Ifeoma Ubby, founder of la­bel Oliveankara, brings the West African fab­ric to Sin­ga­pore.


Why Ifeoma Ubby loves this West African printed fab­ric.

Ankara, also known as African wax prints, is a cot­ton fab­ric char­ac­terised by its colour­ful print de­signs. And like Ifeoma Ubby, it has a mixed cul­tural back­ground.

First cre­ated by the Dutch us­ing a batik-in­flu­enced fab­ricdye­ing method, ankara re­ceived a luke­warm re­cep­tion in the In­done­sian mar­ket, which it was orig­i­nally meant for. It later found pop­u­lar­ity in West Africa, and is now widely used there for ev­ery­day as well as spe­cial oc­ca­sions.

Ankara was ever-present in Ubby’s youth, even though she was raised in Italy; her par­ents are Nige­rian, and her mother and grand­mother were skilled seam­stresses.

“We used ankara for ev­ery­thing – as pil­low­cases, to cover the sofa, as a robe for after show­ers, and as a fab­ric to wrap ba­bies with. My mum also made dresses with it. It was all around the house,” Ubby says.

Ankara moved with her to Sin­ga­pore when she re­lo­cated here as a Na­tional Can­cer Cen­tre post­doc­toral re­searcher five years ago with her boyfriend (now hus­band). And the fab­ric not only per­formed its usual du­ties as cush­ion cov­ers and lamp­shades, it also be­came the sub­ject of Ubby’s side­line as the fash­ion de­signer of Oliveankara, an on­line store for ankara-based wom­enswear and ac­ces­sories.

When she got mar­ried in 2016, she had two ankara dresses made for her wed­dings in Sin­ga­pore and Thai­land. “For my Reg­istry of Mar­riages wed­ding, I de­signed the dress and got a seam­stress to help me cre­ate it us­ing an ankara fab­ric that I loved. For my big wed­ding in the Phi Phi Is­lands, I had an amaz­ing dress made by my mum. I told her how I wanted the dress to be – a tube dress, with a long tail, and lots of stones – and it came out re­ally nice. She did an amaz­ing job.

“At that time, I was al­ready think­ing about start­ing Oliveankara, but it was when I ac­tu­ally saw my own de­signs ma­te­ri­alise in the form of my wed­ding dresses that I de­cided that, yes, I will do it – let’s try. And I am glad I did.”

To pre­pare to run her la­bel, Ubby took a five-month sew­ing course at Fash­ion Mak­erspace in Chi­na­town to learn to make her own sam­ples. “Once I started draw­ing my de­signs, I couldn’t stop. I drew so many. But I re­alised that I needed to learn to make those draw­ings a re­al­ity, so I en­rolled in a sew­ing course. It taught draft­ing, cut­ting, and sew­ing us­ing your own body measurements. I started with the basics, then learnt to cre­ate a top, a skirt, and pants.”

In De­cem­ber 2016, three months after her wed­ding,

Ubby placed her first ankara or­der for her busi­ness. All the fabrics are from Nige­ria, where Ubby’s cousin helps with sourc­ing and ship­ping. In March 2017, she started dress­ing her friends in her de­signs, and in June, she of­fi­cially launched her la­bel. Oliveankara now stocks an ever-ex­pand­ing se­lec­tion of prod­ucts, from jump­suits and ear­rings to totes and shoes.

To keep fab­ric waste to a min­i­mum, Ubby uses up to 97 per cent of the ma­te­rial. “The idea is to go zero waste. Throw­ing away a lot of fab­ric that can be used for some­thing else is a no-no for me. So I use what­ever is left from mak­ing clothes to make head­wraps, head­bands, bracelets, rings, and ear­rings.”

She is also help­ing to em­power less-priv­i­leged women through Oliveankara. “Sin­ga­pore gave me this op­por­tu­nity to build this brand, so I would like to give some­thing back to Asia. Ev­ery­thing is made lo­cally now, but I plan to have them made by women in other parts of Asia next time – women who don’t have jobs, or who face dif­fi­cul­ties in find­ing jobs. I want to teach them a skill – sew­ing – and give them a job.”

Right now, she is help­ing women in Rwanda. “I am work­ing with this co­op­er­a­tive in Rwanda that helps wi­d­owed women who don’t have in­come for their fam­i­lies, to send their chil­dren to school. The co­op­er­a­tive teaches them to hand-weave bas­kets, then gets re­tail­ers be­yond Rwanda to buy the prod­ucts. I buy the bas­kets from them and sell them at Oliveankara. On top of that, I give them at least 10 per cent of my prof­its from the bas­kets, just to give some­thing more.”

The key dif­fer­ence be­tween batik and ankara: the front and back of batik fab­ric dif­fer from each other, while both sides of ankara are al­most the same.

Ev­ery ankara print tells a story. The pur­ple one is named Sika Wo Nta­ban (which means “money has wings”) or Speed­bird, and “en­cour­ages peo­ple to be care­ful with money, or else it will fly away like a bird”.

Ankara will feel stiff at first. That’s due to the wax used in the dye­ing process. It will soften with wear and re­peated washes. Ubby rec­om­mends ma­chinewash­ing her prod­ucts at no more than 30 deg C.

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