“I Design for a Global Sisterhood”: Akudo Iheakanwa on the Empowering Mission of Shekudo
We all know that no outfit is complete without shoes – leave your house without a pair on and risk people looking at you like you’ve gone temporarily insane – and we can safely say that Nigerian brand Shekudo makes some of the best around. Based in Lagos, the brand aims to shed light on local artisanal craft, with the majority of its materials and fabric sourced locally. Each piece is responsibly made to order with traceable origins, making the brand’s shoes and accessories sustainable and eco-friendly as a result.
Founder and creative director Akudo Iheakanwa started Shekudo as a women’s clothing label back in her hometown of Sydney in Australia. Citing restlessness and a need for change, she relocated to her father’s native Nigeria in 2017, taking the brand with her and relaunching it as a footwear and accessories marque, under which Iheakanwa produces the woven mules, flat sandals and leather handbags that Shekudo has come to be known for.
The latest collection, titled “Odo Mmiri Ya”, offers brightly colored accessories that are perfect for summer. Crafted from locally sourced aso oke fabric and leathers, joined by pleasing plaid patterns and macrame this time around, the collection features comfy sandals such as the Uwagboe and Larryn slides, and the standout Thandi macrame tote bag. Not only will they add a bold touch to your summer look, they also showcase the best of Nigeria’s handcraft. But most of all, they are a gateway to the community of women at the heart of the brand – from the women behind the loom of the aso oke weave to the women whose feet the shoes end up on. It’s this community that Iheakanwa has in mind when she designs, and the purpose behind Shekudo being more than a fashion brand.
The Folklore spoke with Shekudo founder and creative director Akudo Iheakanwa about creating a sisterhood around the world, her colorful design process and quest for industry domination across Africa and beyond.
The collection is titled “Odo mmiri ya,” which translates to “her lake”. What’s the inspiration behind the name of this collection?
The collection is titled “Odo mmiri ya” and it does translate to “her lake” in Igbo. Basically, the inspiration behind this is the Lagos Lagoon – it’s not quite a lake – which surrounds Lagos. For me it means this is my Lagos, this is my version of Lagos. Creating this collection with all the different colours and pieces were almost a reflection of how I try to keep my mind state while I’m in Lagos – the colours are bright and fun.
A lot of the time you find people don’t know that much about Nigeria. We’re trying to create a narrative, a fun, bright, happy narrative we would love for our customers to be a part of. There is more to Nigeria than what meets the eye. This is a Nigerian-manufactured collection, all the different components come from Nigeria and we have a global contemporary look, regardless.
What would you say is the central theme of this collection?
The theme for this collection is about me owning my space, owning my city in my own way, and being a part of this city. “Her lake” is my surroundings. For me, it’s being part of something that is bigger than me but also controlling my environment in the way that I want to, whether it’s through colour, through organizing events, or through beautiful, bright, bold funky shoes walking in the street.
The plaid design is something we wanted to incorporate into aso oke. It’s quite a common, traditional design across the rest of the world but we rarely use it here in Nigeria as a design. [The use of it in the collection] is trying to bring a contemporary look to a traditional craft.
Can you tell us about your creative process? How does a design begin?
To be honest, the creative process for me is probably not as wonderfully organised as some designers. I’m very organic with the way I do things – I don’t have a laser, particular focus. Well, maybe I do in my own way, but for me, it tends to work in colours that come to me, particularly when I’m in certain environments; if I’m outside in the street, or at a friend’s place or even in my kitchen. If I see a combination of colours, automatically my mind groups them together in this weird way. I then try to recreate those colours and then I think: is this going to be a weave? Are we going to use this in leather? Then it goes from there.
It starts with colour for me: what colours do I want to include in this collection? Is it going to be quite bright or do I want it to be a bit more subdued? And from there, I move on to what sort of medium are we using: is it weaves, leather? I look at heels. From there I design the silhouette of the shoe based on the shapes I love, what silhouettes people can easily pair with their wardrobe. I guess that is a process and I didn’t even realise it!
You make great use of colors and bright patterns in your designs. How do you feel this collection is similar or different to previous collections thematically or visually?
Yeah, I do use a lot of bright colours! It’s quite funny because I actually go through bouts of wearing just black, or wearing just white, or beige. I can be super minimal in how I dress but when it comes to designing footwear, I don’t know what happens, I just kind of release this suppressed rainbow that’s inside and it’s really lovely and I just see so many colours I love. But then again, depending on my mood, I might come out looking like a watermelon, as someone once told me! Which I really loved – I would wear bright red earrings with a pink skirt and my yellow top and a pair of pink shoes, so it depends on my mood. But obviously, it looks like my inner mood is all about colour. I love flowers and to be surrounded by beautiful, colourful flowers.
In Nigeria you do see pops of colour but it’s mainly the people walking on the streets, it’s not so much the buildings around us. It can be a little bit dreary sometimes. Colour is something that is innate to me. Our two collections are very similar in terms of bright, pop-y collections. The next one we’re working on is a bit more subdued, actually. We’re playing around with beige, deep orange, white. It’s a more subdued, earthy collection.
You use a lot of local traditional fabric such as aso oke. How do you source and select them for your designs?
The biggest reason behind using local material is that it just makes sense. I can play with the colours, I can work directly with my weavers, and mix and match and change things even when they think I’ve lost my mind because I’m mixing some really bizarre colours together. I don’t mind looking like the crazy woman as long as I can achieve the result I want.
The reason I use weaves is because it is sustainable. Weaving here is a wonderful practice – yes, it has reduced drastically over the years and a lot of people are not wanting to continue that craft. It’s quite laborsome and tiring but we have those that are still doing it and it’s something that can be made in abundance. If I need a thousand bundles of aso oke weave, I can get those bundles. And the quality, compared with other things, is much higher, I find. It’s a very intricate craft and it’s done very well by those who do it. I love that it’s local, that it’s sustainable and that it’s something I can continuously return to, something I can manipulate in terms of the colour and pattern. That’s why I’ll continue to use our local fabrics as much as I can.
The Thandi tote bag stands out in this collection. What was the idea behind this particular piece?
The Thandi tote was something that I also wanted to experiment with. I love using weaving but macrame is also in its own way a style of weaving, in my opinion. I wanted to put a random element but an element that was cohesive and still tied in with the rest of the collection. The yellow colour that we used, the bright yellow, ties in well with some of the yellow we’re using in the weaves and the leather.
I’ve always loved macrame. A good friend of mine does macrame in Australia and I would have loved to get her involved with this but we have some artisans who do macrame here in Lagos. I was actually shocked by that because I didn’t realise that, but it’s a craft that can be learnt online, so a lot of people have picked that up here, not many but there’s a handful. I was introduced to this woman who works in macrame – actually by Orange Culture [designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal], who uses macrame a lot; we all kind of know the same artisans, a lot of us work with the same artisans, which is quite beautiful – and that allowed me to explore macrame. And I love a big tote bag and I really love the mini replica, which is quite cute. It was named after a very good friend of mine in Australia, as are many of the products; they are named after friends or flowers.
When you design, who are you creating for? Is there a Shekudo woman?
When I design, I design for myself because obviously I’m the one designing it so I’m in my own head creating things that I think are beautiful. But it’s also really important to get the input of the design team so that I can step outside of my head and create something that is not just based on my preference.
However, apart from myself, I am designing for a global sisterhood. I think of my friends when I design, I think of women who are just excited about life and who just want to make a statement here and now. There are so many ways to make a statement but for me, one thing I can do is create beautiful pieces that women can wear and be like, Yeah, this item is made in Nigeria, it’s really fun, it’s vibrant, it’s a weaving tradition that is over 600 years old.
I design for myself, I design for a wonderful sisterhood of women across the world – not just my friends but the women that are now part of our community and also, I design for a woman that’s spirited and full of life, who is bold and excited to be here on planet Earth, and whichever way I can allow her to express herself through fashion, I’m happy to be a part of that.
In what ways does this collection, and Shekudo as a whole, demonstrate your mission of creating an empowered and caring sisterhood of women?
It’s really interesting because I feel like what we’re trying to do at Shekudo is not only to be a fashion brand. We’re trying to create a community of women who care about where their products come from, who care about who is behind the loom and the people who are making their products, who care about other women getting access to footwear training and education, who just care about life and about each other.
I organize a lot of events in Lagos as a part of another project that I’m working on and I love getting women involved, seeing women together, enjoying each other’s company, laughing, being happy, being bold, being brave together. I’m trying to get that message across in the collection that it’s not just about a luxury footwear brand, we’re a global community of women.
I think we need to come together and foster a caring and empowered relationship with each other, whether it’s in Nigeria, across Australia or America. It’s just beautiful to see this web of women who are buying products that they care about, they care about where those products come from because they know our story, they want to be involved in that story and be a part of that community. There’s this cool energy that I get from engaging with women across the globe and I feel like we are a large sisterhood. I really care about my customers and they care about us. It’s a strong community of wholesome humans who are interested in the goodness of others, who want to look good but also interested in the goodness of the process.
You’ve said before that you are proud of both your Nigerian and Australian roots. How do you incorporate your heritage into your work?
I’m really lucky to come into this world with very different backgrounds with my dad being Nigerian and my mom being Australian. The differences in how they’ve grown up and what they’ve exposed me to from childhood, I love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way, I’m super grateful for that. Australians are full of life, so is Nigeria in its own way; it’s very different but also similar in the way we just love life, we try to make the most of it. In Australia, it’s hitting the pub, going to the beach or catching up with friends in really cool bars and cafes, or going on road trips. The same in Nigeria, it’s a lot of fun, music, food – it’s just noise everywhere you go, there’s so much happening.
For me, that bold sense of life and excitement comes through in my designs, I just love exciting things and to kind of challenge the norm. Then again, I’ve also got a kind of minimalist look as well, and Australia inspired that a lot because we have an amazing fashion scene that’s chic and minimalist. The fashion scene in Nigeria is evolving, so many people have their own thing going on so there’s not a set look; you have people mixing traditional with Western clothing, and it’s very bold and eccentric here. I’ve got very two different fashion influences with Australia and the minimalist, understated but really chic style and then Nigeria with the bold bright beautiful colours, which are also chic. I just try to merge the two.
Your products are all handmade to order, which is a time-consuming process but, ultimately, is good for the environment. Did you always intend to be a sustainable brand from the start?
Let’s be honest, a lot of brands start off with made-to-order or handmade because we can’t invest in creating a large amount of stock – those of us not backed by investors. I had to start with what I had in my savings, I had $3000. So, I had to start with made-to order. What we found was that as we progressed and grew, made-to-order does take a long time – 10 to 15 days really, but people are so used to having things instantly – but that process allows us to see what people like and enjoy, almost like market research.
If we were to have made a bunch of stock and held a thousand pairs of shoes, we wouldn’t have known which were going to be bestsellers. What I assumed when we first started out were going to be bestsellers were not. Everyone liked the opposite; people were loving the things I wasn’t too fond of! Now, I know that I need to design things I don’t like! Just kidding. Really, you never know how it’s going to be in your first couple of years of business and made-to-order was something we started just to be practical, then it became a good way to do market research and learn about our customer base.
It wasn’t something I initially approached as being better for the environment but it turned into a win-win situation: it’s good for the environment and we’re able to slow down the process. The difficulty of that is when we get larger order, we do have to sometimes turn them away and that is hard for us as a small business because we want to be able to grow, and get those big orders.
What is next for Shekudo? Where would you like to see your brand in five years’ time?
We want to grow. We want to scale up. Our operations are quite small at the moment. We have a small team of artisans and we want to train them, we want to be able to purchase more machinery, a larger production space for our team, we want to be able to have stock on hand now that we understand our market better and what people prefer. We want to be able to invest in creating more, to be faster in our process. Our current processes – making the heel, making the weave – are already slow to start with, and as we grow we need to expand our work force, our machinery and production space.
To be known as one of the bigger manufacturing companies in Africa is our end goal. We want to be known as the number one women’s footwear brand across Africa.
Words by Eloise Jackson