When Zainab Aliyu decided to embrace the creative side of her genes, she did not immediately think ‘luxury leather bags.’
“I am a chartered accountant, but I come from a family of creatives…so I always knew that I was one,” she tells me over a recent phone interview. “My older sister is a fashion designer, so I tried to partner with her in her business. But it was quite obvious that it was her baby and even though I was involved, I was sort of on the sidelines, and I kept looking and thinking of my own thing.”
A mundane visit to the Lekki Craft Market at Jakande in search of bags for a friend who had come visiting from the UK would be the answer to this burning quest, however, and it was a chance meeting with a bag maker – after several failed attempts to get the ‘it’ bag at the right price – that would lay the foundation of what is today known as Aaboux.
“I met this old man and I was like, ‘Look, I want my bag to be like this.’ So I started drawing and [writing down the specifications]. As I was doing that, I was excited, my creative juices were flowing. I never really knew I could draw. I was quite proud of myself and happy, and I came home telling my husband, ‘Oh my God, I drew these two bags, I can’t wait to see them next week!’ and all that stuff.”
But when she went back to pick up her order the following week, Zainab was welcomed with the stuff of horror movies. “Where I wrote make this part plain, make this part patterned, he swapped it and he said ‘oh, I’m really sorry, I can’t read.’” Undeterred, she sat down with him and explained what she wanted while he made the bags. “ I made the bags that I wanted and I thought, maybe this is my calling and my thing; my way to explore my creativity.”
A visit to the Lagos Leather fair In April of 2017 “opened my eyes to the opportunities within the industry” and Zainab was certain she was in the right place: she was going to be Nigeria’s premier luxury leather bag maker. And so, after taking a not-so productive course on bag-making; after countless hours of research on exhibitions in Milan and Paris; and, after deciding on the name of her business – Aaboux, from the pet name her mum used to call her: Zainabou-abou – she set out for Kano, the epicentre of leather and leather goods in Nigeria, where she hoped she would learn more and get workers to follow her back to Lagos.
“I registered my company in September 2017, and from then, I was trying to find workers. In January when I went to Kano, I also asked people there that I wanted to find workers. A lot of the workers in Kano were like well, send us your drawings and designs, and we will make it for you. And I said no, I need someone to come with me to Lagos. And when they heard Lagos, it was like a totally different country and they weren’t keen on coming down.”
Finally, in October 2018, after an exploratory trip to Paris and Milan, Zainab was able to get two men, descended from generations of bag makers, to come to Lagos and work for her.
“From the onset, I was very particular about how I interacted. I communicated my vision, my plan and what I wanted us to achieve… I wanted to play global, I wanted to be known for excellent quality and I kept reiterating this in everything that we did.”
What makes an Aaboux bag unique?
“Every Aaboux bag starts with a design, a drawing on paper,” Zainab explains to me. “I then make a prototype to confirm if the design is okay. This is done using stiff cardboard that is tweaked to perfection. Once it is a satisfactory design, I transfer to leather. The leather is for the outer layer of the bag, but for the inner layer, I use suede because my bag is luxury and I want the whole process to be luxurious. My bags are stitchless in line with my vision to create amazing bags and products. When the people sewing stitch [a bag], they tend to not follow a straight line and leave threads hanging here and there. So I had researched stitchless bags, and after the first trial… a lot of my bags that came subsequently were variations of that particular bag.”
“Now, once the bag comes together, the edges are ever so carefully filed to make it smooth and we use edge dye paint for the edges of the bag which is the most tedious and painful part of bag making. Any slip of the hand and you end up with a stain on the bag you cannot get rid of. Next is the base, main and top coat. And then comes the hardware: the chain for the hands, the rivets, the label and all of that.”
“All Aaboux bags are limited pieces: we don’t make more than 5 bags from the same leather which is in line with my vision to make them the ultimate collector’s items. Once my bags are gone, they are gone, giving them the feeling of exclusivity. I want people to look forward to collecting my bags with the knowledge that this could be one of one or one of two. But when people push me and beg, maybe I’ll make five. But five is the most I have made in the same shade and in the same leather. The leather I use is delicate and special, and they are by-products from ethical farms that do not kill animals just for the sake of killing them. I have had people ask if I can replicate a bag and I say, no, we don’t do that. It is down to my vision. I source leather from all over the world that cannot be seen anywhere. My fave thing in the world is to go leather shopping and I find things that people have never seen before. Lastly, our silhouettes are all unique.”
Going through Aaboux’s collections till date, I make the comment that most of the bags seem to be rather small. “My bag sizes are a combination of my vision and customers’ demands,” explains Zainab. So, for example, I just finished making a briefcase. It was something I have always wanted to do, but I fast-tracked it because it was a request. I made the D bags during the lockdown period. It is bigger than the Mila and the Mira with a different structure and it can take an I-Pad. Again, this was based on customers’ requests.”
What is your favourite piece from all your nine collections, I ask. “That is like asking me to name my favourite child! But I would say I am partial to the Mira. Mira was named after my daughter and it was the first bag that I made and sold that ticked all the boxes. Followed closely by the Dija bag, maybe because I am a mum and trying to go out with two kids and holding their hands and holding a water bottle can be tough. So I’ll say the Dija bag because it is a bag that can sit on my waist while holding everything I need.”
The must-have Aaboux bags for the modern woman by Zainab Aliyu
For the modern working woman: the Diva bag. It is perfect for your iPad, your diary, your makeup bag and wallet. It is a roomy bag that is so structured and beautiful that you are bound to stand out wherever you are. You can also try the Mila. The Mila is really good; it can take a mini iPad.
For a mum or people who like a hands-free experience: I’ll definitely say the Dija which is so practical and beautiful.
For night-lovers: the Jare. It is a clutch with a glove where you can put your hand the whole night. But if you want to put your bag down, then I’ll say the Maya.
We absolutely love an African brand that understands the need for local relevance but with a distinct desire for global appeal. So to Aaboux we say ‘Well Done’ and we can’t wait to see your next collection!