Chioma Onukwuire Is Making Authentic African Fashion More Accessible

Case Western Reserve University graduate student Chioma Onukwuire grew up in Houston, Texas—a long way from her family’s native country of Nigeria and the traditional African clothing designed and produced there.

“When I was growing up, getting African fashion was just a nightmare,” she said. “We would have to call our cousin in Nigeria to locate a tailor. The whole process was just really difficult and tedious. And when you’re a growing kid, what fits you now does not fit you in six months…so then we’d have to go through the entire process again.”

A Moment Of Inspiration
In her hometown, Chioma attends a traditional Nigerian church with her family. Most of the churchgoers wear traditional Nigerian outfits for this occasion—except for her mother, an actual native of Nigeria.

“They asked her ‘why don’t you wear it,’ and her reasoning was that with the same amount of money she would spend on one authentic African outfit, she could use to buy two American outfits,” said Chioma. “Plus, it would take months and months for it to get here.”

Witnessing this simple exchange was all the inspiration Chioma needed to begin devising her own solution to this problem.

Taking An Idea And Running With It
Chioma knew there had to be a way to make African-inspired fashion cheaper and more accessible for Americans, so she set out on a journey of multiple iterations to bring this idea to life. Originally, she intended make the clothes here, with the help of a seamstress. When no one answered the help wanted ad that she posted on Instagram for the role, she decided to make the fashions herself, but soon ran into hurdles with manufacturing.

“If you’re not a huge company or don’t have a lot of funding, American manufacturing can be expensive,” said Chioma. “I just I didn’t think people would want to buy African clothing made at a price point of $200, especially from a new brand.”

Then last year, someone gave Chioma the idea of collaborating directly with African clothing designers. From this, Chimu’s business model morphed again, becoming a platform that collaborates with local African fashion brands to sell their work here in America. Prices are fair for both the end consumer and the artists, as Chimu pays the artists directly based on prices they set themselves.

Seeing The Future Differently
Chioma was excited about the new direction her business was going but wanted to look at things from a different angle. After receiving a recommendation from her network, she reached out to connect with JumpStart’s Core City: Cleveland team.

“Running a business is hard. You don’t know the answers to everything, and I’m a student, so with school and work, I knew I needed help,” said Chioma. “When you have a business idea, sometimes you’re so into it that you really don’t see it for what it is. I knew that getting another pair of eyes on this would not be a bad idea. Maybe they would see something that I’m not.”

As she continues to learn the ins and outs of running her own business, Chioma’s short-term goal is simple. Over the next 6-12 months, she looks to increase the awareness of Chimu and African fashion across Northeast Ohio, with help from partners, including a prominent local fashion blogger and Cleveland State University students who will be traveling the world modeling and photographing pieces of her collection.

How Core City: Cleveland Has Helped
Chioma credits the Core City: Cleveland program with connecting her to events and people that have sparked fresh ideas and helped her young venture grow. Though not a native Clevelander, Chioma has both contributed to and witnessed firsthand the rise of entrepreneurship in the region.

“To me, Core City: Cleveland represents kind of a renaissance in Cleveland, especially for entrepreneurship. I came here five years ago, and back then people didn’t look at Cleveland as an entrepreneurial hub,” said Chioma. “Now a lot of people are talking about Cleveland and entrepreneurship, and I feel that JumpStart is a part of that.”

To learn more about how free one-on-one business advising sessions from the Core City: Cleveland program can help you move forward in your own entrepreneurial journey, click here.