“This Is the Thing That I Cannot Not Do”- Aprelle Duany, Founder and CEO APRELLEDUANY | Lifestyle | KenyaBuzz
Lifestyle

“This Is the Thing That I Cannot Not Do”- Aprelle Duany, Founder and CEO APRELLEDUANY

29 Oct 2015 | By Damaris Agweyu

A dream, surviving a war, a decision - Exclusive interview with founder and CEO of emerging luxury lifestyle brand APRELLEDUANY.

“I have seen you before, do you have kids that go to school nearby?” I ask Aprelle during our first encounter.

“Yes”, she says before we sit down. She is one of those women you notice straight away, her height for one. She is tall. But more importantly, she has this understated confidence about her, the quiet conviction of someone who knows exactly what she is doing with her life. If she had a name like Jane, Catherine or Susan, I wouldn’t have started with this question. But she doesn’t. So I did. Just to be sure.

How do you pronounce your name?

It depends whether you’re American or South Sudanese…but tell me, how would you pronounce it?

I am not sure. How does your mother pronounce it?

April .

And how would it be pronounced in South Sudan?

Ape- relli.

And you’re American, obviously?

Yes.

So how does the South Sudanese pronunciation even come into this conversation?

Well, my husband is South Sudanese and my first encounter in Africa was in Juba, where we lived for about 4 years.

This is going to be interesting, let’s start from the beginning

I grew up with very modest means, I didn’t have what you would call a privileged life so I worked really hard in school to be able to craft, for myself, the best future I could. I studied computer engineering then later information studies and got a job at PWC in Manhattan. It was a great job that paid well and gave me exposure into the business world, but after a few years I became detached from my role and longed to reconnect with my creative gifts.  Having built a great resume and strong professional network, I decided to go back to school and study design. At 27, I was the oldest student in the class, my classmates were all straight out of high school, people who always knew what they wanted to do and went for it early. It was a 2-year program but due to my work experience and previous degrees, I was able to accelerate it to one year.

You sound smart- and brave

I am a nerd.  And I always knew what I wanted to do, just didn’t have the courage to pursue it at first.

When did you meet your husband?

In New York, we went to college together and we met on the first day of school. We were both athletes, he played basketball and I ran track.

Was he a good player?

Fantastic! He even got a scholarship and played professionally.

So you followed him around a lot?

No! I always thought of myself as a career-oriented woman.  It was my responsibility to build the life that I wanted; our relationship was, for a long time, long distance. After we got married and had our first child he really wanted to go back home to South Sudan. He was very successful in the US but it never felt quite like home for him. Even though he had left South Sudan when he was only 4, he was compelled to go back and help rebuild his country. That was after the civil war ended.

And how did you feel about that?

It was difficult to even consider moving to Africa, from the Western perspective, you only see poverty, starvation, and general sadness when it come the portrayal of Africa.  Needless to say, I was not excited. At that time, I considered myself a frequent international traveller, but as an African-American woman married to an African man, I never envisioned moving our lives to Africa.

And yet here you are

Yes, started with South Sudan.

What made you say yes? To the move?

It was a sense of responsibility and fulfillment of my roles as a new wife and new mum; I wanted to do what was best for my young family.  

From New York to South Sudan- I can think of easier transitions

I know!  I suppose my upbringing helped, we didn’t have much, but then again, until South Sudan, I had no idea just how modest life could be. My whole perspective on life changed after we moved to South Sudan, it was a very humbling and awakening experience.  When we first moved to Juba, there were no roads, no electricity, no plumbing.  I had no real understanding of the culture and could not speak the language; it was a very difficult time.  Although it was a challenge, it was an experience that I don’t regret.  Eventually I realized that South Sudan happened for a reason.

Which, in this case was…

It taught me never to take things for granted. It taught me to use what I had. It taught me that I could make something out of nothing.  Ultimately, I found out that I was a lot stronger than I thought I was.

What is the something that you made out of the nothing you had in South Sudan?

I started a nursery school, inspired by my daughter, name Juba Kidz Zone, now it’s called the American School of South Sudan. I also started an NGO for adolescent girls with an emphasis on sports as a way to build social skills and confidence.  The adolescent girl in South Sudan is often times ignored and disadvantaged.  Many times her worth is seen in terms of marriage, we were passionate about providing a mentorship to allow the girls to express themselves, enjoy their youth and open their eyes to their full potential.

Interestingly enough, the busier I got, the easier my time in Juba became. When we were expecting our second child, we knew Juba would not be able to be a permanent residence due to the needs of our family grew. My husband and I came to a compromise; we would stay in Africa but move to Nairobi. I had only been here on transit. I had no idea just how great it was.

You mean compared to Juba?

No! Compared to anywhere! If I took a picture of us here right now (We are at Artcaffé in Lavington Mall) and posted it on social media, people might guess its London or New York but they would never guess its Nairobi. It’s so sad that people’s perceptions are like that and even for me, it took coming here to change my viewpoint. Conversely, people here have very a distorted view of what life is like in the US, it’s not all that you see on TV.

So you like it better here?

I love it here.  All the negative talk about insecurity, corruption, these things are everywhere in the world, they are not specific to Africa. Because of my previous experience in Juba, when I came to Nairobi, I didn’t do it with the “I know better than you” attitude. I didn’t have the “I am a savior” mindset that disrupts many people’s experiences here.

Ok so now you have made the move from Juba to Nairobi, what next?

Chasing my dream, finding my place in the world of luxury. I did some volunteer work and consultations then was introduced to Ann McCreath of KikoRomeo. I was involved in the business development side of things, getting into international markets…it was great but I was restless, I kept thinking about doing something for myself, becoming an entrepreneur.  

As I was developing my entrepreneurial plan, our family went back to South Sudan for a holiday visit. While we were there we even considered moving back, because of all the potential and opportunity the country had. South Sudan is the kind of place that with hard work and persistence you could succeed in many sectors. One morning, we woke up hearing gunshots, though we quickly dismissed this as just a random act.  Except it wasn’t a random act, as more and more shots were fired, we realized the situation was more serious than we had anticipated.  South Sudan the country that so many had come back to in order to rebuild, the country we had all been rooting for was, once again, at war. And I was caught up in it, with my husband and kids. We wanted to get out but the airports were closed.  It was the most terrifying, horrible experience of my life, which I was not confident we would survive.  I prayed to God and made a promise to myself and Him that if He got us out, I would never again waste time on things that weren’t important. I kept thinking that if I died here, the regret…the thought that I had had so many opportunities to fulfill my purpose and not taken them, that I had just lived a mediocre life, it would have been very sad.

Luckily, the US Air Force evacuated us back to Nairobi. When we arrived back and got settled in, I knew it was time.

Time to live your dream?

Yes, time to live my dream. Time to honor my gifts, time to make a difference in the world. We each have a God-given purpose in life and we have all been gifted with different talents and skills. To not use those talents and skills for the betterment of others is a wasted life.  

My journey started with a lot of research, because I am that type of person who likes to be prepared, over prepared actually. I looked at case studies with existing luxury brands.  The expectations of products that come from Africa are so low so my research was very intentional. What I am doing is more than creating a brand, I want to help change perceptions about this continent and it is at the luxury level that you find decision makers, people who can effect real change.

So when you say luxury brands, which ones would you essentially be competing with?

As I build my brand and offering, I always set my gauge on market leaders that would include Hermes, Prada, and Channel.  These are the anchors that I look to as a guide when it comes to quality control right from the research to the manufacturing process.

Sounds like a challenge

It is. Particularly the manufacturing process, I have met local manufacturers that don’t respect intellectual property.  When I design a product, this exercise is like performing surgery, I take it very seriously but then some manufacturers will copy it and come up with a terrible imitation, the artist in me gets very offended! Also, the lack of exposure to luxury also makes sourcing and production very difficult, but things are changing.  There are a few groups who are developing model where manufacturing, even at the luxury level, can soon be a reality here on the ground.  It takes a lot of dedication and persistence, but we will get there.

MORE: Aprelleduany: Emerging Luxury Brand Challenges Perceptions of Africa

How is business?

It’s good, I have received great feedback. I recently had what I don’t want to call a launch but an exclusive showing at the Sankara where I invited the Top 40 Under 40 women to interact with my products and have conversations about perceptions about Africa and luxury.

So your typical consumer is a woman under 40?

Not necessarily. But she is definitely on top of her game. She drives a luxury car, likely married with children, has a college degree, and is entrepreneurial or executive. There is also the aspirational consumer, someone looking to connect with a brand that meets their aspirations. They take pride in their appearance, self-confident, not easily swayed, works hard for their success. I put a lot of thought in the design process to reflect this.

Are you that woman?

Yes.

What’s the most important thing in the world to you?

That’s easy. To be a great role model for my daughters.

And who is your role model?

Strong women who have the audacity to do the thing that no one else has accomplished, Wangari Maathai, Maya Angelou, I admire such people. I call them trailblazers. I also admire my mum. She is such a strong woman but not in the aggressive sense.  When she was a stay at home mum, she did it because she wanted to, later, she wanted to be an entrepreneur and guess what, she went out and did that. My husband’s mum is also a pioneer; she is one of the strongest women I know. I have been lucky to have many strong women around me, my aunties, my grandmothers; this brand honors these women.  In turn, I want to be a positive role model for young girls as well, if my story can encourage a young girl to follow her dreams, then that’s good enough for me.

What’s been your greatest challenge so far?

Properly capitalizing the business is the current challenge.  With so many opportunities at my doorstep, capital will be key to best position the business for long-term success.  Getting seed investment is difficult, even with a great product. Currently, unless something is tech-centric or agricultural, it is not taken seriously. And it’s not just me. I have met some awesome designers who just don’t have the funds to take their products to the next level. There really should be more support for entrepreneurs and SMEs.  Globally, the fashion industry is valued at over $1.7 Trillion and is driven by emerging markets.  It’s the only industry where you have a burgeoning consumer-base that is ready and willing to purchase new products every 3-4 months.  That is a huge opportunity for investors to participate in.

Low moments?

I used to have moments of doubt, would my audience really understand or support Luxury inspired by Africa?  Now, I don’t let fear have an impact on how I develop my business. Simply put, this is the thing I cannot not do.

So what’s next?

New York Fashion Week.

You’re showcasing?

Yes, in February for the new fall 2016 collection.

Impressive! How did you get the hook up?

I presented my catalogue to one of the organizers after having worked behind the scenes at the last Fashion Week.  This goes back to my point about being prepared; I already had a catalogue before I even started selling. You never know what opportunities will come knocking but when they do, you’d better be ready.

You must be excited- and proud

I am very excited. And I am proud that I am finally doing this, the fact that I made the mental decision to just go for it. It’s a relief, honoring oneself.

Are you coming back?

I have no plans of moving anywhere else, this is home for me.

What’s the one thing about Nairobi, Kenya that you love and wouldn’t find in the US?

The lifestyle.  If I had this kind of lifestyle in the US, I would probably be working many jobs, which leads to lots of stress.  The culture and environment here in Nairobi supports a balance lifestyle: being a mum, a wife, and an entrepreneur. 

For more information please visit : www.APRELlEDUANY.com

LinkedIn: Aprelle Duany

Instagram: AprelleDuany

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