Fashion designer stresses culture, conscience to SU students

Fashion designer Autumn Adeigbo spoke to students of the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business at Shenandoah University about the harsh realities of launching a business on Wednesday. Lewis Millholland/Daily

WINCHESTER – Autumn Adeigbo, fashion designer and founder of MAKOKO, Inc., spoke Wednesday to students of the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business at Shenandoah University about the harsh realities of launching a business.

The tagline for Adeigbo’s collection is “Culture. Color. Conscience.” All of Adeigbo’s products, women’s wear “seasoned with African culture,” are crafted strictly on-demand to prevent waste, which she sees as rampant in the fashion industry.

“Fashion brands are getting all this product — all these shirts, all these pants, all these dresses — they don’t know who’s going to buy them, what size they’re going to want to buy, what style they’re going to want to buy,” Adeigbo said. “You guys go to the store and you don’t find anything you want because it doesn’t match your style, it just gets shipped to the landfill.”

A core tenant of the collection is to give back to the tribes that inspire the clothing. Businesses that can’t figure out how to give back while making a profit are going to get left behind, Adeigbo said.

The Autumn Adeigbo website shows a side-by-side comparison of an African tribesman on the left and a Louis Vuitton runway model, wearing a Kenyan-inspired scarf, on the right. The issue Adeigbo had wasn’t the use of the culture in American fashion, but the fact that Louis Vuitton did nothing to give back to the tribe that inspired the clothing.

“I work with a cross-cultural collective of women who all come together to creatively put this brand together, from design to branding to website design to hiring women overseas to create the collection. I’m paying them fair-trade wages for production,” Adeigbo said. “We all come together so that we can create a different kind of fashion product that invests in women all the way along our supply chain.”

Growing up, Adeigbo’s mother sewed most of her clothes, and in fourth grade she won the “Best Dressed” award. However, her fashion prerogatives failed to translate when she attended boarding school, and she was expelled.

“I had to wear a uniform, and like, clothes are one of the major ways I express myself,” Adeigbo said. “So, if our skirts were too high, we got infractions. If I didn’t make my bed, I got an infraction. And like, while most people had like 15 infractions at the end of their school year, I had like 90. So I got kicked out.”

Adeigbo then transferred to a preparatory school and found herself starting college at the age of 16. She earned her business degree and held jobs in everything from hostess to project manager at a construction site to Forbes contributor, slowly working towards one day launching her own product line.

“I almost got evicted from my apartment,” she said. “I was behind on rent. I never got to travel, I was depressed for years and years and years. But I had this burning fire inside, that like, that was the most important thing to me.”

It took her 10 years to secure her first six-figure capital investment. As she put it, “I had to hustle for a really long time.”

Adeigbo’s collection has now been featured in over 50 publications including Vogue, Glamour, Marie Claire and Essence magazine. Her clients include Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s sister), Tracee Ellis Ross and Amanda Hearst.

In return for her years of sacrifice, Adeigbo rewards herself with regular travel. But her biggest piece of advice to young entrepreneurs is to lean into the initial suffering, and don’t bail out for easy security.

She recalled getting coffee with a colleague the other day who was stressed about her latest venture not getting off the ground.

“‘Oh we don’t have returns yet, we don’t have investments yet, I had to take a loan out, da-da-da-da, and it’s been six months.’ And I was like, ‘Stop,'” Adeigbo said. “I was like, ‘Do you want to be an entrepreneur, or do you want to go work for someone else?’

“Because if you’re an entrepreneur, these are not things you get to say. You don’t know when you’re going to get money again, you don’t know if you’re going to be able to pay your bills. But you can’t work for someone else. You have such passion and drive inside of yourself to bring forth your vision that you can’t work for someone else.”