashion industry is slowly gaining momentum with the likes of Grace Wallace. Grace is a Togolese-Nigerian fashion designer that is well known throughout Togo and in West Africa.

Lomé, the capital city known to be a hub for African prints. Many people travel from Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and other countries just to buy prints at Assigame , the biggest market in Togo.

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Model: Karima Bah Photo credit: Darlington’s photography

Tell us about your experience studying in Ghana.

I went to Ghana on a study abroad programme at my university. In Ghana, I stayed on campus at the University of Ghana and lived in the international student hostel. My experience there was phenomenal. I did not want to leave Ghana, I even asked my school if I could stay for another semester but I was not given the opportunity.

Honestly, I felt comfortable in Ghana. I grew up in the USA so when I was there everyone thought I was from the USA. Many people were shocked to know that I’m from Togo. My classmates and professors were always surprised when I spoke Ewe, one of the languages spoken in Ghana and Togo. They couldn’t believe that after 15 years in the USA I can still speak Ewe so well.

I made new friends, learned a little bit of Twi and experienced life as a student in an African country, something that I’ve always wanted to do. I also volunteered at Future Leaders, an organization that takes disadvantaged kids off the streets of Accra and provides them with the basic tools of education. I taught science to 5th and 6th graders in Teshie, Ghana. At Future Leaders, I helped initiate a plan for women and microfinance and got involved in many other aspects of the organization.

As someone who has received scholarships, do you have any advice for other young African women looking to gain a scholarship?

Google is your best friend, go to networking events if you can because you never know who might be there and what connections and networks they have. When writing scholarship essays or filling out grant applciations, start early and take your time. Also, make sure to have others look over it.

Looking for a scholarship is a like looking for employment. You want to take time to research and plan how to write your scholarship essay.

You mentioned that you want to venture into agriculture. Why agriculture?

Once Cartik is out of its startup phase and is well established and known, I want to delve into agriculture. At the moment the only steps I’ve taken is to do more research on African agriculture. I became interested in agriculture after reading Africa Unchained by George Ayittey in college. That book taught me the importance of agriculture in Africa. The rural population in many African countries hold the wealth to Africa’s prosperity and that is agriculture.

If we spend time investing and educating the rural population on better and efficient farming techniques, I believe would be on our way to alleviating some of the problems we have. From what I’ve learned in college, at times rural areas in African countries are neglected when it comes to development. If we provide rural populations with access to healthcare, education, development for women and children, the possibilities will be endless.

Cartik LogoCan you tell us a few things about Togo that other Africans don’t know?

– Togo is home to the Nana Benz women. The Nana Benz are a group of women who began their journey as textile traders during the time of French colonization. These women came from nothing and rose to fame, power, and fortune because of the wax prints. They were ambitious, hardworking entrepreneurs and leaders who contributed greatly to the economic growth of Togo.

The lives and stories of the Nana Benz women have been preserved in a book called Nanas Benz: Parcours de Vie. The English translation would be, “The lives of Nanas Benz”. The book was written by a Togolese woman name Dalé Hélène Labitey, who is also professor of Law in Senegal.

– Koutammakou, the land of the Batammariba, is a rural part of Togo located in the north of the country. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

– The international music group, Toofan that has been nominated for the BET “Best Act International Africa” award, along with many other prestigious entertainment awards in Africa is from Togo.

– Togo is one of the world’s largest phosphate producers.


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