Nasozi Kakembo and I met at the Brooklyn Renegade Craft Fair last fall. I was drawn to her table by her beautiful designs and as soon as we started talking I loved them even more due to the story behind their creation. Nasozi received her master’s degree in Architecture, Planning and Preservation and for a better part of a decade she worked in international human rights and social justice. She was passionate about the issues and her work within Africa countries, but she missed being able to use her innate creative energies. She began to indulge in African textiles by night, and in 2011 founded xnasozi (pronounced ‘by nə/sō/zē’). For two years she balanced both, but about a year ago quit her day job in order to focus solely on xnasozi.
xnasozi is a home décor brand that designs and creates modern interiors and home decor accessories using global textiles, including mudcloth (Bogolan), Dutch and African wax prints, West African indigo, and other African fabrics. Nasozi pulls on both of her Ugandan and American heritage in her design process and strives to fortify existing networks among and between artisans in Africa. In April 2014, xnasozi forged a partnership with Suubi Primary School, an orphanage school just outside of Uganda’s capital, Kampala. A portion of sales from all xnasozi products made in Uganda and Kenya will be donated to the school.
Nasozi resides in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, but is able to split her time between there and Uganda. This past winter she spent five weeks in Uganda developing more products, and working with tailors and artisans on local crafts. You can find her products in close to 20 stores around the country as well as numerous markets and craft fairs, including the upcoming NYNOW gift show that will be held at Javits Convention Center this August.This show attracts tens of thousands of buyers from all over the world, so that fact that Nasozi has been able to build her business up in three years to the point where she can show here is quite impressive. Read on to learn more about her journey to get to this point…
You were born and raised in Washington, D.C., what brought you to New York City?
City lights brought me here. I have always been interested in New York. It was always a place that excited me. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, which was an eclectic, diverse area to begin with but nothing compared to what I experienced in the energy and the vibe when I would visit New York. I would frequently come up with family to go to Broadway shows or visiting distant cousins. My brother is about six years older and he went to NYU. I thought it was the coolest thing to come to New York, so whenever I could come and stay with him I would. I just made up my mind that after I finished my undergraduate, I wanted to move to New York. At the time I wanted to pursue architecture and/or modeling. I thought New York would be a great place to pursue both of those things, so that is what brought me here. Three weeks after undergraduate graduation I moved here with my best friend. She came from Wellesley and then I came from Maryland and we started our New York journey together.
What did you study for both your undergraduate and graduate degrees?
Undergraduate was a hodgepodge actually. I started out in Architecture and ended up in Art History and Spanish. Meanwhile the focus was on Architecture and African Art History. Then I ended up in graduate school for Urban Planning.
Did you then apply your master’s degree? Did you get a job in urban planning?
Not in the formal sense. Urban Planning is such a diverse discipline and field. It can span from planning out whole cities to planning out something like Atlantic Yards or the Brooklyn Waterfront. So, it can go from that all the way to figuring out the economic strategy for attracting and keeping small businesses within a neighborhood. Do the people living in the surrounding community have access to the social services they need, how is the train working for them, etc.? I was closer to that spectrum as I focused on international human rights and social justice during my graduate school internships and after graduate school.
It is clear that you have always had a creative side to you. My experiences have been that sometimes your formal education causes you to get so wrapped up in the theory of things that it can be easy to lose the creative side of yourself. Did that happen to you and if so, how did you find yourself tapping into your creative energies again?
For several years I had almost completely forgotten that I was once upon a time very creative, and had really used visual tools to express my creativity and thoughts. During the course of graduate school and after, I became a very technical person. I spoke all of the jargon, and I was a square. That worked for a little while but I got wondering what happened to that other piece of me? I would come back to my parents’ house and find floor plans and renderings that I had created in my spare time how many years prior. I would literally ask myself, “What happened to her?”
So, for a while I was deliberately seeking and trying to figure out how to get on that track again. It wasn’t architecture because I didn’t really have a way to apply that. I was interested in architecture before college, so in that aspect it was something that I enjoyed doing. It was kind of that fantasy side that I enjoyed planning in the same way a sketcher sketches portraits on the subway. I would literally be in social studies class sketching floor plans. So, it wasn’t so much just architecture as the need to be creative. Most of my friends are creatives, so just by virtue of that I made sure to really keep in touch with the arts and be an artist by association in hopes that eventually I would be inspired to find my calling again. I did that for years. I worked at a human rights organization for 4 years and there was a curated project for documentary photographers around the world. They had a curatorial committee that I sat on for several years, and I tried to use that in the hopes of finding it just by keeping those wheels turning.
So, if you weren’t actually creating then you were trying to keep the creativeness around you.
Yes. A couple of years into my position at the organization I took a trip to Dakar, Senegal and while there I went to the market to bring back fabric for a family member. It wasn’t even my aim to find fabric. I was just asked if I could make a trip to the market because she wanted to make some pretty skirts out of African fabric. My last day there a friend of mine that was living there took me into the market and I was like jaw on the floor. I was overwhelmed. I had never seen prints in so much vibrancy, abundance, and quantity all at one time. I think that because they were so present in my childhood and upbringing that I may have taken them for granted. They always existed around me. It wasn’t anything new to me but the power and beauty of them didn’t actually strike me until it was mouth dropping. I brought the prints for my godmother and then I brought several more for me. When I got back to my hotel room and opened my package and saw how much it was then I was like, “Oh, my God! This is way too much for a skirt. What am I going to do with this?” That surplus coupled with my architecture and design background inspired me to start with a home line – so I started with pillows. I got back in mid April or May of 2011 and then by mid June or July I had my Etsy shop.
Had you ever sewn before or was this something you taught yourself during that time?
I did when I was a child – I was very crafty as a child. I would design my prom and homecoming outfits, so I had played around with sewing before but not in any serious capacity. So, I did have to teach myself. My mother used to sew a lot. She would make wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, and I feel like that is something our parents’ generation really had on lock down! She taught me how to thread the sewing machine, fill the bobbin, all of those things. I was clueless at first, but she guided me.
I just dove into it and figured out my own kind of template and I’ve been sticking with that in terms of clothes and experimenting with other things as well. It was tough the first 2 years, really, because I still had a full-time job. I could only really take it so far. It wasn’t a hobby because I was really trying to make it a side business, but at some point you really have to make a decision.
It was 2-3 months from when you came back from Senegal to when you set up your Etsy shop. What was that process like for you? How did you market what you were doing and put it out there so people knew about it?
I made the Etsy site and then I created a Facebook page. On my personal Facebook Page I had requested that all of my friends there “like” my page or goodbye. That was really how it started. Social media has been essential to what I do. There are so many people and when someone “likes” it then all of their friends see that, too. It can become intrusive, too, but I think you can use it to your advantage. You just have to know the best way to really optimize the social media and know when it should be limited in terms of personal space.
Also, I had been in New York at that point for 6 years, which resulted in all kinds of chapters, spaces, and contacts in the city. I knew people from grad school, I knew people from the fashion world, I had all of my artist friends here in Brooklyn. I knew people in the architectural world because I had worked in two architect firms. Just having connections in various hubs of the city, and the world, helped. So, there was the Etsy page, Facebook Page, and I made up business cards. It was sort of, “Well, I think this is what I’m supposed to do!” I signed up for a festival that was probably way too much money to spend for my first festival, but I didn’t know any better. That was a part of it, though. I was a bit too naive and I didn’t know how to do things so I was taking risks in not knowing if there was a better way to do it. So, I dove in headfirst.
How do you assess whether or not one of your decisions was a good decision? For example, is it just a matter of doing it so you are out there or do you calculate how much you would have to sell to make a show worthwhile for you?
Initially I didn’t think about it in those terms, and I should have. Now I do. I also introduce a range of price points. Some markets cost a lot more or a lot less than others. Sometimes I make a killing at the street sidewalk market in Fort Greene that costs me $30, and then barely break even at a fancy one that costs $500 to be a part of. There is a lot inconsistency that goes into the nature of the markets, so it is also important to have a multi-pronged approach or business strategy. That is why I do the markets, have the online business, and then I have started to branch into wholesale and working with boutiques.
Did you strategically think about how you were going to expand to wholesale or did it just organically happen?
It was always an objective and business goal. I didn’t know exactly what that was going to look like or how it was going to play out, but it was always on my mind. I did have an idea, and I had researched lookbooks and line sheets and had been creating different versions of those. I didn’t think about wholesale pricing when I set my prices initially, because I’ve been making everything by myself from the beginning and that is not sustainable long term. I’m very soon (and probably should be right now) going to be paying somebody else to do the work but that changes the entire pricing structure. I’m not comfortable doing that yet and that is my biggest challenge right now – being able to delegate that aspect of the business and yet keeping my work at a price point that I feel comfortable with and that I know my consumer will be happy with, too.
So, when you start to do something like this it begins with a passion. Then as you start to be successful it can be harder and harder to do the thing that you are passionate about because you have to start focusing more and more on the business side of things. How do you balance that?
I think at this point I am trying to figure out what I can still hold on to. Initially sewing was quite therapeutic for me. It was a creative outlet for me to turn nothing into something. But now it is becoming more of an obligation and a little bit more stressful. I was literally sewing until the minute that we came here. I don’t get the same thing out of it that I did initially. It’s not that the sewing is the problem, and it’s not the textile’s fault. It’s an evolution of the business. I think that is a challenge that designers and creatives struggle with because your vision takes on a life of it’s own and has to be nurtured and really taken care of in other ways. And the individual who created it doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to give that because we are still only just people!
For 2 years you were working at your full-time job while building up this business on the side. How did you come to the point where you decided to just go for it and make this your full time job?
I remember when I first started out. It was my first show, and I sold like ONE pillow. I was like, “I’m quitting my job!” I told my friend I had sold a pillow, and I was putting in my 2 weeks and quitting my job. She was like, “Slow down, let it grow. Your work is beautiful but chill out!” She totally put me in check. That was Day 1. Fast forwarding to a later date, and it was a culmination of three things. First, in the 9 to 5 structure (or whatever you want to call it) it was becoming increasingly difficult to balance that with my home and personal obligations. I had a son who was almost 5 and it was tough. I needed more flexibility. I can put in 40+ hours a week, but I have to be able to say that I need to leave at 2:00 p.m. to pick up my son from soccer practice or to go to his game. I wanted to have that flexibility and I knew I was going to need that flexibility with him going into elementary school.
Second, my day job was just becoming mundane, not inspiring, not challenging, and it wasn’t doing it for me anymore. And third, business was kind of pulsating. I felt like it wanted to burst out and do more. I was observing patterns. It had been 2 years and I could look back and see what was happening in January of last year and then February of last year and see that activity was improving. I was getting more traffic, getting more sales, and people were recognizing my work around Brooklyn and the city. So, those things led me to the decision that it was time.
It is probably completely different stressors now, though. You are your own boss, but now everything is all on you. How has that change been for you?
Yes, it’s all on me, exactly. You know the flexibility aspect is great but I was totally under the illusion that I would also have free time. I can’t even tell you how many different things that I miss because things are concentrated on weekends and I am working on weekends. Monday is usually my first off day. I love Mondays. I never thought I would have said that but Mondays come around and I just feel a little lighter. That has been a challenge. Recently, I started having help with sales, which has helped a little bit. When I do different events I will have someone there for half of the time or even the whole time with me. At the Renegade Craft Fair I had a young lady help me and when I did a pop-up shop at Chelsea Market in September I had another lady helping me there, too.
Do you pay those people or are they volunteers? How do you find them?
I pay them. The first lady I found on Etsy, actually. She is another designer and creator who uses African wax prints, but she is also a knitter and does crochet. We were writing back and forth about each others’ work. We just kept in touch and she came to visit me at the Hester Street Fair. We became friendly and got to know one another. I posted on Facebook that I would be looking for some help in September and she was interested. I’ve met really amazing people along the way and that has been something that I just didn’t expect. I just didn’t think about that part.
Do you go back to Africa to buy your fabric? How do you source your materials?
In the beginning it was a very hodgepodge network of sourcing my fabric. Meanwhile I was researching suppliers and how to have a more reliable source, because thinking forward I wanted to have a collection-based line instead of just loving a certain print and having six of those pillows. There is an appeal to the idea of limited edition, but you also want to have certain prints available all of the time on a regular basis. Eventually I did find a buyer in the Senegalese African area of Harlem who imports regularly from Africa.
At this point I am going myself about once a year, and I usually have friends or family that come back, too. The other day when my supplier didn’t have the print that I needed, and then I checked with another supplier in London who I use sometimes and he didn’t have the print either. Nobody had the print that I needed, but I knew that in Africa they had it because it is one of their most popular prints. So, I had an aunt who was coming from Ghana to Boston. I asked her to get me as much of this as she could. She brought me like 24 yards, which is more than I ever had at a single time but I needed it and now I don’t have to worry about it for a while.
I would imagine that since you are still able to travel for this work, it keeps you connected to the part of international human rights that you did enjoy.
Yes, I couldn’t do without that. I am such a wanderlust. Of course it used to be that somebody else was paying for it and right now I’m paying for it. But still, it is a fitting part of my business and is an important part of what I am doing.
How do you continue to stay inspired?
I use African prints as my medium and they are the foundation of what I do. The purpose is to innovate or give a new perspective to classical or modern pieces of furniture that have already been established or already have the credibility in the décor realm. I am on a Scandinavian/Danish furniture kick right now. I love reading up on and researching those designs and seeing how the prints that I work with can fit and compliment them. Also, reimagining practical pieces – I’m now looking into making coasters, and I’d never even thought of that before.
I also visit different boutiques and bookstores, because there are a lot of things out there but very few of them are using African prints in the way that I want to – I want a very clean, finished product, something that could be in a home in Bed-Stuy, in a home on the Upper West Side, in a home in Cobble Hill – something that could fit in a home across the board. That is where I see my work. I try to design for people who have an appreciation for those sorts of things in their homes. I was at Union Market in Washington, D.C., and they had really cute trays in there. I thought that would be another great idea. I can totally see how I could work my textiles into a tray set with coasters. So, that excites me, but unfortunately it is still a problem to find the time for product development since I am producing and making everything myself. So, although I have this idea floating around in my mind it could be a week or it could be 6 more months before I actually get to make it.
What is your biggest struggle? Have you ever had a moment when you just wanted to go back to a desk job?
I have that moment sometimes but only when it comes to time management. I look back and think maybe it wasn’t so bad being told to be at a certain place a 9:00 a.m. and get out by 5:00 p.m. and don’t be here on the weekends. I’m living in a very gray area where the work doesn’t stop. Even me going to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving for the week, that was time off and I can’t even tell you how much work I took with me. I even bought a sewing machine in their town to have there.
Then you have Black Fridays, Small Business Saturdays, Cyber Mondays, there are a lot of sales coming in which is a good thing but very overwhelming at the same time. I’m a firm believer that you get out what you put in, and I’ve been putting in everything so everything is coming back to me. The holiday season is an exceptional period. It is the one period where every retailer comes out of the red and into the black for the whole year. But then you have August, which tends to be dead.
You have been doing this for 2 years so you can probably now start to see trends. How do you plan for months that you know are going to be dead, like August?
I had a little bit of a financial cushion because I had money saved before I left my 9-5 job. I was able to fill in some gaps with that. I knew that I wouldn’t have that cushion this summer, though, so I had to be conscious to not spend all of the money that I made during the holiday season. I am learning to put money away so that when I have a slow period there is a cushion.
If there is someone in a job right now who feels like they haven’t been able to use their creativity and they have a creative idea that they want to explore, but they feel like they are stuck, what would your advice to them be? Do you have a good first step to take or are there some things they should be considering?
I think part of the catch-22 when you are in a desk job, or any space where you are not feeling gratified, is that it is hard to figure out what will make you happy when you are in a space where you are not fulfilled. I’m a risk taker. I would say, “Leave!” There is an expression that my friend shared with me and it really stuck, and that is that you have to make room for sunshine. If your life is already crowded and your thoughts are crowded, your mental space is occupied with stress at work or lack of stimulation at work, if you don’t make room for something better to enter in then it’s not going to.
Honestly, I was prepared to leave the very comfy, cushy job I had and work at Trader Joe’s. I love Trader Joe’s! I would work at Trader Joe’s if things ever get tight, and I would love it. I’m not too proud. I would work at a coffee shop by my house just to pay the bills and be able to receive inspiration, messages and signs that are already omnipresent – but when your vision and judgment is crowded, by whatever other interference is happening around you, then you are not going to be able to see them.
So, it is the idea that you are not going to be able to figure out what you want until you create the space for it. Until you do something to get yourself out of the patterns that you have created, you are just going to repeat them. You have to create a different path.
Yes, you had to remove yourself from the sorce or contributing factors. You could almost draw a triangle of what my daily routine was for 4 years. I went from that house to that daycare to the train, took the train to mid-town, got off and walked a block, and then did the whole thing in reverse. For 4 years.
I think that when you are a creative person, that can drive you crazy. There are people who really find comfort in that routine, though.
Part of me did, actually. At one point in my life, about 5-6 years ago, I needed that because I was at a very rocky place in my life and at least I knew what to expect. At least that was stable and predictable. I knew what it was going to be, so it was great for like a year or two years but after that it wasn’t.
It is so important to just recognize that. Something may feel comfortable and safe, but it’s not necessarily good for you. How can you distinguish the two, though, unless you are introspective and take some risks? What is the ultimate goal for your company – where would you ultimately like to see xnasozi grow?
I want to have a footprint around the globe in retail. In terms of my customer base I am all over the world, but I would love to be in boutiques and in larger retailers like Anthropologie. And ideally do all of this on a more consistent basis – less gaps!
Notes of Reflection:
- One of the things that is not mentioned in the above interview is that when Nasozi and I met she owned a brick-and-mortar showroom space in DUMBO, Brooklyn. The day that we met she was running in-between there, her apartment and the retail spaces that were selling her products. She expressed that she wasn’t really sure if she loved having a store space, but that she was trying it out. Ultimately she made the decision to close down the shop. She said that it was just too much to juggle by herself, especially with being a full-time mother, and all of the unforeseen opportunities and adventures that arise with that and being an entrepreneur. It is such a good lesson that we have to try something out sometimes in order to know how it will fit into our bigger business plan and life. Nasozi was able to learn that running a brick-and-mortar store wasn’t for her, and she then was able to focus her energies on the parts of the business that resonated with her more and fit better into her life. A wonderful example of having to pivot in your business ventures.
- “You have to make room for sunshine.” If our lives are so full of self-doubt, depression, anxiety, and fear it is very hard to even see the good things that are around us. You have to take time to assess whether or not the situation you are in is clouding the chance of any sort of happiness entering into your life. It can be hard to tap into your creativeness if you are so unhappy in what you are doing, so it is important to assess whether or not something is making you so miserable that it makes more sense to leave it then stay in it. Not everyone is in the position to quit a job, but if it is making you so unhappy to the point of not being able to make room for sunshine, then you will be blinded to any opportunities for change.
- One cannot think that when they start their own business or become their own boss that this will allow them a more balanced amount of free time. Nasozi has been working non-stop for three years on her business. She works during her vacations and hardly takes time off. When you leave a 9-to-5 job, you are also leaving that structure behind. It is important that people know this, because if you are not passionate about whatever you are starting – those hours will be more than exhausting. The benefit is that it is yours. Nasozi is at the point where she is starting to build up her team, which is affording her more time – but she put the blood, sweat and tears into getting there.
- Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
- In His Own Words by Nelson Mandela
- An African Soldier Speaks by Robert Henry Kakembo – Written in 1947 by my grandfather, it details the impact that World War I had on the self-determination and identity of African soldiers and their experiences in this war.
*Images via Nneka Salmon/mater mea; J. Quazi King/mater mea; and xnasozi