In Conversation With Samiat Salami of Lifestyle Brand Oya Abeó
In many ways for Samiat Salami, starting her own lifestyle brand Oya Abeó in 2021 was in keeping with the family business. From a mother who studied fashion design to an architect father and printmaker uncle, Salami has been surrounded by design and creativity from a young age.
When decorating her first home in Oakland, California, Salami wanted to bring a touch of her native Nigeria to her new living space. This led her to design her own tablecloths and napkins, influenced by the vibrant gatherings and parties her grandmother hosted when she was growing up.
The idea of creating something contemporary with West African sensibilities, while still being an accessible luxury was a huge appeal for Salami. She sees her collections for Oya Abeó as a “decadence and exuberance that is steeped in culture, identity and a West African interpretation of glamor”.
Inspired by her heritage and travels across the world, Salami’s designs draw from traditional textiles to create modern, whimsical and artful handprinted pieces. The brand’s distinct patterns are created digitally in its Lagos studio before they are hand-drawn and hand-dyed by batik artists to create robes, loungewear and tableware accessories in an array of colors.
The Folklore Edit spoke to Samiat Salami about contributing to the legacy of textile design, her love of all things whimsical and colorful, and why The Folklore Connect is right for her business.
Samiat Salami, founder and creative director of Oya Abeó
How would you describe yourself and what you do?
I am an artist, designer and a creative director. I am also a person who believes that diversity of culture is essential to the future of luxury.
What inspired you to start Oya Abeó? Tell us about the brand’s name: what does it mean?
“Oya” is a Yoruba word that means “C’mon, lets go”. It’s a very popular slang in Lagos that has withstood the test of time. It captures the positive, vibrant, and ever-illustrious nature of Nigerians. “Abeó”, on the other hand, is my oriki. An oriki is a praise name used to celebrate a person. Lots of Yoruba people have one. I share mine with my grandmother, who is also named Abeó.
My grandmother was the epitome of glamour to me as a child. She was all about good textiles, quality gold jewellery and delicious food. My grandmother really knew how to set a table. She used to have these parties where tableware and presentation were just as important as the meal itself. I have these black and white photos of my grandmother in the 1960s and 1970s dancing happily at her parties with table spreads in the background.
That’s the spirit I wanted to capture for my brand. That kind of decadence and exuberance that is steeped in culture, identity and a West African interpretation of glamour. We don’t have a lot of legacy brands in West Africa. I think legacy brands are important because they capture the essence of what luxury means to a culture and a people. I want to begin to weave that narrative with Oya Abeó.
Tell us about your transition from writing and content marketing to the fashion world. When did you realize that design was something you wanted to do?
During my time working in marketing and advertising, I worked with e-commerce, beauty and lifestyle brands. I enjoyed it, but I realized that I was thinking beyond sales and reach, I was thinking about product development as well. Then, a few years ago, I set about remodelling my first home; it was a one-bedroom apartment in an Oakland Victorian. I really wanted it to feel like home. If I was going to be miles away from West Africa in California, I was going to bring West Africa to me. When I set about finding contemporary design elements and items that felt West African, I kept coming up short. The closest I found were some wooden and soapstone pieces from Kenya and a whole lot of décor and textiles from Morocco, which is truly lovely and thematically close to West African design. I just kept thinking, if I wanted to play with contemporary West African design in an accessible way, where do I go? Once that seed was planted for me, I kept ruminating on it, especially during my travels to India, Panama, Cuba and Mexico. I continuously came across textiles and decorative accents from those cultures that were made with traditional techniques but constructed with design-forward thinking that made it perfect for contemporary household use. I don’t think I would have started this brand if I didn’t experience the richness of the artisanship of those cultures. It made me precious about celebrating similar textures in my own culture.
Also, growing up in my family, design has always been part of the conversation. My mum studied fashion design at Yaba Tech in Lagos and worked as a designer until she immigrated to the US. My grandmother sold textiles for years in Lagos. My dad studied architecture and experimented as a textile artist when he was younger. My uncle has owned a printmaking studio in Lagos for about 25 years. I have another uncle who makes bespoke garments and another who is a graphic designer. Starting Oya Abeó in many ways felt like coming full circle back to the family trade.
What do you think makes Oya Abeó stand out as a brand? What is your brand’s ethos and how is that reflected in each collection?
I didn’t just want to build a textile brand that was inspired by Africa, I wanted those textiles to be made on the continent. Since its inception, it has always been essential to contribute to the legacy of textile design, the cotton industry in West Africa and to provide jobs. Each collection is rooted in a kind of negotiation between the past and present. Time-honed techniques, paired with more contemporary, whimsical colours and prints. I didn’t just want to archive our textile-making traditions, I wanted to push them into the future with motifs that felt young, fresh and alive, just like the continent itself.
The brand started out with tablecloths and napkins before introducing loungewear. How did the transition from accessories to ready-to-wear happen?
This is the most fascinating part of the process of creation for me. You build something based on what you feel, then people add a dimension that you didn't see. I set out to build a home brand and never imagined that garments would become one of my bestsellers. It honestly came from listening to feedback. From folks saying, “I would so wear this fabric if it came in a dress!” or “these prints remind me of ankara.” Ankara is the popular Dutch wax fabric that’s synonymous with fashion in West Africa, but isn’t actually made in Africa. Most wax prints are made in Europe and most recently China. Making wearable garments felt like reclaiming something. Also, as I and so many people I knew were seeking more stylish pieces to wear at home after the pandemic, it felt like a no-brainer.
You only use vibrant textiles and colorful prints. How do you source and select the fabrics for your designs? What is your creative process?
All of Oya Abeó’s motifs and prints are digitally illustrated in-house after months of careful research and sketches. Then they are sent to artists in our textile studio who either hand stamp the prints on 100% cotton or draw on the fabric by hand depending on the design. After that, the fabric is waxed and hand-dyed. We create 100% of all of our fabric and own 100% of our prints.
Avocado, orange, papaya: the fruit print is a distinct feature of your collections. What drew you to this motif and why is it central to Oya Abeó designs?
I love whimsy and colour. For me, nature is the ultimate place to play. The fruit motifs are inspired by the tropics. In addition to growing up in Lagos’ tropical climate, I spent my teenage years in Florida living very close to the gulf of Mexico. The tropics are always my happy place. It’s where I feel most like home. During my travels, I marvelled at the similarities between my home and the other tropical regions I have visited. In Brazil, I loved going to fish markets, eating avocados and making passion fruit and papaya smoothies. This wandering spirit, the recurrence of nature, the rich colours of the tropics are so important to me—they center me. They remind me that nature wants us to play, to rejoice, to taste sweetness, and to be bright and colourful.
Since you started out, the global fashion industry has changed tremendously: more support for diversity, sustainability as well as economic challenges. How has Oya Abeó adapted to the current landscape?
We hit the market in 2021 and, I can say from working in industry prior to that, I am seeing more culturally diverse brands, and that has been such a luxury to discover. Design can feel like a frivolous space reserved for people who have the luxury to be imaginative. It doesn’t feel essential and with so many of us immigrants and POCs taught that the most important goal is survival and upward mobility, seeking to be part of the design conversation can feel trivial. It is one of the reasons it took me a long time to turn my focus towards design. I think it was a space for me. I am happy to finally be here. I always think about the world as it is being created. If we are not part of the conversation of how the world is being built, how can it include our perspective? How can it mirror our experiences and how can it suit our needs?
You’re one of the few home and lifestyle brands on our platform The Folklore Connect. What would you say is the main reason for signing up to join the platform? How does The Folklore Connect meet the needs of your brand’s wholesale business?
I spent a lot of time last year traveling to shows to meet with buyers and wonderful as that was, it was exhausting physically and financially for a small business. Which is why Folklore Connect is exceptional. Having access to buyers without having to spend a lot of energy and money on an in-person presentation is great. Also, it’s amazing to not have to explain or soothe any anxieties about the products being West African. Buyers on Connect are here because they are looking for exceptional brands with a rich cultural perspective.
You’re also participating in the upcoming Connect Home & Beauty Market. What are you looking forward to most, or hoping to achieve at the event?
I look forward to meeting and building relationships with buyers. For me, it’s not just about a sale. It’s about finding folks who understand the ethos of the brand, are invested in coming along with us as we grow, and believe in diversity as the future of luxury as much as I do.
Register here to attend for the Connect Home & Beauty Market to book virtual appointments with Oya Abeó and more to shop wholesale with exclusive offers