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Like A Boss: How Eva Sonaike is building a global African-print brand

On making mistakes (and bouncing back), ‘transcultural’ design and carving her own niche

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By Piet Smedy | March 19, 2021 | Innovative

Introducing Like A Boss, our new series about making it big in the business of design. At House & Garden we get to meet the biggest names in the industry who’ve conquered both creativity and commerce so, this time round, we’re asking them: how did you get so boss? Class is in session.

As the founder and CEO of her eponymous label, Eva Sonaike knows what it takes to not only create a must-have brand but how to take it global. Through her use of traditional West African textiles, pattern and colour, the former journalist turned designer is a forerunner in the world of luxury African design. But, rather than just art for art’s sake, her work draws on a deep and nuanced connection to her Yoruba ancestry with an astute understanding of the modern business of interior design.

Photograph: Anna Stathaki

H&G: How did your career as a fashion journalist (as well as a TV producer and PR) give you an edge in the interiors industry?

Eva Sonaike: When I started the company in 2009, I was under the impression that my role as Creative Director would involve a lot of design and creative work. But I quickly learned that I was running a business and could apply the skills that I had acquired in my previous media career. Meeting tight deadlines was familiar to me, I could write copy for my blog and knew how to write a press release that caught journalists’ attention. Most importantly, my career in fashion journalism, TV and PR developed my creative eye and the hunger to develop my own brand that told my story.

H&G: Your offering has remained firmly in textiles, home decor & accessories – why are these the ideal vehicle for your creativity?

ES: From a very young age, I have been obsessed with interiors. I decorated my dolls house with African fabrics, which I found in my Mum’s wardrobe and, when I was a teenager, I redecorated my room every month. I love expressing myself through the way I dress but feel that I can express myself on a deeper level though interiors and the way I live. When I started the brand I had some fashion items but very soon decided to focus solely on interior items. And that is still the case now: a luxury African-inspired interiors brand.

H&G: Over the years at your eponymous label, how has your understanding and appreciation of African textiles – the production, the colour and pattern applications, the tradition – evolved from your first ‘Ankara’ fabric collection?

ES: It has expanded immensely. I started with the ‘Ankara’ fabrics, which I sourced from various retailers around the globe, but already knew back then that I had to create my own textile range to be commercially viable. Over the years this has developed and incorporated other African textile traditions. There are so many textile traditions on the African continent and I am by no means familiar with them all but I think it is my responsibility to continuously expand my knowledge of these fabrics and also act as a catalyst that introduces people to this culture.

H&G: Similarly, take me through your design process – how do you first conceive of an idea and grow that idea into a physical collection on shelves?

ES: One of the most important aspects of my work is colour. So I start every collection with a palette; even before I know the exact aesthetic of the collection. The inspiration for my designs come from my travels and experiences on the African continent and, in particular, my West African Yoruba culture and traditions. I am a very visual person, so I find inspiration where other people don’t see the value. For example, my ‘Falomo’ collection is inspired by Tropical Modernism, the West African architectural style of the 1940s to 70s, which came from my obsession with derelict mid-century buildings in Lagos. I have hundreds of pictures on my iPhone and am dreaming of buying one of these houses in Nigeria and bringing it back to its former glory. I can see that my work has matured over the years, but I assume that, if you mature as a person, both personally and in business, you also mature as a designer.

H&G: Your West African heritage has served as a deep well of inspiration, with previous collections including ‘Ojo’, which references your childhood memories of the rainy season in Lagos to ‘Eko Eclipse’, after the ancient gods of the universe. What part of your Africaness is inspiring you now and what are you planning for future collections?

ES: Africa will always be at the heart of my work. But I think what makes my work different is my ‘transcultural’ approach. I was born and raised in Germany and have lived in the UK for half of my life. I see myself as a ‘Thirdculture African’ and I think that’s why my work speaks to a variety of people from all walks of life and cultures.

H&G: As an entrepreneur, especially a first-time business owner, there’s bound to have been moments of trial and error, of setbacks and victories – what is your advice to designers wanting to break into the industry?

ES: I have made so many mistakes and, to be quite honest, am still making them now. When I started, I had an impression that running a creative company meant mostly designing and sketching. But I quickly had to learn to put on my CEO hat to sustain a profitable company. This included brushing up on my financial knowledge, sales planning and learning to distinguish what is right for your business at the time. But the most important thing is to utilise everything you have learned or been before – all skills are transferable and can come in handy when you think about it.

H&G: Over the past few years we’ve seen the industry – particularly in the West – appreciating African design, and African identities, not as monolithic or fetishised, or dismissed or diminished due to its provenance, but as culturally significant and, indeed, as a luxury commodity. How do you see yourself and your brand in the larger global conversation around African design?

ES: It is a great feeling that the African narrative and aesthetic finally gets a seat on the table. I feel immensely proud to be part of this and hope that many will follow on the path that we all have created together.