Medical doctor turned designer Yetunde Olukoya is helping to improve the economy in her native Nigeria through her African-inspired clothing line, Ray Darten. Launched in July 2016, she started off with a few pieces she handmade in her home; currently she sells the clothing through an online store, a storefront location in the Bay Area of California and through multi city pop up shop events.
Through her Ray of Hope initiative, she opened a production facility in Nigeria, and hopes to continue growing in the U.S.
Here, we spoke with Olukoya about the company.
TNJ.com: How did Ray Darten come to be? What is the inspiration behind it?
Yetunde Olukoya: The name Ray Darten is a word play with the names of my 3 kids, my son Ire (nickname is Ray-Ray) and twin daughters Dara and Teni. I would trace my inspiration and interest in designing all the way back to when I was a kid. I was always so into putting together different outfits (if you call putting together paper and tape outfits on my dolls designing!). I carried that all the way to medical school where I would take apart clothes and make new styles out of them. I also made multiple outfits for myself, family and friends with my mom’s sewing machine. I carried this passion into motherhood where I continued to use African print known as Ankara to make anything that would come to mind and I remember distinctly when one of my little girls said, “I wan my buutifu dress too”.
This led me to start making matching outfits for my girls and I, something I saw as more than a hobby. I took the bold step of changing careers from medical doctor to fashion designer and sharing this passion with the world after my husband pushed me to transition from hobby to career. It was a leap of faith I finally took about three years ago, and I must say I’m loving every minute of it.
TNJ.com: What makes the brand unique?
Yetunde Olukoya: I believe our commitment to telling stories of African excellence through pieces made in Africa. We see this as playing our part in the long term vision of Africa empowerment and this along with our commitment to supporting kids’ education back home in Nigeria, has helped us connect with our customer in a unique way. Our other core value is ensuring we provide a unique customer-centric experience and our uncompromising approach to customer service. It’s not just about the sale for us, we strive to ensure that all our customers know us, understand our goals and vision and walk away relishing their entire experience with us.
TNJ.com: Who designs the clothing? Is the clothing designed here or in Nigeria?
Yetunde Olukoya: I currently design the outfits and trust me, it is a lot of work. I am inspired by my rich Nigerian heritage where our fabrics are sourced; we love the bold, bright artistic prints. I also learned to always go around with my drawing pad; the best designs I have created came to me at the most unexpected times.
TNJ.com: What’s the most enjoyable part about running the company?
Yetunde Olukoya: I would say the most enjoyable part still remains the feeling of seeing a piece I designed, my husband telling me he doesn’t really like it (what does he know about fashion?) and seeing the piece majestically expressed on a customer. Blows my mind every time!
TNJ.com: What’s the most challenging part of running the company?
Yetunde Olukoya: I would say that knowing that the decisions I make, good or poor, are likely to impact multiple families in Nigeria and the U.S. Our production facilities in Nigeria currently have about 100 artisans (mostly women). They are part of the Ray Darten family and, many of them, are the breadwinners in their homes. The thought of them continuously impacts the decisions I make and also represents a huge motivation.
TNJ.com: How are you giving back to native communities in Nigeria?
Yetunde Olukoya: A core value we have is our commitment to giving back to our heritage. One of the many ways we give back is doing our best to support kids’ education and health in our country of origin, Nigeria. We do this through our Ray of Hope initiative where we visit schools to collect lists of supplies needed and we make sure we provide them..mostly educational and hygienic supplies. We also collaborate with other charities to organize enriching events where they have fun and are provided with necessary supplies like mosquito nets, backpacks, footwear and other supplies. The jobs we provide is also one of the major ways we give back; many of our artisans pay for their education by working with us.