Valentina Utoh is the founder and Creative Director of Onyx by Valentina, a style and interior design brand that brings art to life through handmade embellished pieces. Founded seven years ago, the luxury brand is renowned for its avant-garde, distinctive and elegant use of craftsmanship to express the uniqueness of every item. A graduate of Applied Chemistry from the University of Uyo, she found her true calling in fashion, style and interior design, which she describes as art meeting sophistication. The Imo State native dumped the sciences to follow her passion as an interior designer in 2005 and has never looked back since then. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she spoke on her career journey so far, effect of COVID-19 on the industry, and how local creatives can rebound.
From Applied Chemistry to interior decoration and fashion industry is quite a leap, what informed this switch?
I have always had strong love for arts and beauty; my love for creating and recreating things and bringing pieces out from my creativity was a major propelling force to my fashion and interior journey. The passion of creativity has always been embedded in me as I grew up in a home with a father who was an art collector of unique interior decor pieces from around the world. So, it was no real surprise when I followed suit. I have always been surrounded by the love of art and it is deeply related to my passion in creativity and influences me a great deal.
You’ve had an interesting career trajectory, tell us a bit about your journey so far?
My journey has been simply nothing but God’s grace and deciding to finally follow my passion in the love for art has His hand all over it. It’s been a worthwhile experience and journey as it started off from very humble beginnings; gradually I grew and blossomed to what and where I am today. I would soon mark two decades in this career journey and it has been a lot of sweat, hardwork and refusing to give in even in the face of daunting challenges.
You say you bring art to life with your work, what does that mean?
I simply say art is life. As everything around us exudes art in its own way, so do I exude my love for art through my pieces, hence bringing it to life. I describe art as an expressive language of oneself. It’s an individual, authentic expression of the artist’s mind and ability; it’s truly unique and peculiar to the artist. So for me, it’s simply my inner expression of my artistry and birthing it to reality for others to enjoy and partake in.
This year has been quite tough on your industry. As a key player within, what’s you take on the state of the industry right now?
I’m a strong advocate of “do what you love and you’d never call it work.” I kept creating throughout the year because after a while, it’s not just about the clothes being sold, but also the huge connection people have with your creative pieces. It was most definitely a tough year, but passion is a huge driving force that is a major requirement before any business venture. It keeps the business going even in turbulent times and after.
Were you personally affected and how are you looking to rebound?
Maybe in numbers as it was a tough period for most of us but it definitely did not affect my creativity. It sure was a period of less purchase for certain goods especially in this industry, as people weren’t just shopping for clothes or art items. But they have always seen our pieces as collectors items, so it was relatively easy to rebound quickly.
With the situation of things, would you say there are still untapped opportunities in this space?
Every day births new opportunities and innovation, we all just need to look inwards and around us to discover these opportunities. Some may say there is nothing new under the sun, but I believe that every thing around us births new ideas for a creative, nature and all. It is usually quite brainstorming, but interesting to continually bring my best foot forward despite all.
The global fashion and design industry is worth billions of dollars and several industry stakeholders have lamented that Nigeria is yet to fully access the market. Do you share this sentiment and if so, what can we do to change the narrative?
We are hugely talented in Nigeria and I strongly believe more is yet to come from us. I believe it is more of Nigerians being tenacious and harnessing our talent properly and the world will come to us. The artistry amongst our entrepreneurs, especially women, is highly commendable and world class. Also, we are very vast in culture and highly travelled people with a natural flair for high fashion.
What would you tell new comers who are still struggling to make it in the industry?
Don’t give up; it’s never easy, I won’t deceive you. Your tenacity and passion is paramount, your passion is what will see you through especially during the difficult times. The journey is not usually easy from the beginning but the persistence of any passionate creative is always very yielding and rewarding at the end.
You mentioned you are passionate about women empowerment, tell us some of the things you have done to help women in this regard?
Women are very important to me and it gives me great joy to see them succeed in all areas of life they aspire to. I have been invited as a speaker in women forums and have picked a few passionate women to mentor personally. It is a true privilege and honour to share some of my life experiences of my journey to other women to encourage them that indeed it is doable and achievable.
How important is mentoring, especially for younger women looking to find their way?
Mentoring younger women is very important as it goes a long way to keep them on track and not give up on their dreams. Sharing my own experiences on my own journey is a huge motivator for upcoming entrepreneurs. It makes them know that their growth and aspirations is not abnormal and they are all processes for attaining greater heights.
What is the future of the fashion and design industry?
It is very promising as we see new upcoming and existing creatives and talented minds doing exceedingly well. The creatives are seen to be much more passionate, being inspired to do much more in their different areas of fashion styles.
Has there been any personal experience that made you want to throw in the towel?
None to my knowledge; I strongly believe that my performance is by the grace of God and my tenacity to excel. Performance is truly not wished upon oneself; it is a worthy walk of perseverance and passion and mine has been hugely fuelled by God’s grace.
What is your passion, what drives you to keep succeeding?
I am passionate about the outcome of my creations and my love and hope in God drives me to keep succeeding. The results of passionately putting in work through artistry and the impressive work of art that results from the labour of love keeps all in awe by God’s grace as it continues to keep us succeeding.
How would you rate women entrepreneurship in Nigeria, are you happy with the number?
It is phenomenal and it is amazingly growing in leaps and bounds everyday. The growing numbers are evidence that it is truly doable and that is very encouraging to me and anyone that wants to see women succeed.
You lead a very busy lifestyle, juggling many things at once. How do you manage to keep everything running smoothly?
I plan properly; I have a scheduled routine and delegate when I need to. Efficient planning is key to results in any field of endeavour and in a very mentally engaging job as mine, it is important to have proper planning to balance work and family properly so you don’t burn out.
What last words do you want to leave with women reading this that have been inspired by you?
I say this to women, ‘Yes you can,’ don’t give up; it’s all worth it. The results always do come. When you also love what you do, it makes the process so much smoother and easier to see it as a way up the ladder and learn the ropes as you go up. I have a lot of role models. I draw strength from every hardworking and honest woman I meet, irrespective of status, tribe or age. Women are truly unique. The beauty and essence of role models is to guide you as you grow and guidance in different ways and dimensions are found in different women as we are a wealth of knowledge and tenacity, so, I don’t restrict my role models to a few.
Year 2020 has been peculiar. Despite all that has happened this year, do you think it worthwhile to celebrate?
Every single day is a gift. After my father’s passing a few weeks ago, it is more imperative to celebrate every new day. We will continue to celebrate as we wake up to each new day and celebrate the end of another year whilst looking forward to a better new year. If things didn’t go as planned this year, it’s not the end of the world, as next year is another opportunity to start afresh and fulfill your dreams.