Nana Poku was an undergraduate when his love for fashion and creativity fused together and birthed the idea of owning his clothing line. With his friend Kwaku Awuah, the President of the company, they are building 54 Kingdoms into a one-stop center for afrocentric fashion as they tell the stories of the African diaspora through the pieces they create. From designing edgy tees, they have diversified to include men and women fashion clothing, accessories, and travel bags. Enjoy our chat with him on life, entrepreneurship and the future of his blossoming enterprise.
KA: It is great to have you on our forum. I must ask though; is ‘Nana Poku’ a common name in Ghana?
Nana: Thank you, and it’s truly a pleasure to be here. Yes, “Nana” and “Poku” are two common names. Nana has an interesting definition. When used for males it can symbolize/represent king or prince. For females, it represents a queen or princess. Obviously I fall in the male category (haha).
KA: That’s indisputable. Let’s get to know the person behind the brand; what are your full names? Where in Ghana are you from?
Nana: 54 Kingdoms is run by my partner (Kwaku Awuah) and I. He is from Enyan Denkyira, which is located in the Central region of Ghana while my roots are found in Kumasi, located in the Ashanti region.
KA: Where did you grow up? Any childhood memories you would care to share?
Nana: I spent a large majority of my childhood in Accra, Ghana. My memorable moments are the last days leading up to school going on break. There is a particular day called “Our Day”, in which the students bring specially prepared home-cooked foods and it’s a day of celebration and enjoyment.
KA: Awww, sounds amazing! Onward though; do tell us about your education; where did you school, what did you study?
Nana: I went to school in Ghana till I was thirteen years, which placed me in class six (“class” is the U.S. equivalent of “grade” in Ghana). I then came to the U.S. to continue my education. I followed through my college years as an undergrad at Central Connecticut State University, and then a graduate degree with a focus on Graphics Information Technology at the Arizona State University.
KA: What is your experience as an African in the diaspora? Many ‘diasporans’ complain about some forms of rasicm; ever seen or been at the receiving end?
Nana: Racism, I believe has always been around. It was just a matter of when I was able to recognize it based on my mental development. There is even racism in Africa, where I find we as a people at times treat ourselves worse and hold those that don’t look like us to a higher standard. Within the diaspora, I got the typical questions, such as “do you live in houses in Africa?” or the typical piercing eyes I feel upon me when I walk into some stores.
KA: A little background on your fashion designing; how did you start off designing clothes?
Nana: I was in undergrad (2006) and had an opportunity to work on a project for one of my graphics classes involving printing of shirts. At the same time, a friend of mine introduced me to a website that sold apparel with text based designs similar to “I love Nigeria” and other designs involving national recognizable symbols, such as the coat of arms – which I thought was pretty cool and honorable to represent where you are from. While an undergraduate, I also worked at a place called the “Center for Africana[NP1] Studies” where I realized a lot of individuals within the African Diaspora had similar stories but until we talked about it, we never knew of these similarities. All these elements fused together allowed me to establish the ideology of 54 Kingdoms, a clothing company that told stories through fashion in order to highlight the African Diaspora.
KA: Did you have any prior experience in running a clothing line prior to founding yours?
Nana: I actually never thought of fashion as a career outlet. It was just a means of expressing ideas/concepts. Maybe, my failure to reorganize fashion initially as an outlet was due to the fact I was punished in class six for having my stitches on a sewing project look as if it was done with a machine. The teacher didn’t believe me so she thought it was best to beat me for it.
KA: [Punished for doing something too well?!] So tell us about 54 Kingdoms…what was the inspiration for the name of your clothing line?
Nana: The name itself, 54 Kingdoms, has a significant meaning; the number ‘54’ symbolizes the total number of countries in Africa, when the company was established (2009) and the word ‘Kingdoms,’ signifies that each and every African country is a part of a larger kingdom spanning overseas to include the African Diaspora.
KA: Was it a solo effort ie the decision and eventual formation of 54 Kingdoms?
Nana: The initiative started off as a personal project and campaign of mine but eventually I realized that there was a higher possibility of achieving success by working in a master mindset group where individual(s) shared a common vision and worked as hard for each other to see the realization of a larger vision. That’s why Kwaku and I teamed up. We both have unique skills and appreciate each other for the work and expertise that each brings to the table.
KA: [That’s some CEO advice right there.] What challenges did you face as such a young entrepreneur and designer?
Nana: There is a lot that would have aided us if we had prior general fashion skills, expertise and knowledge, terminology and techniques that would aid us in communicating with our manufacturers, but in the long run, these are elements that we are constantly picking up as we mature in our career.
KA: What were the initial financial commitments required? Did you have to borrow or bootstrap?
Nana: Starting a business at a young age will always have its struggles (even when you are not young); trying to get funding to operate the business isn’t an easy task. 54 Kingdoms learned at an early stage of its development as a company that, we will have to count on no outside funding besides our own because a large majority of investors want to see you make it first before they back you up.
KA: Where there any mentors who showed you the ropes, or did you learn on the go?
Nana: Specifically in fashion, No. But we did learn bits and pieces from other individuals whose expertise run in alignment in running businesses, such as finance and accounting, community involvement and law practitioners. Our mentorship in fashion came organically, by learning from and interacting with our peers such as Kozby World, Washington Roberts, Toriola, Black Bird Jeans and Chianu International most of which we met during our showcase at the 2010 Africa Fashion Week New York (AFWNY).
KA: What inspires your designs? Love? Nature? People?
Nana: 54 Kingdoms designs are inspired by the diverse cultures of the African diaspora and the history that connects them all together. We believe everyone has a story to tell and we are here to do so through our fashion and share that story with the world.
KA: You design way more than clothes? So 54 Kingdoms is now much more than just a clothing line?
Nana: That is correct. We are currently involved in the sales of accessories such as necklaces and bracelets, in addition to our production line of Sankofa travel bags.
KA: Any plans to establish a physical presence in Africa?
Nana: Yes, we have plans to physically establish a brick and mortar store, but at the current time we are in partnership with several vendors. Our newest partnership is in Ghana. People in Ghana can purchase our products from Aya Morrison Atelier (1st Nii Tetteh Kwei Street in Dzorwulu, near the Dzorwulu Presbyterian Church).
KA: Where do you see 54 Kingdoms in the next half-decade?
Nana: Besides 54 Kingdoms products being available globally for purchase at department stores and our brick and mortars, the vision is to own a creative hub, where we can produce almost everything in house – design, fashion and technology. One thing we strive for at 54 Kingdoms is building a legacy – which can sustain and provide long-lasting opportunities for other ‘creatives’.
KA: What can we expect from 54 Kingdoms now? A new collection? Amazing prices?
Nana: Haha…well I don’t know about “Amazing” prices but we promise the “perfect” price point for quality, style and innovation in fashion. We are currently working on our next collection, which we aim to release sometime in August.
KA: Read up on some charity work you participated in; do shed some light on that. I hope Africa will benefit from your charitable pursuits in the near future?
Nana: 54 Kingdoms places a premium on being a good corporate citizen by working to enrich the communities it serves. In 2009, the company incorporated a Community Outreach Initiative (C.O.I.) policy. Each year, through donations and/or collaborations, the company works with an existing non-profit organization serving people and communities within the African Diaspora. The primary focus of the C.O.I. includes: Education, Positive Youth Development, Human Rights and HIV/AIDS and Agriculture. In 2011, we went to Haiti after the Earthquake with our partners Edeyo Foundation. 2012’s partnership led to the launch of the Ghana Youth Awards alongside Africa Youth Network (AYONET).
KA: What are your hopes for/about Africa?
Nana: I hope to one day see the birth and realization of what was supposed to be the original U.S.A. – United States of Africa.
KA: Inspire an African youth with one sentence.
Nana: If you want to travel fast – travel alone, BUT if you want to travel far – travel together ~ African Proverb.
Thank You Nana!!!