I’m delighted to share this interview with Dayo Forster, Co-Founder of Toghal, a new textile-based homeware brand. Inspired by an appreciation of the legacy of Africa’s textile heritage in the world and a love of technology, Toghal is about reimagining traditional textiles to create something iconic and fresh.
The Asilia team and I have had the great pleasure of working with Dayo to bring the brand to life. It’s been a fantastic project and the kind of challenge that we thrive on: how to create a brand that is contemporary and global, while at the same time, rooted in or inspired by a particular culture. I am also pleased to welcome Dayo as a sponsor of Afri-love!
Dayo’s story indeed exemplifies the beauty of collaboration and also, the crucial importance of preparation – research, learning, planning, and partnership. It’s a great example of how, by setting off to solve a problem you’ve experienced in your own life, you can create an enterprise that serves others.
Enjoy and make sure to check out the ‘Free Bag Friday’ give-away details, below the interview.
What’s your passion?
Uncovering new things.
What inspired you to start Toghal?
Well, we moved to the UK from Kenya about 18 months ago. I’ve been used to always having African textiles and artifacts around me. We brought some – but the usual (what we know as African) wax print, wasn’t quite working for me. We live in the Sussex countryside. The spaces here need something different – whether it’s related to the weather and needing to hug stuff, or the quality of the light, or the smallness of the space… I knew I needed Africa in my home, but I was also aware it had to be re-interpreted somehow, to work well. I could get lots of Asian influenced items for the home – in a variety of textiles, from silks to linens, from wool to voile. But for African fabrics, I only had one widely available option – cotton, and generally in loud patterns or bright colours. I craved variety, and I wanted to extend the designs into other items in the home – lampshades and kitchenware for example. And so, because I couldn’t find what I wanted, I decided to create Toghal, to do just that.
What has been your greatest obstacle/challenge?
Leaving the comfort of what I know, and delving into the unknown. I was starting from scratch and trying to find out how to design, print, manufacture, market and launch an ecommerce business. I’m not a designer, simply an avid collector of textile books over the years. I’ve spent years working with data and concepts not physical things, but I used to sew my own clothes when I was a teenager. So, the challenge is really channeling my enthusiasm every day, keeping at it, reminding myself of the things I don’t know, and the things I can do, and constantly pushing at doors until one or two of them yield, and the next little step in the business can happen.
How have you dealt with/overcome it?
Firstly, I prepared in advance. I spent time researching and saving up some capital to get started. I wrote a business plan. I talked to friends who’ve started businesses before. I went to meetups at Google Campus to get the London vibe in the startup world.
Secondly, I found a business partner. I knew I didn’t want to start a business alone. And it’s been fantastic having a partner who has a tech background, but who approaches problems from a very practical point of view. He’s already saved me from myself a few times already. I cannot overstate how important it is to simply have another viewpoint when making key decisions. Someone to say: have you thought about this? Or, if we did it like that instead, it would be cheaper and quicker.
Thirdly, it’s about building collaborations. It makes life a lot more fun, you meet interesting people. One of the ways we have done this for example is in meeting people who are specialists in particular aspects of African textiles, and who are willing to share their knowledge with us. As we market ourselves, we market them as well, so that other people get to know about their books, textiles or curatorial skills too.
Finally, being curious and wanting to learn new things has served me in good stead. I’ve picked up lots of odd little things that I could not have known before. Learning that the basic building block for textile designs are called tiles, for example, so that the designs have to be ‘end where they begin’ at each edge, in preparation for printing. It helps that my personality matches what I need to be to make the business work.
What has your greatest achievement been?
Simply getting started and figuring out how to make all the bits fit. As I sat one day stitching up a sample, I had this image of my mother saying ‘Child, if only you had told me all those years ago that you wanted to become a seamstress. You could have saved yourself all this studying.’ She’s very supportive by the way, my mother I mean. It’s just that she worries about my hare-brained schemes, and whether this time I am going to come a cropper.
What’s kept me going have been the many mini-thrills along the way. The company registration certificate. Yaay! Getting the final, final, textile designs. Getting the first printed samples. The logo. It’s still a thrill whenever an order comes in, and a few days later, our payment provider – Stripe – do their thing and the cash pings into the bank account.
Where will you be in 10 years?
In my mind, I’d love to get to being the ‘Marimekko of African textiles’, where we develop our own distinctive re-interpretations of heritage African design, and apply them to many things for the home – from bed linen to crockery.
It would be great to establish a concept store, which fits seamlessly with our online operations. It will offer a physical space where customers can interact directly with our products.
I recently read a book about how fractal patterns are common in African designs. It’s the thing that gives it an extra kick for me, that makes it endlessly visually interesting. I think we have captured that in many of our designs in our first collection. My personal favourite is our riverbed design, because you can look at it and see very many different things. Shifting sand shapes, for example, with the occasional rock or tuft of grass stuck aggressively in it. It was inspired by Mbuti designs from the Congo rainforest, which one art book described as containing an intrinsic syncopation, similar to what you find in jazz – the riff and rhythm of it. Where you think you understand it, and suddenly you don’t, because it surprises you yet again.
Another thing that has struck me while doing the textile research has been that the majority of these designers have remained nameless. We don’t always know who they are, but through hundreds of years, they have passed their knowledge down to others, who have endlessly re-invented variations in the designs. It really does seem like a homage, a tribute, to previous generations, to be able to breathe a contemporary life into these heritage designs.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I love data and also love being creative and my life has been a yoyo between. For years, my work life has been alternating between the two. I used to model data for malaria research, and then ran a business developing data driven websites, way back beyond. Occasionally, I’d take a break into the creative – I wrote a novel, and after a dip into the microfinance world, tried to run a social enterprise with the Masai in the Rift Valley. Until a year ago, I was running financial sector research projects in Kenya and Nigeria.
What’s brilliant about my life right now is just the sheer variety of each day. I get to indulge both the geeky side of me by reading about the mathematics of textile design one minute and the next, I’m writing a blog article about entrepreneurship. One minute I’m discussing what pop colours to use in our summer collection, the next minute I’m trying to make sure the VAT return balances. At this stage of the business, I’m doing very many different things, but as I’m planning on us growing fast, I expect that some of these tasks will become more specialized, but I hope I get to keep at least some of the fun bits, and the variety.
Anything we should look out for in the coming weeks/months/year?
We’re not keeping still. We are launching our textiles in spring/summer colours and introducing a range of kitchen and picnic items. We are already planning our second collection for the autumn. Our plan is to travel across Africa and showcase heritage designs from different places with each annual collection.
… And now for the GIVE-AWAY!
Every Friday in February, Toghal will be giving away free tote bags. In order to enter, simply visit www.twitter.com/toghalonline and retweet the ‘Free Bag Friday’ message.
I’ve got one of these bags myself and it’s such a treat. It’s roomy enough to fit all the bits you need each day – from laptops to books to groceries! See my colleague, Kathryn, modelling hers.
Images: photographs courtesy of Dayo Forster; Dayo’s portrait photo by Lyndsey McIntyre, 2013; product shots by Marcos Bevilacqua. See more of the visual identity, print and digital materials that Asilia designed for the Toghal brand.
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