By Josephine Agbonkhese

WHAT inspired Le Look?

This business was founded because of the need to empower a brother of mine with disability. He is actually deaf and dumb. I had to put him through a hairdressing school. At the end, I said to myself: “If he can neither talk nor hear, at least he can see. So, let me give the name Le Look.” When we opened here thirty years ago, we could only take appointments for my brother to do hair because he wouldn’t know what a customer wanted done. Later, I employed some hairdressers to join him.

Chinwe Felicia Ezenwa
Chinwe Felicia Ezenwa

The acceptability was high and the saloon became one of the most celebrated and patronized in Lagos. But Le Look, as you can see, has grown from a hairdressing saloon to a bag-making company because my brother has moved on. He now lives in the United States of America where he is doing great things with hair.  Le Look became a place to fall back on when I retired from the federal civil service.

When exactly did you venture into bag making?

That was about 20 years ago and it began with my younger sister who’s also challenged; two of my six siblings actually have physical challenges.

Physicalchallenges

I was determined to get them engaged. I thereafter engaged her in bag making and that marked the dawn of my entry into business because at that time, I was still in public service.

What has been your highest  point so far?

Empowering youths and creating jobs for people who would otherwise not have any. The unique opportunity to promote Nigeria is also what satisfies me about this business. If you check our labels inside the bag, you’ll see ‘Made in Nigeria’ boldly written.

You apparently seek to create an international brand. Why use only African prints(Ankara) for your bags and accessories?

I’ve always known that most people never liked to wear it in those days. So, I said to myself, “If you cannot wear it, then learn to carry it.” Carrying it has indeed become fashion since then.

Having worked with young minds all these years, what would you say about the entrepreneurship spirit among Nigerian youths?

I think the past few years have been quite commendable. The environment too has been made conducive a bit. But the fact is that the absence of jobs has made it compulsory for everybody to look more inward. I think we should look inward more and more because government cannot employ everybody. More opportunities abound in the private sector.  I am determined to create more jobs with Le Look if government will give me the opportunity.

Have there been patronage and support from government?

Yes, to a commendable extent. The Bank of Industry, Nigerian Export Promotion Council and some federal ministries. We make most of the conference bags for people. We work for the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC; some United Nations bodies; the federal ministries, to mention but few. In terms of getting support, what I’m however, not pleased with are the tall orders always required for loans. I mean, what other collateral can be more dependable than one’s skill and ideas?

Don’t you belong to a body which can advocate easier access to loans for entrepreneurs like yourself?

I belong to the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria, FADAN, and recently the association got a billion naira fund.

Creating wealth forprivate sector

We are all struggling to access that loan. But even then, the conditionality for that is still quite tall; not everyone can meet it. Le Look can meet it, but what about others?

Why not get government assistance to access loans in the private sector like from banks?

The banks have been given opportunities to create wealth for the private sector but they have not been doing so. They have what they call SMIES which they use to reserve 10% of their earnings for the private sector but how many people have accessed that? I dare say the fund is not there for entrepreneurs to even access, not to mention the conditionality. People should investigate properly.

It is now their (banks) eyes will open because government is removing all their money from their custody. So, they have no choice than to look for very serious-minded private sector people to partner with.

Tell us, how has the journey been so far with Le Look?

It’s been rough and tumble. A major challenge is however power (electricity) because we run on generator 24/7. Even as we celebrated our 30th anniversary on October 1st, we were on generator. You can imagine, 55 years of Nigeria’s independence and everybody is still relying on generator.  Presently, we have about 50 employees in Le Look and I’m proud to say some of these staff acquired the arts and crafts skill from us. Many are also university graduates.

You’re heavily into exportation; what’s the acceptance like abroad?

Excellent. The Germans, Parisians and Americans love our products. In fact, each time there’s an event at the American Embassy, we’re always invited to exhibit. The Smithsonian Institute, the world’s largest museum and research complex, also had to come all the way from Washington DC to visit Le Look. They gave me a medal and I was told only the First Ladies of America get such medals.

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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.