Growing up in Nigeria and London, Dinzi Amobi-Sanderson was surrounded by vibrant African wax textiles rich in culture and history. Several years later, while she was living in Sydney and working as a lawyer, she asked her family in Nigeria to send her some fabrics to create pieces for her home in Australia. She soon began designing homewares collections in the evenings as a hobby, and she used her talents to start her business, ULO, in Melbourne.
ULO is a modern African textile and lifestyle brand which focuses on womenswear and homewares, all designed using the beautiful fabrics of Africa. Each piece is designed and handmade by Dinzi and her team in their studio in Melbourne.
We spoke to Dinzi about her vision for the business, the importance of sharing the stories behind the fabrics and her culture, and what’s next for ULO.
First things first, what does the name ‘ULO’ mean?
‘Ulo’ means ‘home’ in Igbo, the Nigerian dialect spoken by my late father and our family at home. I wanted the business to reflect the colourful family home that I was lucky enough to grow up in, first in Lagos and then London, so the word ‘Ulo’ just made sense.
Tell us more about how the business started. What made you decide to take the leap?
Initially I started ULO as a side hobby, designing in the evenings. I created a table linen collection, which I used for a dinner party we were having at home. It led to a conversation that I’d never had with friends around my culture through the fabrics. It was a really interesting evening which made me think that this was very unique, and perhaps other people would be interested in seeing it.
We started the business slowly. I did a couple of markets like Finders Keepers, and that was a great way to test the idea and see whether people liked it before taking the leap. I just believed in it - I’ve got this vision, and I believed in the brand.
About 3 years ago, I quit my job as a lawyer in the corporate world to go full-time with the business, but then six weeks later found out I was pregnant with twins! That was a really interesting beginning. We did the homewares collection, the twins arrived, and then we decided to broaden our range and made a kidswear collection, which mainly stemmed from my desire to create pieces for my kids to wear. After a year of talking to our customers and building those relationships, we launched our womenswear collection early in 2020 - a vibrant made to order collection designed and handmade in our studio.
How did you adapt the business to the events of 2020 and the pandemic?
2020 was quite extraordinary for us. I say that in a really humble way, because a lot of small businesses have been struggling. But because we make everything to order, we were able to pivot quickly and instead of making dresses, I told the team, “Stop doing that, let’s start making what our customers need - reusable face masks!”
And our decision to make the face masks is what has now enabled so many people to discover ULO and what we do. It’s been great to see customers who bought a face mask returning, feeling comfortable to buy something for their home or for their kids or for themselves.
What do you mean by ‘feeling comfortable’?
Our fabrics are really vibrant, so they stand out! I grew up in Nigeria, so to me these fabrics are just everyday staples that my parents would have at home and that we would wear growing up. But I think initially I underestimated how bold they were and the need for people to learn more about them before feeling comfortable enough to wear them.
Face masks were just a little something from ULO that people could wear and start to feel comfortable, then they would often branch out to buy a dress, or something for the kids, or a cushion for the home. So that’s how we’ve survived most of all this year and grown.
Have you always been creative? How have you previously expressed this?
I always loved drawing - I loved art at school. A lot of my family are professionals like doctors, lawyers, dentists, but we all have a very creative outlet. We were encouraged by my parents - a doctor and a barrister - to be creative and appreciate art and design.
ULO is allowing me to feel close to home, raising my kids around colours and textiles that I was surrounded by. It’s allowing me to share my stories and my family’s stories, and so it’s really more than just a dress, it’s more than just fabric. These fabrics are filled with so much history, heritage, beauty, and craftsmanship. So it’s wonderful to make things with the fabric, but it’s the stories behind our collections that I really enjoy telling.
Do you have a favourite product at the moment?
It’s called the Isi dress - a short-sleeved smock dress, which we recently launched in November in different fabrics. I called it the Isi dress, after my daughter who adores dresses and would always tell me how much she liked this particular dress when we were sampling it at home during Melbourne’s recent lockdown.
My favourite fabric is our floral fabric, which is called ‘fleur de mariage’. I chose it for the collection because I was talking to our vendor in Ghana who wore the fabric to his wedding 55 years ago, and he told me about dancing in it with his wife. It was a wonderful story, and because it’s special to him, it’s special to us. So my favourite is the Isi dress in ‘fleur de mariage’, which I adore.
How did you originally get set up with Square?
I’ve been using Square Reader ever since I was doing the markets, and I started with Square because it was a really easy way as a store holder in a market to take payments, and also collate customer details and help build the mailing list. It was really user friendly, so we just started using it in-store now when customers come in and purchase something, too.
What was it like making it through two lockdowns in Melbourne?
It was a very challenging time. Nadya, our production manager, was sewing from her home. Even just trying to get fabric from our studio to my house, then to her, was tricky. She would make a sample, send it to me, and I would try it on in the mirror at home, we would have a FaceTime, and we would fix pieces. That’s how we put together the collection in lockdown, it was crazy!
The lockdown also came with its personal challenges - I’ve got kids who were at home and couldn’t go to childcare, and my husband was working from home.
But I never thought, “We’re not going to make it this year”. I thought, “If we don’t make it this year, then we’re never going to make it.” It was challenging, and exhausting, but we’ve done amazing things and deserved a well-earned rest over the Christmas period. It was a very, very hard year.
Have you got any exciting plans for the business in 2021?
Yes! 2020 is going to be an exciting year for us. We will be launching our textile collections very shortly which will enable people to purchase our fabrics from our archival collections both online and in-store. We are also currently working on a beautiful exclusive range of womenswear pieces using a new range of African wax print fabrics, and collaborating on a few exciting interior projects which will lead into us offering our new custom textile services.
Any parting words?
I’d like to say thank you to everyone that supported us in 2020. It was a challenging year for so many but it was wonderful that so many people were able to discover us and embrace what we do at ULO.