Established in 2017, OliveAnkara is a fashion label that has taken Singapore by storm. Read on as we have a chat with Ifeoma Ubby, a cancer research scientist on a cultural mission.
Born and raised in Italy with Nigerian roots, it is evident that Singapore dwelling Ifeoma Ubby loves celebrating all cultures, and that is exactly what her fashion brand OliveAnkara stands for. A label that blends African fabrics with modern shapes to create a collection produced in limited quantities and a sustainable way, this is a brand with plenty of heart and message. For founder Ify, a cancer research scientist by day with a PhD in Human Molecular Genetics and a fashion enthusiast by night, it is also a means of expression and a tool to shape the future.
If you are wondering what motivates a successful and very busy Cancer Research Scientist to start a fashion brand – the answer is passion – in Ify’s case, several passions to be precise. First, there is a love of her heritage and an enthusiasm about introducing it to others. She tells of growing up as a toddler wrapped in African prints and a teenager sporting an African skirt and headwrap, no matter which country she found herself in. Having lived in Italy and then travelled to Nigeria as a child, she distinctly recalls celebrating her grandfather’s funeral – yes, celebrating – and falling in love with her relatives’ zest for life on one of her trips there. This infectious positivity is clear in OliveAnkara’s designs – each item of clothing is a statement piece, all bursting with colour and personality.
Then, there’s her commitment to sustainability. “I am against fast fashion,” Ify explains. “I don’t want to be associated with that, because then people buy the clothes just for the purpose of buying instead of truly appreciating them. It creates a lot of waste and promotes this culture of use and throw. I value quality over quantity as it encourages us to really appreciate the art of clothing and who is making it.” They put their money where their mouth is. OliveAnkara tries to make use of 98% of their fabrics, using scrap materials to produce headbands, backpacks, and jewellery so that they don’t just end up in the landfill. She also produces only 4-6 of each design, so each item makes the wearer feel unique and she isn’t left with lots of overstock.
Another strong theme running throughout the OliveAnkara brand is the message ‘by women – for women’. The women who create her clothes are paid fairly for their work. Additionally, Ify plans to return all the unsold clothes back to the manufacturers so that they can, in turn, sell them back to their own communities, thus supporting local economies. “My mission is to build a small community to support women from villages in different countries like the Philippines and Myanmar. They’re our garment makers, and by buying OliveAnkara, you are supporting the livelihood of this community. At the end of the day, it’s a cycle of women helping women and lifting each other up.”
As you would expect from a research scientist, Ify didn’t scrimp on the details when setting out to launch her brand. She learnt the basics of sewing back in the day from her mother, “she never physically taught me how to sew, but I’d watched her so many times that I knew the process,” she explains, before taking up classes in 2017 to really learn her craft. “I just didn’t know why we had to make certain folds and stitches so I embarked on a mission to learn it all, from the pattern cutting to the different types of darts in sewing to creating the final design.” Quickly, her brand gained popularity – partly thanks to her standout designs seen at pop-up stores around town, and partly thanks to her message. Determined to dispose of the stigma of cultural appropriation associated with wearing African clothes, Ify’s mission is one of inclusiveness. Photographing her collections on real women of all races, she says, “African clothes shouldn’t just be for African people, they should be enjoyed by everyone. I’m trying to get people to embrace all cultures. It isn’t disrespectful, it’s the opposite. It’s beautiful to embrace and celebrate all cultures together.”
The future for OliveAnkara is most definitely bright. Now that she has tested her concept, Ify has plans to work more closely with small communities in Nigeria, bringing her production back to its roots. “I didn’t know how people would react to my African fabrics, or if they would definitely buy them, so I didn’t want to give these women hope just to take it away.” Now that the market has been tested, the proof is in the product. Given the passion at its core, it’s not really surprising at all.