It feels almost too obvious to state that thirty-one days could never come close to being enough time to celebrate and commemorate the numerous achievements of Black people in this country, let alone the world. In this series, we set out to mark the period from the perspective of Black History being something multifaceted and living, and so this week I interviewed the ever insightful and inspiring Esther Agbolade.
Oxford graduate, Executive at Campbell Lutyens, Student Advisory Board Member at the Oxford Foundry, and Entrepreneurial fashion icon in the making, are just a few of the many impressive caps she wears. As she so aptly puts it, Black History is rooted far in the past extending into the present, and it is something that Esther “lives with, lives from, and hopes to be a part of”. Our discussion covers everything from BHM to reflections on her time at Oxford, to fashion, e-commerce, creative inspiration and her latest startup: Seven Aso.
I first met Esther the week I started Oxford at the annual Fresher’s Fair. Back then she was the ACS President and I was an excited fresher working my way through the labyrinth of Exams Schools. She had been managing the Oxford ACS booth for a few hours but greeted my group like we were old friends, her trademark smile and infectious positivity instantly putting us at ease. Anyone who has had the privilege of getting to know Esther can attest to the fact that she embodies excellence, and brings a special energy and dynamism to whatever she does.
Firstly how are you? (so much has happened in the past year, globally and personally, can you talk a bit about this moment, what you’ve been up to since graduating, how you spent lockdown)
All things considered, I am doing well. The last year or so has been such a rollercoaster, so I’m trying to take the time to count my blessings and be grateful for them all. Emotionally, I’ve been through it! But haven’t we all? In this time I’ve felt emotions like I’ve never felt them before but I’ve also had a burning drive ignited. Graduating, or rather pressing “submit” on my last exam, was bittersweet. It was far from the ending I had hoped for, but I was extremely grateful to start the new chapter of my life.
Since graduating, I’ve been working on so many things at once and it has really added light to the dark moments of lockdown. I started a programme, Quarantine Classrooms, where I tutored students in Maths, English, Public Speaking and Debate (with the help of the lovely Sabiya at LMH!); I choreographed a short film; started a new job and created Sevyn Aso, a clothing line that supports entrepreneurship in Nigeria. Its been a busy few months but there was nothing else to do!
Before we go on to discuss Sevyn Aso, could we take a moment to discuss/reflect on your time at Oxford, and what it has meant to you?
I look back on my time at Oxford with some very fond memories. As cliché as it sounds, I met some of the most amazing people who continually inspire me and I feel like I began to step into the woman that I see myself becoming. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard and at some points seemed like an immovable barrier to me living my best uni life but I don’t think I’d trade it for anything (except perhaps the same experiences minus all the essays/exams with an actual graduation ceremony?).
When I started at Oxford, I felt like a very small fish in a very big pond but thanks to the likes of Oxford ACS, the Oxford Foundry and Oriel College I found that my voice was magnified far more than I could have hoped for. I really am grateful that students like myself were/are given the chance to have a meaningful impact during our time at Oxford.
Your work on Sevyn Aso is so inspiring, can you talk about how you came to the fields of entrepreneurship, fashion, and e-commerce?
I’ve been into entrepreneurship for a while; I started my first business when I was in year 10. It was my dad’s influence (he loves all things business, finance and entrepreneurship) combined with my interest in everything from art to economics. The fashion aspect came a little later. The first time I realised that fashion was a way to tell a story was during a trip to Nigeria, something you can read more about at www.sevynaso.com!
Since then I have really been interested in how other people put outfits together and the colours/shapes that underpin my own style. It’s hard to be the fashionista you’re destined to be on an SFE budget and a student schedule, so I can’t say I always fulfilled my fashion mandate, but it was something I was definitely interested in.
I was totally blown away by the aesthetics of Sevyn. When you first launched I remember thinking how lovely it was to have something beautiful and fun and black-owned at a time when there was so much heaviness and weariness on social media, especially within Black spaces, it was a really amazing show of (Black and African) joy and talent. Can you talk about the Sevyn Aso style, what has informed it, whether you have a muse/muses, what makes a Sevyn Babe and the role you see social media playing in your brand’s future?
When you look at Nigerian (and more generally, Afrocentric) fashion it is often very bright and colourful and so regal. But I wanted to appreciate a different side to Afrocentric fashion that was inspired by the beauty of nature in these regions. The browns, blues and greens that perfectly complement our skin tones. I wanted to really emphasise the fact that in the same way that Africa is not a monolith, neither is our fashion nor our craftsmanship.
A Sevyn Babe is someone with an international flair. Someone who wants to see the world, through fashion if not physically. Someone who can connect with those beyond their own borders. I think social media is the future of this brand. It is the thing that connects us all, especially during this lockdown. It is a way for us to share Sevyn’s message and reach a global audience. It is the way that those who do not know me can build trust in the brand.
Do you have a 5-year plan? Can you elaborate on it, or if no, elaborate on what you do instead/your approach to the future?
The five-year plan for Sevyn is to expand beyond Aso (clothes). Sevyn was born to be something more but just so happened to start with clothing and fashion. I hope in 5 years that the brand is not merely synonymous with me but grows a name and a platform in its own right. I don’t want to talk about it too much but for now, I’ll say watch this space.
Part of the reason I was so keen to feature you in the Black History Month series is that I think it is so important to approach Black History as something living/alive and active. To me, it is as much about the past and those who made history as it is a time to reflect on who is currently making history, and how we tell stories, what it means to collect and to organise lifetimes, memories, personal and group narratives etc. Can you talk about what BHM means to you, how you mark it? And maybe about historical figures you are inspired by, or perhaps history you are interested in or interested in making?
Firstly, I am so glad that this interview is being released in November because black history is to be learnt about and celebrated every single month. Black history to me is so much more than the diversity panels and posts of diaspora achievement we see once a month and sparsely after then. It goes farther into the past, it extends into the present. For this reason, I can’t say there is anything in particular that I do to mark BHM because it is more than a momentary point to be bookmarked; I live it, live with it, live from it and hope to be a part of it.
I really hope to do whatever I can to help other black people make history, whether that be in their families, their schools, their countries, whatever. I want us all to feel like we are a part of black history and not just spectators to a history that has been filtered and then fed to us every month.
Side note: Black History or Black existence needn’t be conventionally groundbreaking or heartbreakingly traumatic before it is spoken about. We deserve to see ourselves in a range of different ways just because.
Finally, we have a few quick-fire questions that we end each interview with:
What is something every student should know?
The student loans company doesn’t play with those repayments, smh!
What is something every student should do?
Something different that is out of your comfort zone.
What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?
Your online lectures!
Shop the collection at www.sevynaso.com