Skirting Rags to Fashion Line Riches

For designer Onyii Brown, it all started with a wrap skirt.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen January 5, 2016 Published in the January 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Onyii Brown started her fashion line in her Houston garage in 2013, with $125 and a dream. A dream about a skirt. By September 2015, she was showing her Onyii & Co. collection at New York Fashion Week Africa. Her effortless designs—colorful, cascading halter dresses, breezy linen jumpsuits, crop tops covered in bold bird prints—belie the journey Brown traveled to get there.

Brown and her family moved to the United States from Nigeria when she was three years old, landing at JFK airport wearing sandals in the middle of winter. Her father worked as a janitor and pizza-delivery guy while finishing his doctorate; her mother worked and went to school full time. Living in poverty in Amherst, Massachusetts, the family drove from dumpster to dumpster, foraging for food thrown away by college students, and got free clothes from a community center—which had the salutary effect of inspiring in Brown a lifelong love of fashion.

“We’d get all these vintage clothes, so I developed an appreciation for vintage ’70s fashion at an early age. I love that style, so I’d start cutting things and tucking things in so they’d fit properly,” she says. For Brown at the time, the donated clothes were a better choice than her other option: traditional Nigerian dress. “I hated our African outfits,” she remembers. “I loved the fabrics, but the silhouettes sucked. They did not have any type of style.”

Encouraged by her parents to focus on her education, Brown grew up to attend the University of Massachusetts, for a time focusing on fashion marketing, the closest thing the school offered to a fashion degree. After an internship in New York, however, she recoiled at the competitiveness of the industry and went on to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration and marketing instead. After graduating, she donned a business suit, moving to Houston and landing a job in commercial real estate in 2003.

In 2008, the recession hit. She left her industry, which had bottomed out, and spent some time managing HOPE Africa, the charitable organization started by her brother, Super Bowl–winning NFL safety James Ihedigbo. But mostly she went on interviews. Brown’s friends called her the “interview queen.”

“I was the most interview-having chick ever with no job. I had three or four interviews every week, and I’d always be the runner-up,” she says. One company told her they drew straws to choose between her and another candidate—she lost. At another interview, the hiring manager told Brown she wanted to hire her, but something was telling her not to. “I got back in my car and just started sobbing,” says Brown.

After her husband Humphrey was laid off from his job in 2013, Brown would lie awake wondering how they were going to pay their mortgage. Then one night, she woke up with a vision of a wrap skirt in her head. The next morning, she dug through her garage and found a sewing machine, plus a suitcase full of fabric she’d bought in Nigeria. Though she’d occasionally made pieces of clothing, Brown was essentially untrained in sewing.

Nevertheless, she sat down and made her first skirt on the kitchen table at her Eastwood bungalow. (Her family has since moved to Glenbrook Valley, where her home also has a studio space.) “I texted a picture of it to my friends and said, ‘Would you buy this from me?’ They felt sorry for me and said yes,” laughs Brown.

That was the beginning of Onyii & Co. Brown started an online shop at Etsy, where she quickly found an audience for her colorful printed garments, made with vintage clothing patterns she found on the same site. “It was a hustle,” says Brown, who was also taking fashion design classes at HCC, completing her homework assignments in between fulfilling customer orders.

Her success is indicative of the way the Internet age has created opportunities for budding designers and other entrepreneurs. Jazz singers Debórah Bond and Somi found her flowy wrap dresses online and started wearing them during performances, which brought Brown to the attention of shops like Nubian Hueman in Washington, DC. Locally, the owner of Melodrama Boutique reached out to Brown because customers would come in and ask for Onyii & Co., having seen the clothes on Instagram.

“Social media has changed the game,” she says. “There is no way little old me would have been able to break into the market otherwise.” Brown now has a team of three seamstresses, a local manufacturer, and two distributors in the U.S. and Canada. Last September, Martha Stewart named her a finalist in her annual American Made Awards.

Brown’s latest collection—the one she showed in New York—is less traditionally African, inspired instead by the laid-back silhouettes and gauzy fabrics of Mexico, with just a sprinkling of bright, geometric prints thrown in. To Brown, who counts Diane von Furstenberg as an inspiration, as long as it’s beautiful and comfortable, it’s true to her style. “Everything I make is incredibly personal,” she says. “I represent my demographic: a well-traveled woman who wants comfortable, fashionable clothing, who wants it to feel right, who wants to make the right kind of statement.”

Nearly three years after dreaming of her first wrap skirt, Brown feels she’s found her calling. “My path was totally divine—every single step from the idea of the skirt popping into my head. So many times I’ve wanted to quit, but a voice inside says no, and then I get these calls! I get Fashion Week, I get Martha Stewart,” she says. “I’ve had many, many signs. I get up knowing there’s something greater out there for me.”

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