DESIGNERS TO KNOW: SOPHIA DANNER-OKOTIE OF BESIDA
Sophia is pictured here wearing the Zita FourMidable top by Besida.
SHEER: How did the idea for Besida come about?
SOPHIA DANNER-OKOTIE: I was born in Nigeria and moved to the states at age 9. I was always nostalgic about my home while I was growing up. I didn’t have the chance to travel back to Nigeria, so the best ways I indulged in Nigerian culture was through food, music, and fashion. I’ve always loved the vibrant colors and funky designs in Ankara prints, but I wasn’t a fan of the traditional styles I saw women wearing. I thought it’d be nice to pair designs I had in my head with prints, and that’s how Besida was born.
SHEER: In what ways is Besida a representation of Nigerian culture?
SDO: Nigerian culture is full of life, passion, art, All of these attributes are deeply rooted in hard work an perseverance. We bring all of that to the table when creating everything from our garments, down to our marketing campaigns. I feel Besida represents the heart of Nigerian culture.
SHEER: Where do you primarily draw inspiration for each collection?
SDO: I visit Nigeria often to maintain the workshop and subsequently, I gain inspiration that way. For example, I might go for a wedding in Nigeria and get inspired from a woman’s Aso-Ebi. It might be the neckline, sleeve, or hemline. From there I’ll start creating.
SHEER: How is Besida a model for eco-friendly, sustainable, and ethical fashion?
SDO: We pay our tailors fair living wages. Many aspiring tailors find it hard to make a living because they haven’t attained a loyal customer base. Through our workshop, they can simply earn a fixed salary and continue growing their client base on the side. We are very eco friendly in our workshop, but not on purpose. Nigeria has lots of blackouts, and some days, our workshop can go nearly 3 days without electricity. That doesn’t stop us from working. We use old school foot pedal sewing machines to work in cases like that. Those don’t require any electricity. In July 2019 we’ll be launching our Scraps to Style campaign. We’ll be transforming all of the scrap fabrics from past collections into cute headbands and scrunchies. That’s our plan to reduce waste.
“We pay our tailors fair living wages. Many aspiring tailors find it hard to make a living because they haven’t attained a loyal customer base. Through our workshop, they can simply earn a fixed salary and continue growing their client base on the side.”
SHEER: How do you select the tailors that you work with?
I’ve been really blessed to build a network of tailors in Benin. Before opening Besida’s workshop, I contracted tailors throughout the city to build our garments. Those women were already established so they obviously couldn’t come work at our workshop. They did however point us in the direction of former apprentices who we later brought on board. So I would say referrals is our primary way of finding tailors.
SHEER: What are the biggest challenges you face as a black business owner in the fashion industry? How do you encourage other black women to overcome such challenges as they arise?
SDO: The challenges I face by making clothes in Nigeria are my biggest hurdles, so I’d rather elaborate on that. Women in Nigeria are still drastically disadvantaged compared to men. I observe the amount of respect my uncle receives compared to me in the same setting. The absence of constant electricity is also major problem, because it slows down our work and consequently, our ability to grow faster. Overcoming the gender gap unfortunately means we have to work ten times harder than men. As for the electricity issue, we are close to figuring out a sustainable solution. We will hopefully install solar panels in the workshop by the end of the year.
SHEER: How is Besida working to off-set the impact of cultural appropriation in fashion?
SDO: By simply producing our garments in Nigeria, I feel we’re offsetting the impact. We’re giving consumers the option to support men and women of a country where the African fashion trend began. We encourage everyone to wear our clothes, and we’re proud to have worldwide customers who are supporting our Made in Nigeria movement.
SHEER: What are some of your favorite pieces on the site currently that readers can rock this summer?
SDO: Our FourMidables are my absolute favorite. They can be worn in four ways and come in a variety of prints and colors. I’m in love with the Mavonde Set currently. I love the fullness of the maxi skirt, and the cheeky blouse makes them a perfect pair.
SHEER: What do you hope will be Besida's lasting legacy as it continues to grow?
SDO: I want to change peoples minds about Nigerian made products. We’ve gone to great lengths to improve quality in our garments, and we’re still working hard on perfecting our craft. I hope we can set the standard for well made clothing throughout the world.