Small Business Spotlight: In Conversation with Caroline Chinakwe

Fashion Designer turned Artist, Caroline Chinakwe is a single mother of 3, living life to the full in her 40s. We sat down with Caroline to chat about her career so far, the issue of colourism and how that’s become a part of her art, re-launching her website (which is now live by the way!) and the advice she would give to black women also wanting to start their own business. 

So sit back, grab yourself a cup of tea or coffee, and read all about Caroline’s inspiring journey so far! 

1. You’re known as an Artist, Stylist, Fashion Designer and Creative Consultant. Could you tell us a little bit about what those roles entail?

It’s interesting because I’m going to have to take some of that off now that i’m focusing mainly on my art. My career started off as a Designer, well actually it started off in fashion production, working behind the scenes with manufacturers. I eventually decided to go freelance as a designer, working for private companies and private clients and I did that for about 10 years because I was a mum at 23/24 and I decided that I really wanted to work from home because I wanted to focus on being a mum as well. So that was the decision that I made then and that was what steered my career, being a mum and also needing to make money. It’s a great decision that I made because it allowed me time to be a parent but also develop my own skills in my own way. It’s one of those things, when you’re self-employed that’s the risk you take.

After that I started going into styling. I did that for about 5/6 years and when I worked in production I started giving a lot of advice to start-up businesses. I also worked for a charity in East London around the Brick Lane area for about 4 years giving manufacturing advice and business start-up advice in fashion. I combined all of these things and it slowly became a consulting role. I then started working on some images for social media but I didn’t really like the content that I had when it came to styling, especially when I was working for magazines. The job was okay but the pay wasn’t great. I also felt that working in the industry for as long as I have and seeing the way girls of colour were treated and used and the boxes they were put in just didn’t appeal to me and the work that I was producing didn’t reflect me as a creative and a stylist. It just wasn’t me, it wasn’t representing me and my culture and who I really wanted to be as a creative. I also didn’t just want to put my face out there on social media, I wasn’t that type of person, it really was about my work. So I started collaging the images that I felt represented me. It was meant to be a way of putting styling work out there and getting more styling jobs based on images I was putting out and at no point at all in the beginning did I ever think it was going to turn into art. I wasn’t even into art. It wasn’t something I was passionate about or cared about. It was just me being creative, putting out images that reflected my styling ideas. And then it just took off. I found myself really loving putting these images together because I was in a situation when I could be as creative as I wanted to be without any restrictions, with no one holding me back, no one telling me what to do. I was collaging images of different dark-skinned models that I found online so I had my own freedom and creativity and I loved it. I started getting really good responses from it and that’s how it all started and transitioned into art, to cut a long story short!

2. You openly discuss the issue of colourism in your work which is fantastic. Could you tell us a little bit more about your stance on this, what sparked your passion for the subject and how are you personally speaking up?

The first collection I did was called ‘This Is Me’ and it was literally all about me and my ideas. The second collection however had a bit more thought behind it. I actually had a couple of pieces that somebody pre-ordered from my original collection titled ‘This Is Me’, or they said they wanted to buy but hadn’t come through yet. This was in 2020 so obviously we’re in a pandemic, I couldn’t force them to buy it but as I was thinking that the next day the person messaged me that they’re still really interested. And that gave me the drive and confidence to carry on with what I was doing. So I posted on social media about it and got more orders and I thought oh wow, people are still buying art. And then I started getting ideas about a new collection which I was really excited about and started producing it at home… and then the Black Lives Matter protests happened and it changed everything. 

I looked at the collection and it suddenly felt like it needed more. I was looking at racism as we know it but a situation happened personally that brought up colourism. Colourism is a big thing, in Africa, in Asia, we all suffer from colourism and it’s horrible to think that even in your own community you’re judged first by the colour of your skin. And obviously this goes back to our wider society and how white people have conditioned us to believe that the lighter you are the more attractive you are, the easier it is to get further in life. We need to address this, we cannot be talking about racism when we don’t even accept each other so this is how the collection evolved. I started looking at different women with different skin tones and as black people we come in so many different shades. There’s no other culture that has so much in terms of colour, from white all the way to dark, charcoal black. But we’re all seen as black people. If you’ve got one little ounce of black in you, you’re black, no matter how pale you are. So that’s what the collection evolved into, it’s collages of different skin tone women that I’ve cleverly put together to create a whole new face. I’m hoping this collection will start conversations about colourism, for us to start acknowledging it and try to eradicate it from our culture.

3. You mentioned how it’s all about starting these important conversations. How can women, especially women who are not black, help raise awareness?

The most important thing that we can do now is start talking about racism. Never before in my life was it ever on the news. Our history has been eradicated for so long, they just don’t want to talk about it. So having those open conversations is crucial. And I get that it’s difficult for white people to have these kinds of conversations, especially right now, they don’t want to say the wrong thing, they don’t want to offend but of course they don’t know because it’s not their culture. It doesn’t affect them and so they won’t know what to say, but say it anyway and let me correct you. 

It’s been happening a lot recently in the co-working space that I work in. I work with women from different backgrounds, different nationalities, and it’s so refreshing to have these discussions where they’re not afraid to say what they feel and let me correct them. And I think that’s the positive that has come out of the last year when it comes to race, that people now know. The term white privilege was used everywhere last year and now we finally understand what it is, what it means and how far it can get you. The recent riots in America at the Capitol and the difference of how they were treated to how the Black Lives Matter protestors were treated, shows clearly what white privilege is. A white man can walk up to one of the most important buildings in America, do what they want, say what they want and they get away with it. Whereas a peaceful protest about justice, about killings, about rights, was taken in a completely different way. 

Going back to colourism, I feel like we also need to educate ourselves. Having those conversations highlights the variety of experiences black people have. That’s the difference between a dark-skinned and a light-skinned black person. If you have light-skinned privilege within our community, if you have that privilege where you can walk into a room and people don’t question you or if you’re in an office, the light-skinned man or woman, although it is more common in women when it comes to colourism, a light-skinned person is more likely to be asked out to lunch with the team or to the pub after work than a dark-skinned person. So as a light-skinned person it’s your responsibility, although we’re not putting it all on you, to be aware that this is going on. When you see this, don’t ignore it, we’ve got to speak up for our brothers and sisters and ask why isn’t that person being invited or why isn’t that person being promoted.

My sister, who’s just the darker version of me, has had completely different experiences than I have and when she told me I realised, I’ve been so ignorant. To me, we’re both from the same mum and dad, we’re both black so we shouldn’t have different experiences but we do. This is the conversation that we need to have with our black community.

4. So much of your personality comes through in your designs and artwork. What was it like forming your own brand identity? Did it become a part of your work naturally?

I’ve always been myself and because I haven’t had that much experience working in a corporate environment, I’ve not had to become someone else. And I realised early on in my career that the fashion industry is extremely cliquey and pretentious. You walk in and everyone’s air-kissing each other, they’re drinking, they’re taking drugs. It’s a world that isn’t natural. And going to fashion shows I realised, this isn’t who I want to be. That’s one of the reasons why it was so easy for me to get out of that industry and focus on doing things for myself. Even though I looked the part and I fit in, I just didn’t like it. I wanted to be able to walk into a room and just be myself. So me stepping out of the industry so early on in my career, working from home and doing freelance came so easy to me. I know that I’m not a shy person or an introvert, I know that I have opinions. I really love the person that I am, it’s something I’ve really worked on. I love my personality, I love my opinions and I know that I can be a bit controversial because I say what I think. 

Saying that though, there’s a difference when what you’re saying is potentially going to millions of people all over the world that have different opinions and have issues going on in their lives. You do have to hold back a little. I do have to tailor it to my brand. You’re not getting the whole Caroline. I’m never going to put something out there that I don’t believe in, everything I say is always going to be genuinely me but it’s not everything you’re going to get.

5. And you’re currently in the process of launching a brand new website? Will this be a rebrand of sorts? What’s your vision for it? 

Funnily enough, the website got completed today! Just before I came online my web designer said it’s all done. What I found last year, before I decided to do the e-commerce website which is what it is right now, the first website was just a portfolio website. And if you wanted to reach me and my work, you would have to send me a message, we would go back and forth. Then I’d send them my portfolio of work, they choose what they want and I’d give them the prices. I realised that people really liked my work enough to go through that process, they were happy to go through that long journey of understanding what they were buying. Most of us want to purchase something after a couple of clicks where you don’t have to talk to anyone. But for someone to go through that journey with you, it really left me humbled and appreciative. This made me realise that I needed a platform where people can buy my art spontaneously. For them to have to message me, it’s going to put customers off. 

The plan was to launch the new collection in September but unfortunately because of the lockdown, I really couldn’t do that and it meant the website was still in development. So while it was still in development, I started thinking what I could do. I always knew I wanted to take my art brand beyond just art, I really wanted to start a lifestyle brand that incorporated art but led to other products as well. I felt that it was something missing on the high street, a brand that represented my culture in not just art but homeware too. So I started working on samples, things like cushions, scarves and chairs all made using my prints. I’ve been going through the whole rebranding and marketing strategy too, and so now the brand is called Chinakwe which is my surname and it will include the art and homeware.

6. Launching and running a business is no easy feat, I’m sure you’ve faced a lot of ups and downs on your journey?

I’ve been self-employed most of my life now and when I was self-employed and doing everything freelance, it was a hustle. I was lucky enough that word of mouth kept me going, I didn’t really have to go out there, people recommended me and it sustained me. And it was hard but I would say the last 2 years of transitioning into art has been the biggest learning curve for me because I was entering a career I knew nothing about. And art is another pretentious industry, even more elite than fashion. 

I learnt a lot about the industry and had a couple of agents, the first one being a white guy. The first thing he said to me was “oh my god you’re a unicorn.” And I had to look up what the word unicorn meant in relation to people and it’s that you’re a rare breed. That there’s not many people like you. As in, I don’t know any other black female artists in the UK like you. I just thought, what are you talking about, there’s loads of us out there, he obviously hadn’t researched enough. It was as if I was this rare commodity. It offended me but at the same time, then, I was too scared to say anything. You know as a black woman we watch what we say, we don’t want to come across as the angry black woman or the controversial one speaking her mind too much. And I did think, should I be offended by this or should I take it as a compliment? But I thought, I’m entering a white industry, let me just shut my mouth and see how far I can go. Things changed when I finished my collection and  showed it to him. He pointed out that some of the images are scary. He said that there’s a couple of dark-skinned girls with blue and green eyes, that might be a little scary, could you change the eye colour? He was trying to change my art. There are people in Africa with blue and green eyes, it does exist. This is us, this is who we are. And at that moment I decided, this guy doesn’t get me. He doesn’t know me or my culture. The funny thing was though that he actually picked one of my pieces in the end for an exhibition in a private member’s club and that work ended up being the first piece of work he sold in the whole exhibition! That taught me a lot about who I want to work with, who I want on my team and who gets what I’m doing. 

In the last year, now that I’ve really taken the business seriously, it’s all the other stuff I’ve had to learn to get right. Things like packaging, shipping issues, contracts, all these little things. It’s a lot and I’m not just the creative, I have to be the business person, the accountant, the marketing person too. I’ve got to be everything and that’s been the hardest thing. I think being organised has really helped. 

The up side has been that I can see my business growing and progressing. I’m loving what I’m doing, I’m passionate about it but knowing the direction you want to take is important to sort out first. They say if you fail to plan you’re planning to fail. You don’t have to write a business plan but just know where you’re going, put it down on paper. And when you see that list being ticked off it really energises you and you’ll start to see everything fall in place. 

Things were up and down but because I was planning and being organised, I didn’t just survive, I grew.

7. And if running a business wasn’t enough, you’re also a single mother of 3! I have to ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind right now, how do you do it all?! Do you have any pearls of wisdom for women who also want to do more? 

Sometimes I feel like I’m winging it! I’ve been a single mother since I was 23/24. My eldest is 24, one of my daughters is 19, she’s at uni and I have an 11 year old who I’m home-schooling at the moment. For me, I think you’re either blessed with good kids that you can more or less control or you have kids that are the opposite. You don’t know who you’re going to get until you have them. I’m lucky to be blessed with good children and they’re doing really well, they’re independent and do their own thing so it’s really just me and my 11 year old at the moment. I’m not one of those parents that has to coddle them either, they just get on with it which has given me the space to focus on my work. But again, it’s really all about knowing who you want to be, knowing the type of parent you want to be, knowing the kind of children you want to raise. I was brought up by a single independent mother myself, my father passed away when I was 12, so my mum brought me and my sister up and she made sure we were independent. And so I’ve grown up my kids that way as well; they’ve always had chores and priorities to make my life easy. I was lucky enough to have good exes who supported me to an extent even though I was a full time mum with them most of the time. Being a full time mum, you really have to be organised. The advice I would give is, grow with your kids. You’ve got to be ready to adapt. That’s the kind of conversations I have with my kids all the time, acknowledging when I’ve messed up and how we can move forward. I’m learning. 

The one thing I’ve always done is prioritise myself. You have to come first before your children, of course you’ll always love them and if anything happens you will be there but make sure you’re happy too. If you’re not happy, your kids are going to suffer. So if you want to buy a handbag that costs a grand, just buy it!


8. What advice would you give black women wanting to not only enter the arts but to run their own business and call the shots?

It’s a difficult one because every black woman has different challenges. Black women are more likely to go into self-employment than any other race. The main advice I would give is to trust in yourself, trust in your ability, don’t doubt yourself. You’re going to have obstacles, but as long as you stay true to yourself and who you are, things will more or less work out. 

And don’t be afraid to knock on doors. Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst that can happen is that they’ll say no, but someone is going to say yes. Not everyone is racist. If we go around having that mindset, that they’re not going to let you in, they’re not going to give you that job, then they’re not going to give it to you. Even if you have to knock on 100 doors before they let you in, go knock on 100 doors. There’s a solution to every problem out there, just don’t give up because of the colour of your skin. Yes it can be an obstacle and that’s not going to change any time soon but if you go out there and prove that you’re worthy, people will take you seriously. Be yourself and don’t take no for an answer. 

9. What does the future hold for you? Have you got any exciting plans for 2021?

Where I am now, I’m so much happier, I’m much more confident and ready than I ever was. And because I really feel confident in where I am right now, the next step is to just grow this brand. The plan is to make it a household name when it comes to homeware. When people think about something a little different and high quality that speaks to my culture, I want them to come to the Chinakwe brand.

It was great to chat with Caroline, her confidence is contagious so we hope that you’re all feeling a little more inspired and motivated! 

You can check out Caroline’s beautiful artwork over on her Instagram and brand new website!

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