Today’s interview is with an amazing footwear designer who is passionate about business and developing sustainable brands. Kemi Juba of K.Aspen holds a bachelor’s degree in Marine science and started a branded clothing line for working professionals at age 17.
In this exclusive interview, Kemi tells us about how she wound up as a passionate business owner in the footwear design industry, how she gets inspiration to design and craft her pieces, and also her plans for the the K.Aspen brand.
- Please introduce yourself and your background
I am Kemi Juba and I was born and bred in Lagos, Nigeria. I am an entrepreneur who is extremely passionate about developing sustainable businesses. My passion for business led me to pursue an MBA in Global Business at the University of South Wales after earning a B.Sc. in Marine Science from the University of Lagos. I am currently the Founder and Creative Director of K.Aspen; a growing footwear brand in Africa. I am also a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and a Certified Digital Marketer. In my leisure time, I love to cook, sketch, listen to music, watch movies and follow fashion.
- Tell us about your work. How did K.Aspen start?
K.Aspen is a product of merging my creativity, entrepreneurial drive, business development and managerial skills. One of the major reasons I started K. Aspen was because there weren’t many options available to me regarding locally (designed and) made footwear. It also quickly dawned on me that others had the same issue. There was also the issue of seeing only international brands in most stores, and often wondering why innovation in Nigerian fashion was clothes-centric. Footwear and bag design innovation was lagging and I wanted to help change this narrative by building a brand to fill this gap. The brand, which is two (2) years old, has grown immensely and has achieved multiple milestones.
- How did you come about the name and what does it mean?
The name K.Aspen was inspired by my name and my science background. K.Aspen stands for full words Kae Aspen. Kae is basically a short form of my name Kemi, while Aspen in its true form is a tree with really softwood, which is quite beautiful too and relatively strong. An Aspen tree can stand through tough weather conditions. This tree sums up what the brand is about. We always seek to produce well-finished pieces that aren’t only beautiful but extremely durable.
- What is your niche and how did you know it was a market to get into?
At K. Aspen, our niche is currently bespoke and well-designed leather footwear for discerning men and women. I and my friends came to the realization that we were keen on footwear that not only stood out but stood the test of time. However, this was lacking in the market, and I saw a gap that needed to be filled as well as huge market opportunity in that area.
- Where do you find the inspiration for your products?
I find inspiration everywhere and in anything; from art, sculpture, poetry or just simply using my imagination. I put things together to form; a collection, a story behind a collection, and so on. My creative side has led me to see things beyond what they appear to be. Therein lies the joy of being a creative fashion designer because you can translate anything into a final product.
- Can you remember one of the first products you made? What makes it memorable?
Yes indeed, I distinctly remember my first two (2) products. A pair of male slippers and a pair of female shoes. The female pair wasn’t perfect, however, it marked the start of a new journey in my life that I was proud of. Though, we didn’t put the female shoes up for sale, because we were not ready for shoes at that point. The male slippers on the other hand turned out quite well and were a gift for my dad. He was my first product tester and I also sought his prayers and blessing. Remembering them makes me appreciate how far I have come.
- What are the challenges you face in your business?
One of the major challenges for K.Aspen is the artisans. This is due to the low level of refined skills in Nigeria and majority of the educated ones are reluctant to learn further. Getting the right manpower to add value to your business can sometimes be tough. At K.Aspen, we are working on eradicating this. It is not only about getting skilled people; it is about getting people who are willing to learn and perfect their skills without thinking they know it all. There is also the challenge of production management; overseeing production while my attention is needed in other parts of the business. I am currently in the process of building up the team further to minimize this challenge.
- Do you have any regrets venturing into this line of business?
No, I have no regrets whatsoever. I decided to solve a problem, to make Nigeria standout, and to strengthen Nigeria’s position in the global fashion scene rather making quick money or starting a business for the sake of it. It has been a remarkable journey so far with the help of friends, family, mentors and my dear partner. I would not trade the experience for anything in the world. The future is unknown; but through our vision, careful planning, meticulous execution and the fact that I have laid the brand at the Lord’s feet; I believe ours is a bright one.
- What is your most popular product?
Our most popular product is the Bantu pair for men, and the Emi pair (unisex). The reception of the Bantu pair has been amazing; it is our signature design and remains popular till date. Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a product which you (as the designer) love but which the customer loves even more than you do. The Bantu Pair is definitely our best-selling and most popular product.
- To what extent do you draw upon your Nigerian (African) heritage for your work?
I draw upon my heritage quite heavily when designing. There is the richness of my Yoruba culture, the various cultures within Nigeria and Pan-African influences. There are also the various colour palettes found in Nigeria / Africa, with the combination of earthy, vivid and bold. I also definitely cannot forget, the wonderful textures. We incorporate as much as we can into our products to reflect dignified contemporary Africa. I see Africa beyond the African prints but about the richness of textures and the tones of colors. Some certain tones speak African not just about Ankara, Adire, or Aso Oke. At K.Aspen, we are going into the more contemporary form of African fashion. Most of our footwear reflect these in the colors, patterns and textures we use.
- What are your goals for the future, both work wise and life?
There are a number of goals being pursued, the primary one being to grow K.Aspen to become one of Africa’s leading footwear brands. We hope to achieve this through innovative designs, being guided by our core values, and the growth of our employees. For us, K.Aspen isn’t just the footwear, it is an experience from beginning to end. It is about the artisans’ lives, the growth if our employees, the passion and love invested in the production process. Our goal is to build a great company with a lasting legacy and we also aim to change the narrative of African fashion start-ups. An eagerly goal we pursue is to be the best; at serving our customers, be great at our craft and expanding our product line.
- What would people be surprised to learn about you?
Hmmmn, let’s see. I had a branded clothing line when I was 17 for working professionals. I am also quite shy (especially when it comes to putting my face out there) but that’s improved.
- What profession would you be in if you weren’t in the Footwear Design Sphere?
That would be advertising. It is in the creative industry and embodies many things I am passionate about. I love telling compelling stories with my craft and advertising would be a good fit for me if I wasn’t in the footwear design sphere.
- If you could give one piece of advice to youths who want to start their own business, what would it be?
I would say ‘structure’. Structure is key in anything you are do. You need to have a structure and abide by it; it can make or break any business. First, ask yourself – what kind of business do I want to go into and why? To make money or make ends meet? Or to make an impact in the world? Do you want to employ people you can influence positively? You need to be truthful to yourself, for instance, there is nothing wrong with establishing a business to make money; it all boils down to your vision. Once this is established, talk to people who are already in your industry and or those who know more than you do to help and guide you. This would help in putting and building proper structures for your business. And finally, constant collaboration is the fastest way of gaining more visibility for your business.
- And finally, please share images of some of your work and tell us a little about each product.
First, I would talk about ‘Sunny Heat’. It took us a lot of time to make this product because I just didn’t want an average heel; I wanted something that would stand out. I wanted bold colours and an extremely comfortable pair of heels. The rear of each shoe has a metal version of our logo. Sunny Heat was crafted out of love and with the goal of making the K.Aspen woman stand out. Customer feedback has been beyond remarkable.
Secondly, I would talk about the Saheed Pair. It is one of my favourites because it came from a very deep place and is truly bespoke A client asked us to design something different for him as he was tired of buying foreign designer brands.
He wanted something locally made but with a designer look and feel. . He is one of our toughest but extremely constructive client and there was a need to ensure he was pleased. We went through multiple prototypes before we created the Saheed Pair. .
I went in search of the leather myself for days and went through a number of colour combinations to achieve a cool tone and look. I named the design after the client because it was a product of months of hard work. All our items are products of hard work but this was different because someone was waiting for us to deliver the best. I am hoping the Saheed Pair becomes one of our signature products.
In addition, I am going to talk about our K.A Midnight Blue Thongs. Thongs are a very common design among male customers and we wanted to make our version reflecting the K.Aspen design ethos. We went out in search of textured leather and included our metal logo for extra detail. For us, our attention to detail, leather choices and our brand as a whole makes us stand out.
I wish I could tell you about all our products. This interview just made me realize I don’t tell our products stories enough, each story makes you fall in love with the products more.
The Zatera Pair signifies a strong woman. A strong woman isn’t necessarily someone that has all the money in the world or has everything figured out. For me, a strong woman is someone who is open to everything and take things as they come. Her mind is positive and she is relentless; she does not give up in the face of challenges or struggles. I wanted to create something fierce, the purple zig-zag on it inspired this design. I own a pair as well and feel elated anytime I wear them.
All our pieces are made with in-depth passion and in my view, I think every artist does (or should) do that. Therein lies the root of my decision to be a footwear designer; to create wonderful pieces with a story, to interpret the African culture, heritage and elements that depict Nigeria or Africa as a whole.
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