What Kept Me As A Fashionpreneur For Over 26years Is My Ability Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn

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If we also acquire the knowledge we need and apply it to our businesses, growth would be effortless. After 26years in business, I think I owe the next generation to the opportunity to learn from my experience. My goal is to help them understand and help to manage their businesses from the scratch; these are the things I missed when I started out.

Tinu Smith is an award-winning Nigerian based fashion designer, and the Chief Executive Officer of Datina Designs Fashion House and Fashion School, for over 25 years, which makes Unisex Wears, and also produce Afrocentric ready to wear for export to African regions and Europe.

She is a designer whose fashion standards are distinctive and this has carved out a niche for her in the fashion industry.

She believes fashion should be classy, eclectic, and comfortable which are prominent features of her designs.

Tinu is a deep lover of music and the convener of 'Colours of Worship', a gospel musical concert that is held annually in the city of Ibadan, Oyo State. She is married to Engr. Olubunmi Smith and they are blessed with two lovely children.

She shares some of her business experiences and how she's helping people who have issues in their marriages with the Ibadan Media crew, read the interview below:

Is Datina Designs just all about tailoring or there are other things I did not know?

Of course, I do so many other things but I started this brand in 1995. Then we don't use to call ourselves fashion designers, we were called tailors.

But things have evolved now because we are now being called fashion designers and it's beyond just clothing.

We provide different types of capacity-building training, we have a fashion school, where we train people, and to the glory of God, we've trained over 10,000 under this brand which is both within and outside the country. This is our 26th year of existence.

We are proud of our contribution to the fashion industry so far, and we are currently still training more people.

We also have a manufacturing outfit not just for ourselves, because we manufacture for other brands who desire to start their own ready-to-wear line, but do not want to go through the stress of manufacturing. We practically help other brands to start their own stuff.

Upcoming brands that don't know how to sew but desire to launch a ready-to-wear line, we help them to launch their dream collection. We also do mass production for corporate institutions and organizations.

They are our B2B customers, which consists of organizations like Medical, Security, and Educational institutions.

We also service our B2C customers, which captures our executive customers and huge masses available in the market. We're very passionate about Afrocentric wear with our focus on promoting African fabrics, culture, and designs beyond the shores of Africa.

We want other people outside Africa to be able to embrace our culture and we do that by using our local fabric like Aso Oke, Adire, and Ankara as our major medium of expression, to promote African culture and attire in Europe.

Right now, we're exporting our ready-to-wear clothing pieces out of Nigeria to other African regions and European Africa and it's been a very interesting experience and exposure. 

I'll like to know more about your background?

Okay starting out with, Fashion designing wasn't my goal because I loved to be in front of the camera.

I wanted to either be a print journalist because I love to write or a mass communicator, to be on TV as a presenter. But as time went on, things changed.

I studied communication and Language Arts as I desired and came to serve in Ibadan.

So when was that?

That was 1990. I was posted to Ibadan to serve, but when I got to Ibadan I was living in the BQ (Boys Quarter)of a very lovely woman, who was one of the best fashion designers in Ibadan as at then, (CuteCuts), and interestingly she is still of the relevant fashion designer in Ibadan up till now. So I was staying in her BQ (Boys Quarter) while I was serving with a Christian organization back then which was called Youth for Christ. That was where I did my one year of the service.

During my service year, I just felt I should pick up a skill and I chose fashion designing, even though it wasn't common then to learn a skill as we have it now. I guess I also inherited the gift to design from my mum who used to be a fashion designer. She was not just a fashion designer she actually had her first degree in Fashion and Designing at Paris Academy.

It was a full 4 years course. So it has always been in the family, but I never thought I would go in that direction, like I said, I wanted to be In front of the camera. So when I got to Ibadan I just felt I should learn it and in 6months I was through with the training so I just told myself that this is it, that I'm not working or doing anything aside from this again and that was how the journey started for me.

When I started the business it's not like what we have today where business schools are springing up everywhere. I was the cashier, accountant, the PR, and everything that relates to managing the business. I learned on the job and it took me a long time to grow because there was no one to put me through but I was learning and growing in my own little way and then a few years down the line, like 2 years after, the fashion school started.

People started coming and requesting to be trained. It has taken me 26 years to get to where I am now.

You mean since 1990?

Yes plus my training and where I am now, it's been 30 years for me in the fashion industry.

My greatest joy in the past 26 years is the ability to empower people. When I see them start their own businesses, I have so much joy in me, so I focused on that a lot because I saw it as a tool for impacting the next generation, and funny enough, God kept bringing people my way, people that couldn't even afford to pay me, some were orphans and some from a broken home and I always did my best to empower them.

I come from a broken home myself, my parents' marriage didn't work so I could tell how it was for children who are from a broken home.

This gave me the passion especially for single ladies that come from broken homes and that also gave birth to my ministry which I do now and have been doing for the past 3years. It's called Treasure Refuge Foundation.

It's a non-governmental organization focused on mentoring, empowering, and grooming young ladies into total women.

I have almost 250 ladies on my WhatsApp platform that I mentor and teach on a daily basis. We teach them how to make it in life without having to depend on anyone. Giving them the courage to know that you can make it in life even without your parents.

There was nobody for me when I'm growing up. I had four sisters; I had to model good leadership, so they can also follow a good footstep. My mother was a strong woman and very hardworking and I had to do well because I was the first child and had to lead my siblings, so I had no choice than to do well, that's why I tell ladies you don't have to depend on any man or anyone, other than God, because God is our helper and I thank God for today because I'm a living testimony that there's nothing impossible with God.

So I empower lots of people and still do it up till now and my dream is to open a shelter for lots of young ladies because you see most of them choosing prostitution because they feel that is the only and easiest way to survive.

But if there's a shelter, they can get empowerment, training, and hope. It would help us get them off the street by empowering them with a skill that will better their lives.

That has been my ultimate dream to have a shelter for young ladies but now we don't have a shelter but we have an empowerment program through which we've been and are able to help them, give support to those doing prostitution to get out of it because they feel the only way for to survival is selling their bodies.

That is where our empowerment comes in handy.

Your story has inspired me too and I appreciate it, in fact you have seriously turned me to a student being lectured.

(Smiles) oh yes and that's life, most people don't know what drives and motivates you to do the things you do, that is why it's good to focus on your journey and not compare yourself with others.

We are all wired differently. We are all designers and gifted people but we're all different and what motivates us is what makes us who we are.

So to me, my business is a calling from God because at times it creates an avenue for me to counsel people who have issues in their marriages or facing life's challenges generally.

The way I treat my customers also keeps them coming back because I make it my priority to develop a good relationship with them. Most times I attend their personal functions which I' am being invited to and they attend mine too.

Customer acquisition and relationship are not just about advertisements and wanting to make sales, cultivating a good relationship is key.

It's also not just about making clothes for them, it's about making your customers happy, that is what makes a good business relationship and they'll keep coming because of that. So business entrepreneurs should ask themselves the question what they can do to keep their customers coming.

What's your strength (Zeal) in the business?

In my journey of 26 years as a fashion entrepreneur, what has kept me here is my ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. It's a cycle because once you stop learning you stop growing.

I completed my fashion training between 1992-1994, if what I have learned then is what I'm still using to train and manage my business, you probably won't be here for this interview, my business would have become obsolete, not relevant anymore. I pay the price of growth by always stretching myself to learn, unlearn and relearn.

People that are always stretching themselves to learn new things and apply them are always the ones leading. In the 26 years of my business, 10 years of it was spent going in circles.

I could not capture my finances because I didn't know how to keep proper records and my business lacked structure. I decided to learn and upgrade my knowledge base. I strongly believe the quote that says “knowledge is power".

When you learn and apply what you learn you empower yourself. It's just like our body, when we feed on a balanced diet we don't have to struggle with growth. Everything is going to be okay with our body because it's been given the right nutrition.

If we also acquire the knowledge we need and apply it to our businesses, growth would be effortless.

You exert more strength when you cut with a blunt instrument. Increase your knowledge base to stay on your cutting edge.

26 years is a lot! Can you share the challenges you've experienced with us?

Okay, initially like I said, knowledge was my problem, money was coming in its own little way but I did not know how to capture the money because I didn't know how to manage my business and then I got a scholarship to study entrepreneurial management at Lagos business school, it was sponsored by Goldman Sachs.

The 6 months of entrepreneurial training was the game-changer. It's like a scale fell off my face because I got to know there are better methods of managing my business. I used the knowledge gained to restructure my business and a new brand emerged.

So now if I am not physically present the business can run because the right people have been plugged in the right positions. Those are the benefits I enjoyed by undergoing the training, now I got my business well managed and structured.

I also got an accounts officer who helped us keep proper financial records. This has given us the opportunity of winning several grants from the federal government, Oyo State government, and non-governmental organizations both locally and internationally.

My major challenge now is to be able to meet up with my deliveries. So we need more machines, bigger space and capacity to engage more manpower.

With all these, how do you unwind? What are your indoor activities? 

I love music, I sing, am a minstrel, I have a music ministry and a band (Smiles) Have done that for 9years.

My music is gospel-oriented and my music brand is called 'Forerunners'. We host our worship concert called 'Colours of Worship' annually in the city of Ibadan, Oyo State.

So once I'm singing, writing or reading I'm good. It's a platform that encourages those that know how to write music and produce, it helps the younger ones to showcase and improve their music skills.

I love traveling and my choicest places are African countries that are developing rapidly like Kigali.

Is there a chronic challenge before despite your plans? Yes, I have been in serious debt before as a business owner, though just a few people knew because I didn't make it obvious.

I am a resilient person; I believe challenges are part of our entrepreneurial journey. I eventually got out of it with the help of my mentors, support group, and my creative skills.

Challenges are part of the package so we just have to solve them.

Have you ever been assigned a job before that you didn't have time to carry out or didn't have an idea of how to go about it?

Yes, it has happened to me before. I work with people that are smarter than me, so I use the opportunity to get their assistance. I make it a point of duty to relate with people who are more knowledgeable than I am because they're always my safeguard on difficult issues and at challenging times.

How do you cope with unhappy customers?

We try our best to calm them down while some might leave angrily and some still come back while some leave permanently. We also leave our staff with cooler personalities to handle such customers.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years as a business owner and also as an individual?

As a business owner, I have been going for training on how to export for 3 years now and have gotten my certification.

So in the next 5 years, I see my brand exportation massively to diverse countries, both locally and internationally. I see our brand in partnership with some international stores that can stock our clothing products.

So how do social, economic, environment, technology and politics affect your business? 

Bad governmental policies are affecting small businesses.

All the profits we are making will either go to paying one tax or bills. Too much duplication of government levies is affecting the growth of small businesses.

Taxes are paid on both Local and federal levels. Access to funding is also part of the challenges. The high percentages place on loans given to SME's by financial institutions making it tough for small businesses to thrive.

Power outage is also another major issue. Most times there's no light and we have to use our own generators to power our machines, which ends up making our overhead high.

These and many other challenges are what we are facing as small business owners on a daily basis. We hope our government would be more focused

What has been your satisfying moment in this job?

It's my empowerment programme.

The ability to empower the younger ones has been my greatest joy. This year I have been able to start my coaching programme for start businesses and it's been such a fulfilling experience.

After 26years in business, I think I owe the next generation to the opportunity to learn from my experience. My goal is to help them understand and help to manage their businesses from the scratch; these are the things I missed when I started out.

My joy is seeing my protégés that passed through my tutelage doing great on their own.

What's your advice for young people in the industry?

Don't try to grow in one day because growth is a journey and a process. Keep inventing yourself, keep learning, have mentors for different areas of your life. I still have mentors and they help a lot in my decision-making process.

Collaboration is the new competition. Network with other experienced professionals and creative individuals in your industry.

What have you learned from this interview?

Your interview has given us the spotlight and helped to project our brand. For that, we are grateful. People truly make things happen.

Are there any other points you'd like to share with readers?

I guess it's marriage and relationships, because we didn't talk about that. I have been married for 26 years and I have 2 children. I had a delay of 12 good years before I had my boy and that was one major experience that aided my growth, and experience as a Christian. It brought me closer to God.

Nothing is truly impossible with God. He makes all things beautiful in his time. 

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