When she emigrated to the United States in 2002 to join some of her family members , Uche Udibezue simply wanted to study Nursing. But, having graduated in 2008, she managed to stay in the profession till four months ago when she swapped caring for patients with making people look good. During a recent interaction with TUNDE OYEDOYIN at the Royal Commonwealth Club, London, she spoke on the burning desire that made her switch careers.
Tall, elegant and with beautiful, but big eyeballs that actually fit her calling more than the profession she trained for, Udibezue really looks the part of a fashionista as she walks gracefully from the reception to a side room where the interview is taking place. I don’t often come across women who are almost my height, but Uche is one of the few who stand shoulder to shoulders with me, literally.
She exudes the radiance of a model and you can’t have guessed that this delectable young woman was taking blood samples, checking patients’ temperatures and squeezing her big frame into a nursing uniform just some months ago . Of course, her mates must have settled down into their careers and working various shifts to make a living. But, these days, you’ll obviously never find the 35-year-old in a ward. She has none of the accessories of medical personnel either and doesn’t even talk the language, except when referring to her most recent former life. Now, it’s about markets, designs and getting stockists to order her Omak Designs label, which is a couture high –end clientele.
So, what led to the “Road to Damascus” experience and why leave a secure job to venture into the crowded fashion market ? “ I realised I had to put that on hold and pursue my innermost passion, which is fashion and that’s how Omak Designs was founded, and launched in Maryland on June 13,” she says. Despite being just a newcomer , she’s already dreaming big. “I want Omak Designs to compete and conquer the United States, Europe and Nigerian markets,” she quickly adds.
But how did she get into fashion in the first place and why did she make up her mind to pursue it just two years after becoming a nurse? She attributed her love for fashion to her childhood days in Nigeria, where she was the third of six children. “I remember my mum would always buy stuff and because she was into fashion, that caught my attention. My father was a politician with the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and was in the frontline of things, but I was always around my mother and that made me go to the Yaba College of Technology to do a course in dress making.” Reason being: “ I really wanted to know more about fashion.”
Then, a few years after studying at YabaTech, she moved across the Atlantic, did the training, qualified as a Nurse, only to put the certificate in the drawers. She shed more light on her decision.
“I decided to pursue my calling. While in nursing school though, I started coming to Europe , sometimes I would come here to London and at other times, I would go to Switzerland to buy fashion accessories and selling labels and it was going well.” Friends and family members who had seen her leaning towards the fashion business encouraged her and so in June , she dumped her nursing uniform and decided to work with fabrics. “ I decided to take the bull by the horn, because it was like the passion was almost choking me and that led to the launching of Omak Designs at the prestigious Alumni Centre at the University of Maryland ,” where former Miss America, Ericka Dunlep and former Minister of Finance, Kalu Idika Kalu were among the dignitaries in attendance.
But why did she go into nursing when she knew what her passion and ‘calling’ were all along? “ I’ve always been a caring person and while growing up, I always put others ahead of me. So, going into nursing was a way of giving something back.” Another reason she gave for venturing into nursing was to enable her understand the society she had moved into. “It was like a waiting game, because I wanted to study and understand the society. Then, it’s in my nature to care for people.”
But considering that nurses are always in demand and that new businesses often fail within the first five years of being launched, Uche says none of these bother her and that she doesn’t look at the dark side of things. “I’m not hoping it won’t work. I always go into everything believing it will turn out well.” Uche disclosed that she’s actually been making her living from the business even while doing her training. “For four years, I shuttled from Switzerland to London to buy items which I then resold to my clients. During those four years , my income was from this business. I was known for that and because of that, even my friends kept asking me, why don’t you sell your own label?” So it was something that didn’t take anyone by surprise when: “I decided to take the bold step in June.”
What type of designs is her label? “My line is COUTURE line, it’s a high end market.” Although there may not be any big name clients on her list yet, but she’s quite optimistic that the demand is there and that there’s a gap waiting to be filled. “Over the years, I’ve spent time to observe how blessed we are as Africans and that got me thinking and asking myself that if I go into fashion business, how do I want to project myself? How do I want to be known?”
Being based in the U.S, you would have thought Uche would have switched her loyalty like she swapped the white uniform for coloured fabrics. But there’s no mistake on where her loyalty lies. “I want to be seen as a Nigerian designer and I’m very proud to project myself that way and would therefore like to work with African materials. I’m excited to project African materials to both the American and European markets.” Part of knowing where the gaps are in the industry is what led to her enrolment for an online course at the Penfoster College . She noted that : ” that’s just to get more awareness about the fashion industry,” not to add to her craft.
Does her training as a nurse give an edge or impact her fashion calling? ”Initially, I didn’t think it was going to connect, but later on, I realised it connected perfectly. A part of nursing involves psychology and studying people’s mind, so as a designer, I can look at someone, read their minds and tell them what will be good on them. At the same time, I don’t impose anything on my clients. I’m someone who likes to meet them in the middle. Despite what I feel is good for them, I’ll often ask clients, how do you want to be represented ? I also ask them to tell me what is good for them.”
Given the choice of choosing between caring for lives and making people look good, what would her preference be? After a little hesitancy, she said: “ I’m not going to compare. But all I will say is that making people look good affects their self –esteem , which itself can affect their health. The way we look contributes to our self –esteem, because self-esteem is not just about your job or background, self –esteem can affect a person’s mental state, so I’m still caring for people.”
But why not continue caring for them as a nurse? Why did you dump the profession ? “I didn’t dump nursing, it’s a matter of passion. I’ll want to be a nurse and enjoy what I do, but I couldn’t ignore my passion any longer. I’m still taking care of people, but in a different way.”
Will she ever go back to nursing? “They say never say never, but at this point I’m not looking at that, because at this moment, I’m enjoying what I’m doing now.”
Does she have a fixed working shift? I don’t have any and each day actually differ from the other. Sometimes I work into the early hours of the morning.
Which one tasks the brain the more? With nursing, there’s someone standing there who’s teaching you, but with fashion designing, it’s more tasking, because it’s creative. It’s your thoughts,” and your call.”
Story by TUNDE OYEDOYIN