One of my favorite childhood memories is of playing dress up in my grandmother’s clothes – sliding into her kitten heels, layering her silky pastel negligees into kid-couture designs, and sassily strutting down the hallway with enough attitude to make RuPaul throw shade. While my divadom peaked in preschool, that early narrative taught me to hone my own sense of style and gave me a lifelong appreciation for fashion and glamour.
Fashion is all about narrative. At this moment, you are wearing the tangible manifestation of someone’s story. The best, most successful designers are those who are able to somehow translate their personal, cultural, and creative inspiration in a way that speaks to the masses. Onyii Brown is a designer of this class.
“I’ve wanted to be a designer since I was seven years old,” she says. “I loved clothes. I always dreamt about runways.”
Threading culture into contemporary fashion, the Nigerian-American founder of Onyii & Co has transformed that dream into a reality, as her Africa-inspired printed collections have gone from Etsy startup to the runways of New York Fashion Week!
Despite being the quintessential poster-child for overnight success, this Houston-based wife and mother is the first to admit that what might appear to some as a happy ending, is a constant work in progress – the result of some very real struggles, and continuous hard work.
She recalls a time when both she and her husband found themselves unemployed in a dwindling economy.
“Just four years ago, we were pre-foreclosure. I had to get on food stamps,” she shares.
“I was completely embarrassed about it,” she recalls. “I remember being in the grocery store and using the (EBT) card, and feeling that sense of shame like, ‘whoa, is this even going to work?'” Since that low point, plenty of things have happened in Onyii’s life.
The up-and-coming designer recently sat down with me to talk about pushing through the difficult times, finding the courage to pursue her creative passion, and bringing Nigerian fashion mainstream.
You talked about knowing at a very young age that you wanted to be a designer. When did you decide to turn that childhood dream into your real life profession?
It’s been a progression to get here. When I went into college I actually was in robotic engineering, and I remember sitting there in the lab, programming robots to do things, and just feeling so empty inside. Always just wanting to do something else. So, I quit and went into marketing.
I was doing commercial real estate finance, structuring creative real estate deals for commercial property owners, investors, and so forth. Then the market crashed and I ended up staying home. My husband was the primary breadwinner, and I became this kind of Martha Stewart-type wife and stay-at-home-mom. I would take the kids for playdates and do all of these things, and yet there was still that feeling of emptiness like, “What am I contributing? What am I doing? What if my husband looses his dang mind? I just felt like I was just wasting myself away.
How did you reconcile that feeling of “longing?”
It was really tough. I’m first generation immigrant and I watched my parents sacrifice so much. My dad was a janitor and a pizza delivery guy. Growing up, we use to pick up cans and turn them in for grocery money while my parents paid cash for school because they didn’t have access to financial aid. So, I watched all of that. I remember, my mom was an artist, she was a painter and I recalled seeing all of her paintings around the house when I was very young, but as an immigrant she had to be practical when it came to supporting her family in a new land. So, she pursued Early Childhood Education and got her PhD. In that process all those pictures and all her art disappeared and so
I had all these mental imprints in my mind of what it would mean to actually be a creative and try to make it in this world.
There was this constant questioning: Why are you sitting here so comfortable? You know you have purpose and other contributions to make. That just kept ringing in my mind. I’m very into my faith and one day I was in bed and I was praying, and just asking God: What do I do? What do you want from me? What is my next thing?
It’s just so crazy how everything you need is provided. He reminded me of this wrap skirt that I’ve always wanted to make, but I never made it. It just so happened that weeks prior to this, a friend of mine moved away and she left her sewing machine in my garage. I didn’t really know how to sew that well. I didn’t know how to use a serger or anything, but I immediately got up and just went for it. Those basic skills from high school home economics class kicked right in! I had all this fabric that I had bought on all these trips, and I always said to myself, I’m going to use it for something one day. I took that fabric and I made my first wrap skirt.
The fact that you made your first garment, as a total amateur, from scratch with no pattern – that just feels Divine.
The really divine part is that everything I had been trained to do worked toward this purpose. I’m so grateful for my engineering background. As an artist I have the creative brain, but I also have this thing where I still think structurally. My mind actually processes a little bit differently, and so I look at garments architecturally. I’m actually looking at structure, and so I was literally able to put this skirt together and it flowed properly. I tested it out on my girlfriend who really loved it.
So, how did the inspiration to make that first wrap skirt eventually turn into a full-fledged business?
From there, I started my Etsy store. I started getting more and more orders and eventually I ran out of the fabrics I had from Nigeria. I had to start hustling. I would call all the wholesale fabric distributors in the state and I’d ask them if they had a lot of a certain print, then I would post those print options in my Etsy store and people would choose which print they wanted and they would pay in advance. So from there, I would order the fabric from the wholesaler and have it ship right away. I would make that skirt the day it arrived and I would ship it off next-day-delivery. The business just grew from there.
How have you built such a dynamic business in such a short time.
Well, I knew I couldn’t just continue to make skirts all the time – they’re going to get tired. I figured I needed more skills in this business so I got into the Houston Community College (HCC), and they have this fantastic Fashion Department where I really learned garment construction and pattern making. I made some valuable relationships that helped me to launch my business and take it to another level. So now, my professor is one of my pattern makers, one of the students that I graduated with runs production for me here in Houston, and of course I get interns from the school. HCC was a huge launch pad for me!
Onyii & Co is known for vivid colors, print and bohemian styled silhouettes. It has been described as a luxury lifestyle brand that caters to the world traveled woman. Tell me more about this “world traveled woman.”
I’ve traveled quite a bit and my best friends are from all around the world. One of my closest friends is from Sweden, another is from Australia. When I visit them, I’m learning about their culture and when they visit me, they’re learning all about mine. They want to be a part of me, and I want to be part of them. That’s the thread that knits us together.
I love that. The idea that fashion can serve to unite, and literally thread together different cultures. Lately, there has been a lot made of “cultural appropriation,” particularly in the fashion industry. Has that ever come up for you?
Even with cultural appropriation, I think there’s a consensus that it’s not just an all-out ban from borrowing from, or appreciating one another. It’s more about doing it respectfully. I have so much diversity within my own family. My sisters-in-law range in ethnicity from Filipino to Trinidadian, to a white girl from Granby, Massachusetts. There are those who are intrigued by your background and want to expand and want to feel comfortable wearing clothes that represent you, but also want to be respectful.
Leave it to a Gen Xer to turn faith into reality, a dream into a brand, and cultural appropriation into cultural appreciation! With an ever expanding fashion brand, Onyii Brown is definitely one to watch.
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