When Sophia Danner-Okotie began her fashion design company, Besida, in 2015, her goal was to provide work for people in her home country of Nigeria, and she decided to use fashion as that vehicle. “It started with just a few designs—five or six—and people responded very well to it. Since then it’s expanded and now we have customers from all over the world. It’s definitely grown to a place I didn’t expect it to.”
“Besida started with me wanting to couple my American upbringing with my Nigerian roots,” says Sophia, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States with her mom when she was nine years old. Most of her family still lives in Nigeria, so her connection to the country remains strong. Besida, in fact, means “destiny determines all” and is a female name from Sophia’s native tribe, the Itsekiri.
Her first designs were inspired by things that were already in her closet—basic clothes that she wanted to see in the bright colors and bold prints she grew up seeing. “I wanted to take modern clothes that we wear here in the states and mesh them with those traditional African prints from back home. Most of the cuts are simple, like you would see in any store, but what sets them apart are those prints. It was about me trying to marry the two sides of myself together.”
Growing up in the U.S., Sophia wore jeans and tops, skirts, and other traditional American clothing, but didn’t wear any African styles or prints. “I was actually ashamed of it,” she admits. “When you’re growing up, you don’t really want to stand apart. Even ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been caught wearing an African print anything!” But in college, she says she started to understand her roots more fully and embraced and appreciated her heritage and its fashion.
A Fayette County High graduate, and a University of Georgia alumni, Sophia has no formal training in fashion design, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She took some courses in fashion styling and did a few internships to learn more about it. As Creative Director of Besida, she focuses on the aesthetic and translating her visions, with the help of her business manager, into sewing patterns for her team of five tailors to create ethical and affordable women’s wear at her workshop in Nigeria.
Her intention is to inspire other people to want to produce items in Nigeria by showcasing high quality products. “The skill set is there. There are tailors literally on every corner. It’s just a matter of using what we have in Nigeria and then showing it to the world.”
Recently, as so many parts of the world were being shut down, Sophia became worried about having to lay people off due to lack of orders and work—but the exact opposite has occurred. Her online sales have been better than ever, she thinks in part because of people staying at home and shopping online. But she has also created a couple of new products that have helped to boost her sales and the attention to Besida in particular.
For the past couple of months, Sophia and her cousin used their own skills to begin making cloth face masks in her signature Besida bold colors and African patterns. “We started matching the masks with some of our garments because we had the fabrics here.” Making 40-50 masks per day, she was able to put them out on the market quickly and encouraged shoppers to match a mask with their outfit. For every mask purchased, Sophia donates one to first responders. And now that the industry has regained some ground in Nigeria, her team is producing masks and matching head wraps there as well.
While Besida does not have a storefront, they do pop-up shops all over the country including one that took place at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in December 2019. From the incredible response she received at the event, the museum has since commissioned many of Sophia’s printed head wraps and face masks to sell when it reopens beginning this month (museumshop.high.org).
Going forward, Sophia is planning some fundraising to bring solar power to her workshop in Nigeria, as there is a bit of inconsistency in the utilities there. She wants to find the right process, at the right price, to run her facility efficiently, so that her team can continue to work in a stable environment. She is also looking forward to getting Besida products into boutiques and chain stores. For now, find Sophia’s designs on Instagram @shopbesida, and shop her collections at shopbesida.com.