by Cat Johnson on Jan 12, 2011
25-year old Ibi Oluwole turned a childhood sewing lesson into a full-time job.
Llike a lot of young girls, Ibi Oluwole played with Barbie dolls. She found however, that the outfits that came with the dolls didn’t really appeal to her. “I never liked the dresses that came in the box,” she recalls, “so my mom used to sew Barbie dresses for me.”
Eventually, her mother handed over dressmaking duties to her daughter. “When she got tired of making them, Mom taught me how to sew,” says Oluwole with a smile.
Oluwole, who is originally from Nigeria, was 12 years old when she started making Barbie dresses. By the time she hit high school, she was designing and making dresses for herself, including a detail-rich, ivory lace dress for the senior prom. “It took forever, and I wish I would have just bought it,” she says, explaining that the mid-thigh-to-floor beading took three months for her mom and her to finish. Though a bit harrowing in retrospect, the experience stoked Oluwole’s passion for fashion and she set her sights on a career in the industry.
After high school San Jose–based Oluwole spent 2 1/2 years designing dresses and jewelry for boutiques in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Maryland, while working on a business degree at Santa Clara University. After graduation, she attempted to get a job in fashion, but her business background didn’t open any doors for her in the industry. “I didn’t have a fashion degree so I didn’t get a lot of responses to résumés I sent out,” she confesses.
But Oluwole did have a good idea and a workable business model. For her capstone project, she had developed an executive summary, a business plan and a financial plan for a clothing boutique in Santa Clara. Though she had no intention of actually creating the boutique, the less-than-enthusiastic response to her résumé inspired a second glance at the idea.
“I found myself thinking, “This could be doable. Let’s just see if it works,” she recalls.
Oluwole’s vision of a hip boutique in Santa Clara filled a niche, and in 2007 Ibiss Boutique, initially called I.B.I. Couture, was created. Oluwole started out slowly to get a feel for the retail side of fashion, but as word spread about the new shop—complete with local and internationally designed apparel, shoes, handbags, jewelry, accessories and baubles—Ibiss took off.
In 2010, Oluwole, who is now 25, opened a second Ibiss in Willow Glen. Though the clientele and the merchandise are different from the student-driven Santa Clara shop, Oluwole keeps the overall feel of the shops compatible. “I’m finding that there’s no one formula for it,” she says, “but I try to maintain the same feel and types of styles—like ruffles on a dress or a nice silk blouse.”
Oluwole describes herself as being “obsessed with Paris,” and she tends toward the European side of fashion. She carries dresses with a “French flair”—stripes, bows and blush-colored chiffon—and Italian stretch dresses that are “just a bit edgy.” She keeps the price point low to moderate, has a quick merchandise turnaround (which keeps the store fresh and the regulars coming back), prides herself on balancing quality and price, and believes, above all, that fashion should not be fussy.
“I don’t like clothing that wears the person,” she explains. “I like things that are a bit forward, but not too intimidating, like fashion can be.”
Oluwole also makes a point of putting fashion to work for good causes, having at least one fundraiser per season. “Fashion is something that’s visual, but I don’t like when it’s too shallow,” she says. “I really love clothing, and I think it’s good to use it for good.”
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