Meet the Nigerian founder who is building an empire of clothing for independent women

Fisayo Longe wants to be very rich, and not from inheritance or marriage, but alone. The pursuit of financial freedom is what sustains a Nigerian entrepreneur who records 70-hour work weeks in his Kai Collective women’s clothing brand.

“Clothes are really a love letter to women who grew up the way I grew up, which went through life in the standard way: coming to school, getting married and putting off a man,” says Longe, face of 2021 Forbes 30 Less than 30 European List of Arts and Culture. “I wanted to build something that would show Nigerian women that we can actually give priority to making money, not just relying on a man.”

Since founding an Africa-inspired e-commerce company in 2016, Longe has not taken any of the external funding and owns 100% of the business. She focused her efforts on growing Kai through the community, going so far as to survey the best customers and incorporate their feedback into every strategic decision, from the color palette to the cut. Its strategy seems to be paying off: from 2019 to 2020, revenue rose 535% to $ 550,000.

“Our clothing makes women feel good, but I don’t think we would have been successful if it weren’t for building our community and our very clear message that prioritizes and elevates women,” Longe says.

Although most of its customers are black women between the ages of 24 and 30 living in the US, UK, Australia and Nigeria, Longe’s models represent a variety of ages, body types, nationalities and races. With every item of clothing, she wants to celebrate and undermine Nigerian culture at the same time, and while many of her best-selling pieces – including the floor-curving Gaia dress designed by Adebusola Adetona, CEO of Nigeria-based grape bank – can look expensive, cost less than $ 230. And each dress is cut from the same fabric, which makes them unique, not to mention sustainable.

“Growing up, we women were taught to be kind, sweet and quiet,” says Longe, who is usually based in London but temporarily in Tulum, to oversee the photography of Kai’s first collection in swimming. “For me, it’s an acceptance of femininity in all its forms.”

Longe’s journey was anything but traditional. At the age of 15, she moved from Lagos to London to study law. After being rejected by all the programs she applied for, she accepted an accounting internship at KPMG, where she spent her days auditing large technology, media and telecommunications companies. The job was tedious, but her salary was encouraging enough to apply for the Leavers School Leavers program, through which her education at Durham University was fully funded in exchange for her further employment with the firm.

After three years, however, she stopped focusing on school, only to be expelled in her final year after failing three times in economics.

It was 2017, and the 26-year-old did not have a degree or money in her name. However, she had the beginnings of a fashion business, the one she started at school in the hope of earning more money than at KMPG. Her mother lent her $ 11,000 – an amount she gratefully accepted – to increase her startup. As soon as the funds came into her bank account, she launched Kai’s manufacturing operation in August 2016.

With no ties to the fashion industry, Longe relied on her 47,000 Instagram followers (she now has over 122,000) to spread the word. In January 2020, her social media marketing finally paid off: A photo of Longe dressed in a Kai dress at a BAFTA party went viral.

Just when Kai finally took off, Covid-19 began to spread through China. Longe, which produces in Guangzhou, was forced to take most of its operations to Turkey. By the time she signed a contract with the new producer, April was the culmination of the #BuyBlack movement. From May to June, her revenue rose more than 440% to $ 50,000, thanks in part to attention like Beyoncé and Vogue, as well as other influencers, who published about Kai in the directories of black-owned companies.

“I honestly and organically liked Kai Collective’s stuff,” says makeup artist Jackie Aina, who has about 3.6 million YouTube followers and helped Kai Collective scams last summer. “When I found out it was owned by Nigeria, it was even more sentimental to me.”

When international travel restrictions are lifted, Longe plans to move to the U.S. to be closer to most of its customers. He observes partnerships with retailers like ASOS and product lines in swimwear and sleepwear. Despite the challenges she faced, she is not worried about the future of her company. “Growing up black, they told you how much more you needed to work,” she says. “So I have an amazing work ethic.”