So where we left off was…I went to fashion school and learned the design and sewing trade. I wanted to start my own fashion line, but wasn't completely in love with any of the fabric I'd been working with. I was lost. So I put the dream on hold and focused heavily on my day job.
And this is how everything changed.
For my day job (of running the Insider program at Microsoft--a community of 17 million tech enthusiasts from every country in the world), my partner-in-crime, Jeremiah Marble and I decided that we needed to learn about the tech needs of the most common profession in the world: the entrepreneur. And guess where the most businesses were being created? Lagos, Nigeria. Nigeria has 180 million people, 80% of them identifying as an entrepreneur. Even if someone had a day job, they definitely ALSO had a profit-making side hustle. So we decided to get on a plane and do a longitudinal usability study to understand how Nigerian entrepreneurs used tech and make sure the tech we made at Microsoft fulfilled these requirements.
Over the course of the next six months, we met 45 amazing entrepreneurs. Not only did we learn about their tech needs, we also learned a TON about how to start and run a profitable business anywhere in the world. We documented everything we learned in our book, Model 47: A Startup Storybook.
For one of our team's last nights in Lagos, we were invited to a traditional Nigerian dinner. The organizer, Paula took a look at the wardrobes we'd brought (lots of free tech t-shirts and hoodies, of course) and shook her head, "This will not do." She called a local tailor to come and take our measurements to make formal Nigerian clothing for us. I was immediately nominated by the group to design the women's outfits ("you're a fashion designer--this is your JOB!"). So I did--a few basic sketches inspired by the dazzling outfits we'd seen around the city for the past six months.
Early sketch of a formal Nigerian outfit
Once the tailoring was completed, all of us were wow'ed by our new outfits. The brilliant colors and the interesting shape was nothing like what we were used to in the US or Europe. I loved my outfit so much I wanted to wear it again and again. So did my co-workers Raji and Nikki. Alas, the strapless tops and floor-length skirts were not the most versatile for daily wear.
Ready for a formal Nigerian dinner in our brand new hand-tailored outfits
This experience of falling in love with fabric stayed with me even when I returned home to Seattle. After six months of thinking about it, I finally reached out to Leah Otieno, one of the entrepreneurs we had met. She was based out of Nairobi, Kenya and worked to bring together artisan tailors with people who wanted custom couture clothing in a two-way platform called Mshonaji. I designed a simple wrap-around dress and asked Leah to help me find some great local Kenyan fabric and a tailor to work with remotely. I was extremely picky on high-end tailoring, luxurious silk lining and reinforced stitching on any "pull" points (engineering!) and we went back and forth with technical sketches for a bit.
A lot of early morning conversations followed and after about 4 weeks, this arrived in the mail.
The first real Prima Dona MVP that I loved
I wore it everywhere. Meetings. Presentations. Dinners. Trips.
Everywhere, in every city I went to, people stopped me on the street.
WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?
Presenting at Microsoft in a Prima Dona for the first time
I asked my friend Cynthia Tee, who is a fashion aficionado as well as being the VP of Engineering at Nordstrom to try it on. She loved it. She asked how she could buy it that day.
My amazing friend, mentor and role model Cynthia who was my first "real" tester
And then I realized…this was it. Creating classic shapes done in the extraordinary fabric I had been seeing all over the world…all hand-tailored by artisans making a living through their tailoring.
I had my first MVP product that not only was I in love with, but others were too. Now what? The story continues...
Lesson Learned: It's a long game. The skills you're learning today maybe not be applicable today. It may be something that will be relevant to you in 1-2-5-10 years. Before you can connect the dots, you must COLLECT the dots. So go and gather experiences and skills. You never know when they will come in useful!
Dona is the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Prima Dona, the world's first ethically made bespoke fashion line for women. To learn more about us, visit us here: https://primadonastudios.com/