Eva Sonaike is on a mission to bring more color to the world.
What started as a home décor project intended to infuse some of Nigerian style into her London home has morphed into a growing design empire. The striking, vibrant designs of her eponymous luxury line can be found in the premier global department stores from Liberty to Fenwick of Bond Street—and she’s only just getting started.
OkayAfrica caught up with Sonaike as she explored the Greek Isles to learn more about her journey from fashion journalist to interior designer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: How has your heritage shaped the design aesthetic of Eva Sonaike?
Eva Sonaike: To some extent, I think that the stories of every designer or creative come alive in their work. That’s no different for me. My Nigerian background exposed me to a very strong tradition of vibrant, colorful textiles—from a young age, I was introduced to beautiful aesthetics that also had a very deep meaning. I grew up with those traditions, but was born and raised in Germany in a very artistic household. Because my father was an art historian, I grew up around churches and museums. I always had a love of design, but it didn’t express itself until I moved to London and spent over a decade working in media. Over time, I realized I had a strong aesthetic story that I wanted to share with the world. I think that if you’re open to being influenced by every element of your own personal story, you’ll create something unique.
You left a successful career as a journalist to launch your eponymous home decor line. Was jumping into a new industry scary?
Looking back, I was very naïve, but I think that was actually somewhat helpful. I knew what I wanted to achieve—I had a clear plan of what I wanted to do, and I followed that ruthlessly. During the first two years of the brand, I was still working full-time as an editor and running my business on the side. I hadn’t really planned to run it full-time at that point as I loved my work, was doing quite well within the media industry, and had worked quite hard to get there. But after my second child, it became clear that I loved my design work much more than my editorial work, and I thought I could make a greater impact with that work.
It was scary to pursue design full-time, but I made that jump just before the recession kicked in, so I think it was less daunting than it might be now. If I were in the same position now, I might have been more hesitant to make the leap.
What’s the hardest part about working for yourself?
Knowing what to do. I run the company, but I’m not a trained textile designer and I don’t have a business background. I’m a journalist, so sometimes it’s hard to make the right decisions. The design process is a really minimal part of my work. My day-to-day centers more on the question of how to run a lucrative business. I make mistakes, but it’s an organic process of trial and error. It just takes a bit of common sense to figure out what to do.
Any advice for juggling the parts of your job that you like with those you don’t like that much?
To run a successful business, you need to be able to cover all areas. I do everything in my business from design to packing boxes and running to the post office. Of course there are things that you’ll love doing, but you need to understand all aspects of your business in order to manage a team that can deliver on your goals.
There are certain elements, however, which are very time-consuming that may take you as a CEO away from the tasks you need to focus on, so it’s important to learn how to delegate. I know, for example, how to pack boxes and can do it if I have to, but that’s time I could spend making a phone call to a retailer or interior designer. Where those marginal tasks can be outsourced, I try to delegate to a member of my team, but it’s important for them to see and understand that I can do everything and that I’m willing to do everything. That’s the same attitude I expect from everyone.
How did you define success when you first launched your brand? Has that definition changed?
When I launched my brand, I was lucky to get into Selfridge’s, one of the largest British department stores, during the first season. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world and that I’d made it. It was a fantastic achievement for a brand in its early days, but I learned over time that a big department store may look fantastic on your CV, but in terms of volume and margins, it’s challenging. In the early days, my benchmark for success was those big department stores. These days, I’m more focused on continuous orders and different business channels from wholesale to online to business-to-business to business-to-consumer to working with interior designers. Success for me today means having a more versatile range of clients.
Within that first year of launching, you were stocked in London’s top department stores. How many “no’s” did you receive before “yes,” and what encouraged you to move forward in spite of hiccups in the road?
In the beginning, if someone said “no,” I took it very personally and thought I was doing something wrong. Even now, I’ll go to a trade show and there will be thousands of people passing my stand. And out of those thousands, perhaps 150 people will stop by. I had to learn that there will be people who will say “no” to you automatically because it’s not their cup of tea, but if you’re a confident business person, you’ll learn that for every “no,” you’ll eventually find a “yes.”
Sometimes the “no’s” are due to factors unrelated to you—the economy is tough and people are struggling, for example, so they might not be willing to spend money on certain things. But the next month, you might get an order that covers your costs for the rest of the year. Business goes in circles, and you have to be equipped to ride those waves. It’s not always easy, but you have to get back up on your feet and push the business along.