It’s Thursday morning, 6:25 am Eastern Standard Time, but its almost noon in Abia, Nigeria. Abia is a state in the southeastern part of Nigeria. Emmanuel Kalu doesn’t have the ordinary story of starting a business and he agrees to share his story with Nomade en Noir. Emmanuel left a very stable government job as a programmer in Washington, DC to start his clothing line that focuses on custom made Nigerian menswear. Even though we are speaking via Whatsapp, I try to picture him somewhere trying to stay dry as he’s currently in Nigeria during the rainy season and its been reported on the news that there is major flooding going on. I’m excited to be doing this interview with him to find out more about Emmanuel Kalu and his company, Native & Sewn.
Q: What can you tell me about your background and some of the experiences that led up to today?
A: I was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. I guess I had the typical family dynamics. I had a mother and father and older sister and younger brother. We consistently traveled to Nigeria during the Christmas breaks Typically every two or so years. I guess you could say we were lucky in a sense because we were able to go back and forth and that gave us a strong foundation in appreciating our culture and gave us an opportunity to build strong relationships with extended family. Every time I needed a traditional outfit for an event I would ask my cousin to send one and the cut or size would be off and I would have to do more alternations and it frustrated me. So this coupled with me wanting to help made me want to explore what I could do in Nigeria. I came to Nigeria to live abroad in Africa and to figure out a way to use my knowledge as a programmer and be of some sort of influence. I came to Nigeria last October spending the first three months in Lagos. I didn’t know anyone in Lagos and that really gave me a sense of the people and style. Although I wanted to use my programming skills to figure out what to do while I was here it didn’t hit me until around December, three months after my initial move that I should create Native & Sewn.
Q: Sounds like you gave up a lot to pursue this business. What have you sacrificed of yourself to get this business going?
A: Before coming to Nigeria I worked as a programmer in Washington DC. I definitely gave up my stability. I sold my car and packed up and got rid of few things. Honestly, think of everything that makes most people feel stable and comfortable and I threw it away because I told myself I wanted to give back to Nigeria and the community. I initially decided to come to Nigeria to experience living abroad for a little bit while I’m able.
[Emmanuel laughs a little and then continues] I gave up Chinese food, a lot of foods that I like. I gave up my friends and I miss hanging out in DC. I don’t miss the winters that much, but I definitely miss the nightlife at times. Although there are hotels that turn into lounges and a few clubs in Abia that are really good I miss hanging out in DC.
Q: Talk to me a little about the start up process and how you connected the dots to launch Native & Sewn. How did it all come together?
A: Starting in January 2016, I spent a long time with tailors and fabric merchants and worked out logistics and made a plan as far as designs. Even after getting trusted tailors and contractors for fabrics and creating the style and cut of the garment I still had to find a space for the work to be done and then that required logistics too. Mind you, at first I was only going to sell the traditional senator outfit, but then people suggested adding to the collection by creating the native shirts, Etibo shirt, casual shirts and blazers that blend western and African details. Another logistical hurdle was the issue of finding a trusted shipping company and making sure the customs process was smooth and they would deliver abroad in a timely manner. It takes roughly two to three weeks for turn around as each garment is made-to-measure which means we are cutting and creating the pieces mostly by hand. We ship our clothes through a courier service (EMS) and they ship to New York and then the items get passed to USPS.
Q: What role does traveling play in your life? Can you describe how it impacts your conceptualization of your business?
A: Since my clothes are made in Nigeria and operated in America something that I want to do—No— I’d love to do a photo shoot in the major cities where Nigerians live. Picture a photo shoot in London, Toronto, and The United States, highlighting Nigerians from those corners of the world wearing their Native Label that would be a great scene for me personally. People don’t realize this, but a Nigerian living in London does not necessarily think like a Nigerian living in America and I’m not sure what changes them in relation to the country they reside in, but I’ve been fascinated by it for some time.
Q: That’s an awesome idea for a campaign! Speaking of the diaspora, how do you give back to the community through your business?
A: Things are mainly brought into Nigeria, so as a country they are big on imports. Now that people are patronizing Nigerian stores and businesses its important for me to make Nigerian menswear available to Nigerians at home and those wanting cultural wear abroad. My main focus is on Nigerians and people that want native wear, since Nigerians at home have access to native clothing I’d like to service those abroad more to help bridge the gap. But I still want to influence native wear in Nigeria. I could have easily created this business in America and used a reputable manufacturer and found affordable fabrics in America. I am based in Nigeria, Nigerian tailors produce my clothes in Nigeria and we utilize most of our resources from Nigeria. I hope in some way that I am giving back by helping local tailors share their work with the world and show that quality garments can be produced in Nigeria.
Q: Speaking of quality and aesthetics, how does your collection celebrate Nigerian culture?
A: The core focus for my collection was the Nigerian senator outfits, which are popular here in Nigeria, but then I broadened it to add the blazers, casual shirts, and cultural shirts like the Etibo and native shirt. The casual shirt and blazer is the only thing that may be called western. On the surface they look western, but by adding the Ankara lining it makes it less western. Then the tailoring and styling is reflective of Nigerian menswear and fashion. So they are similarities between the western dress shirt and blazer and my casual shirts and blazers, but I create small details that make the garment very representative of Nigerian culture. Like the buttons are different the pockets and accents are completely representative of Nigeria. A lot of people who live abroad don’t know this, but Nigerian men are big on custom made clothing and while some will think it seems European to have to add their measurements to their orders on the website. In Nigeria, it’s actually very common to know your sizes and bring them to a tailor to get something made. I’m also working on creating easy tutorials for my customers so that they can do their measurements at home with someone.
We end the conversation with some informal questions and Emmanuel sharing things about his day to day life in Nigeria: “I’m mostly trying to stay dry at the moment the rainy season and dry season are two different scenes…one day a road can turn into a ranging river” he says. Emmanuel’s not trying to paint the picture of being in a utopia either. He shares his dislike for some customs and behaviors and his disdain for mosquito bites. He doesn’t speak fluent Igbo he says either and that goes to show how interested he is in getting back to his roots. I appreciate his honesty as far as his likes and dislikes while being in Nigeria, I always say that nothing should be seen through rose-colored glasses.
At this point, we had spoken for a little over an hour. Emmanuel eagerly and excitingly explained throughout the interview his vision, purpose, and personal details about his life. I’m still picturing him, but now somewhere near the tailors and fabrics he talked about so enthusiastically. I don’t see him separating himself from the workers. He seems too interested in every aspect of his company. I am personally inspired by Emmanuel’s work and vision and instantly write down “plan a trip to Nigeria.”
This interview reaffirms my purpose for creating Nomade en Noir. As major brands appropriate from other cultures there is no economical reciprocity. There is no direct contribution to the country and its people who rarely benefit from the exchange. Many have failed to grasp how hurtful and damaging cultural appropriation is and Emmanuel by creating his business at the heart of the source of African customs through his take on Nigerian menswear is a vital stratagem ensuring that the community flourishes.
Since posting the original feature above, Emmanuel’s business has made some changes and we want to share them with you!
Q. They’ve been some updates since we last spoke what are they?
We’ve changed the name from Native Label to Native & Sewn. We also expanded our collections to include, women clothing, chinos and topcoat. With other additions to come.
Q. Why did you change the name from Native Label to Native and Sewn?
One of the major reasons was the domain name. We wanted a business name that matched our URL. We also wanted a name that better portrays what we do now and in the future. We believe Native & Sewn combines our two goals: making native Nigerian and custom sewn apparel.
Q. Why did you create a line for women?
Producing women clothing was always on the back on my mind, but I decided to just focus on mens clothing. But during the planning for my wedding, I had the opportunity to meet and work with tailors that sew women’s clothing. This combined with interest I’ve received about making women clothing, drove me to include women clothing. This was also a driving point as to why we changed our name.
Q. The business has grown in such a short time…why evolve so quickly?
Yes, our offerings have expanded since we last spoke. But most of the new collections we offer have been planned from the beginning, but took time to develop. Or was put on the back burner to focus on the other major collections like the native Senators. Expanding our collections does not really put a strain on us since all our stuff is custom made. I believe introducing all the different pieces we can sewn works to our advantage. Not everyone is interested in a native Senator, but would be interested in chinos and our tailors can do both.
Q. Are you in Nigeria or America and how much time do you spend in both places while still building your brand?
I’m currently back in the DC area. Since i’ve gotten a decent foundation for the business started in Nigeria, I can now focus a little more on the business aspects that are done here. I just came back from Nigeria in January 2017 and will be going back at the very least two more times this year.
It was so good speaking with Emmanuel. We’ve continued to follow one another and I am so proud of the changes and his continued progress in building a brand and business.