Welcome to Goddess Directory's interview series! If there's anything you're looking to see, feel free to send over your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org or let us know on Instagram at @goddessdirectory.
When I started asking the people I interview about how the pandemic has effected their businesses, I had no idea that I'd still be asking that question a year later. A lot of things have become normal since then - staying home every day, social distancing, ordering all food to-go, and of course, wearing face masks.
While there finally looks to be an end in sight, I personally don't see masks going away any time soon, and like a lot of people, I've grown to see them as additional ways to accessorize my outfits. That's why I was so excited when Sakeenah Ashiru reached out to me on my personal Instagram and I was introduced to her absolutely gorgeous emboridered masks that were unlike any others I had seen. I love the one I have so much that it became a new brainer to talk to her for Goddess Directory, and through our interview I learned about the long history Sakeenah has in fashion design, her global influences, and her ambitious (incredibly exciting) plans for the future. Enjoy!
My pick: I have the marroon mask in Zinnia and I absolutely love it!
Q: Let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of starting your business? What made you want to do this and how did you turn your idea into a reality?
A: My love for fashion started as a little girl. I was always fascinated by the women in the fancy dresses on the magazines back in Nigeria. I would sit on the burgundy tile floor of my bedroom cutting up and glueing pictures of everything that intrigued me, scandalous or not. I started designing and making dresses at the age of thirteen. My designs are highly influenced by my global environment. I am mostly self-taught. I went to school to study business and design in LSU and Jiangnan University in China. I currently reside in New York. I enjoy working with each of my clients to create their dream dresses because it is a beautiful collaboration between myself and my client. It is an honor to bring their dreams to life. When the era of 2020 took place and a lot of people were having a hard time trying to balance between fashion and health, I knew that I had to do something about it. My job is not just to make people look beautiful, my job is mostly to make people feel beautiful. So, I immediately got to work in my apartment creating the most beautiful delicate and detailed embroidery designs that could be worn as face masks. People are responding to it in the most empowering way; from New York, to Paris, to Houston, to Germany, to London, to Poland, to California, and around the world. Not only are these face masks being worn globally, a percentage of the profit of each mask being sold supports low income families in New York that have been impacted by the pandemic.
Q: Was there a moment when you felt like this was something that was going to take off and become a success for you?
A: I don’t believe there was a moment when I felt like this was something that was going to take off and become a success for me. Being a fashion designer feels like breathing to me. It’s a form of therapy for me. It’s what makes me feel excited to wake up in the morning. I do not know if I am successful or not, but what I know is that fashion design is just something I cannot live without.
Q: What were your friends and family’s reactions to you starting to create your brand? Were you nervous to share it?
A: It took a while for my parents to get on board with me choosing Fashion design as a career path. While we were in Nigeria before we moved to the United States, Fashion design was not really a thriving successful path, it was not a thing. People did not choose fashion design as a career; it was strictly a hobby. While I was there I knew it was something I really wanted to do but I didn’t know how to bring it up into conversations with friends or family. When my family and I migrated to the United States 10+ years ago that is when I felt like there could definitely be a chance for me to be a Fashion designer here. While I was in high school, whenever I came back home after hours I would sit on the floor of my room just creating new patterns on paper using my old clothes to create the blueprint for the new outfit I was about to make. That is how I started teaching myself how to design clothes. Whenever I created new clothing I would run downstairs calling out to my family to preview the latest piece of clothing I had just made. I was so proud of myself. Before we graduate from high school each student is supposed to create and present a huge project to a series of judges from the faculty. This is something you have to work on all semester. It was a big deal. My topic of choice was “How to produce a Fashion Show”. In my mind at the time I felt like how can I call myself a Fashion Designer if I have never made a collection. So I went to work creating my first 12-piece clothing collection. I sought out a mentor in the fashion industry to guide me and a neighbor seamstress who taught me how to cut and sew a dress on bias for the first time in my life. Right now I do not think I ever make dresses that are not cut on bias. The fashion show was a success. It was the beginning of my journey as a fashion designer. All the audience came up to my parents and were raving about me and my designs, that is when I believe my parents could see that this is something I was made for and that this could be a career path. Everyone in my life is very supportive of what I do now.
Q: Is this your full-time job? If so, how long did it take you to transition into full-time?
A: After college I moved to New York City. I work as a Textile Scientist during the day and a Fashion Designer at nights.
Q: What do you wish you had known when you first started your brand?
A: Take more business and finance courses. Thankfully I took some business classes while I was in college but I wish I took more. The fact and the truth is when building a brand or company more than 50% of the tasks are business-related. It is important that you are business savvy and you know your numbers.
Q: What do you say to people who aren’t using reusable masks or who don’t think of masks as an accessory yet?
A: The face mask is now a new form of expression, which will change our overall experience of wearing a mask, making it a positive and fun experience for each individual. I started thinking of the face mask as a fashionable and fun item towards the end of 2020 since wearing a mask became part of our faces and our daily attire. I needed the masks to express who people were on the regular. The face coverings I have designed have provoked quite a strong response from people globally. They are now able to see that they can confidently express themselves through their style looking better than ever while taking much needed safety measures. I encourage people to wear more entertaining masks that express who they are because it is important to feel great on the inside and out
Q: While it doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon, obviously we all hope that at some point face masks won’t become as much of a necessity. Do you have plans for other items you’d like to introduce in the future?
A: Yes definitely! I offer timeless and fashion-forward pieces, inspired by my travels around the world. My diverse collections are influenced by different cultures, which have developed from ideas to realities throughout my career as a Fashion Designer. My goal is to create exclusive, sophisticated, and elegant designs that represent our interconnected and global world. I am working on a new collection that would immerse you into all aspects of living. We would provide a rental program where we offer one-of a kind high end dresses to women from all walks of life. Our rental program would come with premium service. Either rent a dress only or rent a dress with an experience which would come with a night planned out for you. You would experience a world of jazz. Women who did not believe that they were sophisticated and elegant would have a chance to be transformed and proudly walk into that world feeling beautiful, strong, and empowered. I want to create a world of dreams and feelings of empowerment. Dreams I believe that dresses can create. So, any woman can look sophisticated and elegant wherever she goes.
Q: What do you wish more people knew about shopping small?
A: When you shop in small businesses you are playing a big role in the success of that business. The support that we get from you impacts us greatly in such a positive way. I want to thank all the amazing people that support and shop in my business and other small businesses. I cannot wait to create more elegant and unique pieces for you.
Q: Favorite item in your shop currently?
A: My favorite items in my shop right now are my gold colored embroidered masks. I worked with the best and most talented artisans in Jaipur India to create such intricate and detailed embroidery designs. In 2019, I went on a trip to Jaipur India in search of talented artisans and viewed some textiles. It was such a magnificent trip. I was able to experience the beautiful culture, food, and people. It would definitely shape and influence my next dress collection coming out in the Summer of 2022.
Q: What goals do you have for your business going forward?
A: I am excited and looking forward to launching the dress rental program in the summer of 2022. The Sakeenah Ashiru brand would give you an experience that comes along with the fashion. From the music to the food, to the dresses. With our rental program our customers would be able to enjoy the world of jazz and fine cuisine. It provides an interactive and exuberating experience. Sakeenah Ashiru brand also solves the problem of fast fashion in all levels from the mid-priced to the high-end priced. It gives a more sustainable option with our rental program and custom-made pieces
Q: Lastly, let’s spread the love. What are a few of your favorite small shops owned by women that you personally shop from?
A: I am a little bit of a tea fanatic and one of my most favorite teas is Hibiscus tea. It is healthy and so refreshing. I stock my fridge with Fresh Hibiscus tea every other month and the only place I shop is my sister’s amazing shop. A woman-owned small business called Fresh Hibiscus Tea (Instagram handle: @freshhibiscustea) https://freshhibiscustea.com/products/smooth-ginger
Follow along with Sakeenah:
Shop Sakeenah Ashiru
Follow Sakeenah on Instagram