We wrap up our IWD series with the inspirational chat with Araba of Stylista. This has been such an inspiring series. Don’t forget to press for progress no matter what.
TNBGH: Kindly tell us about yourself and your brand?
Stylista: I am Araba Stephens Akompi, the founder and Creative Director for the women’s clothing brand Stylista. I have always been passionate about the fashion industry, however, my journey to fashion design was not a straight path.
In 1997, I moved from Ghana to the United States to pursue higher education. After my undergraduate education at Cornell University, I worked in the finance industry. I later pursued an MBA in marketing and held executive positions in the beauty industry. I thoroughly enjoyed these roles; however, my dream of pursuing my passion for fashion was never far from my mind. Therefore, while working fulltime, I enrolled at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
In 2009, I decided to finally move back to Ghana and I set up Stylista two years later. I have not looked back since. I am so passionate about fashion design that I awaken every morning to new ideas and fashion inspiration. I do not even use an alarm clock anymore since I started Stylista. My passion wakes me up every morning.
The Stylista brand is fashion-forward, feminine, contemporary and colourful. In creating a design, I am inspired by the motifs in the fabric to create distinctive, exceptional pieces. The silhouette of each piece highlights and complements the fabric, rather than compete with the patterns.
Clients tell me that they can immediately identify a Stylista piece because the motifs in the fabric are arranged in a well thought out, creative way.
Our clothes mainly consist of well-constructed dresses, jackets, skirts and trousers that celebrate the female silhouette. We also design men’s clothes on demand.
TNBGH: What’s your inspiration for doing what you do?
Stylista: My inspiration for doing what I do is my passion, as described earlier. I know that I only have a limited time on this earth, so I would rather spend my days pursuing my passions.
I have held many senior and executive level marketing positions in the past of some of the most respected companies in America and I excelled at them. However, I yearned to pursue my true passion and dream. I am still extremely grateful for those experiences because I acquired valuable skills and knowledge that I still use today. I appreciate the value of hard work and being at the top of your game. Those experiences also drew me closer to discovering what my true passions were.
Now that I am in a career and industry that I enjoy, I do not take any of this for granted, even when I encounter challenges.
TNBGH: What bold steps did you take to get to where you are?
Stylista: I had to leave corporate America and the comfort of a very lucrative, six-figure salary for an uncertain goal. Starting a new business is always risky. There were people who couldn’t comprehend that I went to some of the best schools in the world and got an MBA to “become a seamstress.” Ultimately, I decided to pursue happiness in my own, authentic way. I also had a great support system in my husband and family who encouraged me to pursue my dreams. I moved back to Ghana and put all my savings into the business to start it. In the beginning, I had a lot of expenses and no revenue. I was paying out lots of money in start-up costs, retail space, employee housing, business registration and recruitment fees, machines, technology, equipment, fabrics and accessories. I had no guarantee that I would recoup these expenses and I went through long periods of not paying myself. I also encountered several losses trusting people who disappointed. Construction work that was promised to me to be complete in three weeks took 8 months. It is a major problem in Ghana.
I invested a lot without any guarantee of a return.
TNBGH: If you had an opportunity to do anything differently?
Stylista: I would trust people less. I have learned the hard way that in business, you should never trust people completely, regardless of what they tell you.
TNBGH: What does pressing for progress mean to you?
Stylista: Pressing for progress to me means perseverance, regardless of what roadblocks and obstacles that you meet along the way.
TNBGH: How can women in the fashion industry press for progress?
Stylista: As a group, women in the fashion industry need to harness our collective strengths and ideas to change influencers. It is a persistent push to change attitudes and assert the rights of women in our communities, workplaces and in the industry. We cannot and should not stop to press for progress in ensuring the empowerment of women. We should leverage our platforms to act and speak on women’s issues until society addresses them.
How are women making a positive impact in the fashion industry?
The fashion industry is so dynamic. We have women like myself who work directly in the industry as fashion designers. However, we have so many stakeholders such as women in the public eye who push fashion boundaries, make the news for what they wear here in Ghana and globally. Stylista is blessed to be aligned with so many of such inspiring women who push us to press for perfection and creativity in all we do. They communicate the message of fashion as a driving force for change in people’s lives.
You perform better when you look good and feel good about yourself. Powerful women are communicating that you can look good and be smart at the same time and that is commendable.
The fashion industry is also a driving force for change for women of less privileged backgrounds. You will realize that a lot of our social perils have underlying root causes of poverty and the inability of women to support themselves financially. Fashion as an industry is giving women in all communities and of different socioeconomic backgrounds, a means to support themselves and their families.
TNBGH: What is your advice to young ladies who are aspiring to be like you or walk down your path?
Stylista: Aspiring designers should live by these 8 guiding principles mentioned above.
Prayer – As someone accurately worded it, “Pray Until Something Happens” (PUSH). However, you also have to do your part to the best of your ability and let Him do the rest.
Patience – When things are not happening as fast as you would like them to, keep at it and do the best with the 24 hours in front of you. Then repeat the same the next day. There is nothing like an overnight success.
Practice – Means continuous learning and not resting on your laurels. It is very important in this business to always be familiar with new trends, consumer preferences, and fashion evolution. Currently, there is a resurging of interest in modest fashion globally where women want to be more covered up.
Positivity – On difficult days, your passion may be challenged. Be determined that you will not let any of that steal your joy. You have to keep your eye on your ultimate goal, remind yourself why you set out on this journey in the first place and also appreciate how far you have come, no matter how small it feels.
Being proactive – One of the best ways to have a competitive advantage in business, especially in fashion. Anticipate trends, customer needs, employee behaviours and external forces and plan accordingly.
TNBGH: What’s the greatest goal for you?
Stylista: My greatest goal is always a moving target and I set new ones once I am close to achieving the previous ones.
TNBGH: Do you think the fashion industry in Ghana is a viable career path?
TNBGH: And what is your number one advice to an amateur looking forward to being a part of this industry?
Stylista: Work hard. There are no shortcuts to success. Make sure you are really passionate about the fashion industry.
TNBGH: Have you ever encountered a situation where you were being limited because of your gender and how did you overcome it to be recognized for your work?
Stylista: I am not sure if being limited is the right phrase. However, gender biases and stereotypes pose daily challenges in our society. A significant number of my tailors are men and some start working with you with chauvinistic attitudes and stereotypes about women. Some of them even resent the fact that they report to a woman and rebel against your authority. So you have to manage those attitudes and behaviours. In our society, a lot of actions will be tolerated by a man, even something innocent as standing your ground and insisting on certain standards and quality. However, as a woman, you will get comments like… “Look at this woman. Who does she think she is?” Or people make chauvinistic excuses like “Oh don’t mind her. She is a woman…” “As for women, that is how they are.” Let a man insist on the same thing and it would be a non-issue. I experience this type of chauvinism from both men and women. You can go to a place of service and a man will arrive several minutes after you and they will serve him first and justify it that, “Oh, he is a man so he needs to be served before you.”
I have several experiences with women who will admonish you to shrink yourself, lower your standards or ask for less because you are a woman. I have had situations where I go somewhere with my husband on a business transaction and even though I am the one with the request or is the one paying for the product or service, they will still choose to engage with my husband and direct their answers to only him even though I am the one asking the questions. I hear public officials in all aspects of society make bold, chauvinistic statements and get away with them in all forms of media like radio, television and social media. We have a long way to go on gender equality issues. Regrettably, as described earlier, sometimes we as women are our own worst enemies.
As far as overcoming these biases, as women, we should develop a good sense of self-worth, continue to educate ourselves so that when we speak, we do so boldly, confidently and eloquently. This way, you command respect which consequently helps you navigate your way till you get what you want.
We should set positive examples and achievements to make it easier for those following in our footsteps.