Meet The Nigerian Founder Building A Clothing Empire For Independent Women - FORBES
APRIL 08, 2021
BY Alexandra Sternlicht
Fisayo Longe wants to be very rich, and not from an inheritance or marriage, but on her own. The pursuit of financial freedom is what keeps Nigeria-raised entrepreneur logging 70-hour workweeks at her women’s clothing brand, Kai Collective.
“The clothes are really a love letter to women who grew up the way I grew up, which was very much going through life in a standard way: coming up in school, getting married and deferring to a man,” says Longe, the face of the 2021 Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Art & Culture list. “I wanted to build something that would show Nigerian women that we can actually prioritize making money, not just relying on a man.”
Since founding the Africa-inspired, direct-to-consumer e-commerce company in 2016, Longe hasn’t taken a cent of outside funding and owns 100% of the business. She’s focused her efforts on growing Kai through community, going so far as to survey top customers and incorporate their feedback into every strategic decision, from color palette to cut. Her strategy appears to be paying off: From 2019 to 2020, revenue grew 535% to $550,000.
“Our clothes make women feel good, but I don’t think we would be successful if it wasn’t for our community building and our very clear message that priorities and uplifts women,” says Longe.
Though the majority of her customer base is made up of Black women between the ages of 24 and 30 living in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Nigeria, Longe’s models represent a diversity of ages, body types, ethnicities and races. With every article of clothing, she aims to simultaneously celebrate and subvert Nigerian culture, and while many of her bestselling pieces—including the floor-dusting, curve-hugging Gaia dress, designed by Adebusola Adetona, CEO of Nigeria-based Grapes Pattern Bank—may look expensive, they cost less than $230. And each dress is cut from the same cloth, making them unique, not to mention sustainable.
“Growing up, we women were taught to be kind, sweet and quiet,” Longe says, who is usually based in London but temporarily in Tulum to oversee the photoshoot for Kai’s first-ever swim collection. “For me, it's about embracing femininity in all forms.”
Longe’s journey has been anything but traditional. At 15, she moved from Lagos to London to study law. After being rejected by all of the programs to which she applied, she accepted an accounting internship at KPMG, where she spent her days performing audits for major tech, media and telecom businesses. The work was dull, but her paycheck was incentive enough to sign on for the company’s School Leavers program, through which her Durham University education was fully funded in exchange for her continued employment at the firm.
After three years, though, she quit to focus on school, only to be expelled in her final year after failing her economics final three times.
It was 2017, and the 26 year old had no degree or money to her name. She did, however, have the beginnings of a fashion business, one that she’d started in school in the hope of making more money than she did at KMPG. Her mother loaned her $11,000—a sum she gratefully accepted—to scale her startup. As soon as the funds hit her bank account, she launched Kai’s manufacturing operation in August 2016.
Without fashion industry connections, Longe relied upon her 47,000 Instagram followers (she now has over 122,000) to get the word out. In January 2020, her social media marketing finally paid off: A photo of Longe outfitted in a Kai dress at a BAFTA party went viral.
Just as Kai was finally taking off, Covid-19 started to spread across China. Longe, who had been manufacturing in Guangzhou, was forced to take most of her operations to Turkey. By the time she’d signed a contract with a new manufacturer, it was April, the height of the #BuyBlack movement. From May to June, her revenue grew more than 440% to $50,000 thanks, in part, to attention from the likes of Beyoncé and Vogue, as well as other influencers, who posted about Kai in directories of Black-owned businesses.
“I genuinely and organically liked Kai Collective's stuff,” says makeup artist Jackie Aina, who has about 3.6 million YouTube followers, and helped hype Kai Collective last summer. “When I found out it was Nigerian-owned, it was even more sentimental to me."
Once international travel restrictions are lifted, Longe plans to move to the U.S. to be closer to the majority of her customers. She’s eyeing partnerships with retailers like ASOS and product lines in swim and sleepwear. Despite the challenges she’s faced, she isn’t worried about the future of her company. “Growing up Black, you’re told about how much harder you need to work,” she says. “So I have an incredible work ethic.”