Eze Nwaka, owner of Leather + Cotton, has secured two international deals in the US and Dubai all while maintaining a full-time job
Born and raised in Nigeria, Eze was drawn to fashion from a young age and was highly influenced by his five siblings’ impeccable style. With a creative streak running in his blood, Eze was never satisfied at his 9 to 5 job desk jobs, despite working in various industries throughout his career. That’s when he decided to return to what he knew best ‘ fashion. I was born and raised in Nigeria, and from a young age, I was very much into fashion, thanks to my five trendy sisters and brother who were on top of their fashion game. Seeking a better life, I soon arrived in the UK, and although I worked in various industries and sectors over the years, I was never completely satisfied in any of my roles. Frustrated by my trials and tribulations I asked myself one day… What are you great at? What comes naturally to you? And that’s when I returned to my childhood passions, my roots in fashion and the rest is history.
Eze’s creative mind and a keen eye for details gave him a knack for innovation and creation. Eze was keen on starting a business in fashion, and funny enough, the idea for shoes came to him in a dream. In 2014, Eze’s shoe brand Leather + Cotton was born. Eze made it a mission to revolutionise the British shoemaking industry with innovation and originality with bespoke designs, versatile styles and great attention to material and fine details. Leather + Cotton focuses on impeccable designs without compromising on comfort.
My interest in fashion, design, and generally just being trendy started when I was about 14 years old. I possessed an innate ability to coordinate colours and styles, which made it easy for me to put images together. It wasn’t until the idea for my shoe brand literally came to me in a dream one night that I really started to take my passion seriously. I saw the style, designs, and colours in such detail that I knew I had to make that dream become a reality. It took several months of hard work and research for my brand to come into fruition.
I felt innovation and originality were missing in the industry! Eze added, Historically, the shoemaking industry is very traditionally English, but times are changing, and we need to take inspiration from new fashion trends. I know tradition is always tradition which I respect, and I’ve kept the essence in my work, but we need to evolve, we need soles with soul! Also, there are not many Black-owned companies in the British shoe manufacturing sector, but I aim to become one of the leaders in the industry and inspire other upcoming Black designers in the process. The industry needs to be more representative of the diversity that we are lucky to have here in the UK.
When it came to designing his shoes, Eze has relied solely on his fashion instincts never having had any formal training or attended fashion schools. Despite making several mistakes along the way, Eze has learned and grown his brand to reach the masses, securing a deal with the US and Dubai ‘ and all while working a full-time corporate job.
It took some time to put the pieces together from registering the business and designing the shoes, to raising the initial capital and sourcing manufacturers, Eze explained. What was even more challenging was the fact that I never had any formal training in the shoemaking industry, nor did I attend any fashion schools. I trusted in my abilities, dedicated almost a year to research, and made several mistakes along the way, but this prepared me to level up and has brought me to the stage that I currently am with the business.
To call those early stages hard is definitely an understatement, Eze continued. My journey so far has been very difficult, especially the financial aspect and not having any financial support in the beginning. Not to mention running my business while maintaining a full-time job, which I still do today. The shoe industry is a very challenging sector to get involved in especially if you are doing something bespoke and building something original from scratch, so I underestimated the amount of money involved in starting a footwear brand.
The journey to getting start-up capital was no easy feat for Eze. In the early days of launching Leather + Cotton, Eze was rejected for a bank loan – so he had to get creative. Eze sought out crowdfunding options and even used his savings to fund his business. He eventually stumbled upon four investors who believed in his brand, allowing him to scale up his business to incredible heights.
The banks didn’t want to help me, they wouldn’t even give me a business account, so I had to literally get out there on my own, crowdfunding, meeting with potential investors and using my own salary from my full-time job, Eze explained. I even borrowed money from the high street with a 50% interest at one point, but luckily, I found four people that believed in me and invested in my business.
I would say I got my ‘big break’ when I finally secured investment, Eze continued. The most difficult part was having to convince someone that these amazing ideas that I had in my head were viable and profitable, as I had no proof of concept at that point, but I needed money to make my ideas manifest. So, you can imagine my shock when I pitched my idea to my first investor and all he asked was ‘how much do you need?’ That was when I knew I was onto something more than just a dream.
Eze described himself as someone who would never give up and owes his success to his ambitious and determined attitude. never gave up on his dreams and has praised the Department of Trade and his Internation Trade Advisor at DIT for guiding him and giving him the support to ensure Leather + Cotton was heading in the right direction. Leather + Cotton is also planning to launch its first women’s collection next year. The day that I decided not to give up on my dreams and to believe in myself is the day that my mindset really geared up for success, Eze said. After making this conscious choice, I went looking for help in areas that I struggled with and I came across the Department for International Trade (DIT). My International Trade Advisor (ITA) at DIT has guided me and given me the support that I needed to ensure that my business was headed in the right direction. Also, through exploring international markets it has opened my business up to even more opportunities.
It’s also important to remain patient and remember that nothing happens overnight, he added. To be a successful entrepreneur you have to be in it for the long run and focus on the end goal, so I have learnt to believe in myself, trust in my abilities, and most of all, believe that my dreams are possible regardless of the naysayers.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, Leather + Cotton has faced its share of struggles and obstacles as lockdown has taken a massive toll on Britain’s retail industries. However, Eze decided to use the opportunity to focus on social media and PR marketing to keep their customers engaged and build customer loyalty, which he believes is paramount to the success of his business. The brand has also built its e-commerce platform in a bid to increase their online presence. We decided not to order any more stock from the factory in the meantime to maintain the current budget, and we also had to postpone our U.S retail launch to a more convenient period. We have really been focussing on cost-effective social media and PR marketing to keep our customers engaged, updated and informed of our presence and our loyalty to them. We decided not to order any more stock from the factory in the meantime to maintain the current budget, and we also had to postpone our U.S retail launch to a more convenient period, Eze said.
I think it’s just about pushing forwards as usual and focussing a lot more on e-commerce sales and marketing. We are planning to launch our women’s’ shoe collection by next year which is very exciting! I have been designing and redesigning the collection for quite a while and working closely with the production team in Portugal to ensure everything is perfect and exactly how I envisioned it to be. Following this, we will be looking into creating our bespoke accessory range, which will be something quite different for the brand and very interesting. So, watch this space, Leather and Cotton London will be bringing much more soles with soul!
In a few words of advice to other SMEs struggling during the pandemic, Eze said: Find and connect with experienced business mentors who can guide and help during this difficult time. There are various outlets, such as your council, local business online webinars, or DIT that has dedicated ITAs who can arm you with useful information to ensure you are on the right track. Arrange a meeting with your local branch bank manager and see if they can help with loans, or join an online networking community so that you can meet similar businesses and exchange information and ideas that could prove very useful.