David Lewis, Lewini founder, on building a product, brand, and company
Remember the film,The Social Network? Every now and again, I go back to it and as dramatic and fast-paced every scene in the movie is, I am always enamoured by the montage that depicts the creation of Face Mash, the infamous precursor to Facebook. It begins with the fictional Mark Zuckerberg in college, whining online from his fortress of solitude after an ego-bruising breakup. In the midst of his despair, he comes up with the idea to create a website where one can rate the girls on campus with a side-by-side view of their photos. As crude as it sounds, what’s interesting about the montage is you get to see Zuckerberg and his friends in their element, chipping away at the firewalls of their college websites, writing equations on their college dorm window and dissecting them as if they’re discovering the cure to Covid-19, while their agemates are out partying and drinking.
This brings me to David Lewis. He’s a 21-year-old student at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. We both enjoy the occasional round of FIFA and rush to complete our Econometrics assignment on the day it’s due. However, there’s one key difference between David and me. Nearly every time I visit his dorm room, I find him on a phone call or scribbling away on his make-shift whiteboard (his bedroom wall), working to improve his clothing brand, more commonly known as Lewini. He’s very apologetic about it, yet I can’t help but feel exiguous for disturbing his work as I innocently request for a round of FIFA. Despite all that, he saw something in my writing that I can’t, and asked that I interview him for the launch of the brand’s new store in Bremen. So here goes nothing!
Before the pandemic struck, I was able to keep count of the number of video calls I’ve made (they weren’t that many, to begin with), and now life has become nothing but an endless void of awkward connection delays, repeatedly asking “Can you hear me?” before the conversation begins, and moments of silence while you look for the “Leave meeting” sign as if you’re expecting it to be someplace other than the bottom right corner of your screen. Anyway, my interview with David is no different, except he’s taking the call in Bremen central, where he’s preparing for the launch of his new store. After the obligatory exchange of the phrase, “Can you hear me?”, we were off without a hitch (given the circumstances):
David in chequered blue and pink Lewini pants, Johannesburg Market Theatre, 2018 (Source: David Lewis)
Interviewer: [blurry, sweaty, and generally haggard] What inspired you to start the brand
David Lewis: [camera off, good decision] Say it again, what––
Curse you, faulty bandwidth!
What inspired you to start the brand?
Lewini actually started in 2016, my second year at ALA [African Leadership Academy]. Prior to then, I used to design clothes for myself but just because I designed clothes that didn’t mean I was going to start a clothing company. I think, growing up, I was a very individualistic person in the sense that—at least when it came to fashion––for the longest time, I can remember I just had a unique way of interpreting fashion, you know?
“Unique” barely describes the pants. Their patterns and colour palette are so extravagant, that with the slightest styling error, one can go from looking like a runway model to your typical amusement at a circus. I’m afraid to say I fall into the latter part of that chasm whenever I don a pair. David describes that “a-ha” moment as a sequence of events that made him realise he had something going for him. First, he started making casual clothing out of traditional Nigerian materials for personal use. “Yeah, I would make traditional clothes to wear for church and weddings, but then I was like, ‘Okay, I might as well use the opportunity to make cool pants I’d want to wear on a casual basis’. Now that wasn’t common back home.”
David and I met at ALA, although we barely interacted at the time. He was a year above me and seemed to fit in with the crowd, while my 16-year old self opted to stay in my room and wallow along to The Smiths. Oddly enough, two years later, as we got to know each other in university, he described himself as a loner. Fashion was his renegade-like form of expression. Little did he know that it would soon gain traction, with people asking him how they could be in possession of those sweet threads. “I used to make pants in African materials just for myself, not as a business,” he says. ”It was weird when someone came to me and asked what I was wearing. This happened at one of my summers when I went to YYGS [Yale Young Global Scholars].“
It was a hobby, you could say?
Yeah, you know? And also, growing up in Nigeria, it’s kinda cultural to make traditional clothes with tailors. So you could pretty much make whatever you want with the tailor, and I had the opportunity to do that. So I made my first set of casual pants during the summer before I came to ALA. For me, colours and patterns express different things. So even when I made clothes for formal occasions, I was very particular on the vibes I got from these patterns. I was so intrigued by every intricate detail. That summer at Yale, that’s kinda when I realised people want to have what I’m wearing.
Where did the name come from?
I had a conversation with my brother and said, ‘Yo, I might, eventually, at some point, perhaps, start a clothing label’. We were just turning up different names and I kinda wanted the name to include my name and the family name, as well. The name, Lewini, came from my surname and Ini is my native name.
Soon enough, he set up an Instagram account and began marketing the brand. “The idea was that every time I shipped stuff from home, we’d take pictures and put them on Instagram just so people could see the kinda things we want to sell”. He made an announcement to his classmates at ALA and began accepting personal orders. After graduating in 2017, David embarked on a gap year, working part-time while turning his little pet project into a business. “That’s when I drew up the logo, a description, and a business model canvas.” David also extended his clothing line to dungarees and shorts. “All the company details were developed that time,” he says.
Lewini's first ever collection, ALA, Johannesburg, 2016 (Source: David Lewis)
What were the practical things you had to get done that year to boost the brand’s profile?
The beauty of that year was that it gave me the freedom and flexibility to understand my ideas and connect them together. There was no roadmap for Lewini; it was more about just [having] a couple of different pilots here and there, you know? So the steps I had to take were very intellectual, like I had to sit down and put my ideas on paper––
Silence. Once again, our bandwidth fails us and I meagerly ask, “Can you hear me?” More silence. I throw in the question a second time for good measure. Eventually, the bandwidth catches up.
“... you know? Because––”
“Yo, David, I’m so sorry, but you kinda blanked out for ten seconds.”
“Yeah, I noticed as well. Can you hear me now?”
We’re back in business.
“So I was saying that the beauty of my gap year was the fact that I didn’t have pressure from my parents or anyone, and I didn’t pause to put all my focus on Lewini.” He recalls having no financial pressure, which gave him the freedom to take his time in figuring out the nitty-gritty details of running a business.
“I already got into Jacobs and just deferred my admission for a year, so I just wanted to relax and incorporate Lewini into my daily activities,” he says. “I had to learn about the garment industry in Nigeria. Everything was in its own segment. The first three months was [gaining] information, knowledge and [doing] research”; then the piloting phase, making prototypes of the clothes; take it to summer and go sell [them].”
So is it accurate to say that Lewini wasn’t necessarily profit-oriented and that you were just pushing your limits to see how far the brand could go?
Yeah, that’s actually true. I think in the early days Lewini was not driven to make profit, instead we were more driven to discover and build a brand identity. That’s also still been, I guess, what we strive for today, actually. We mostly just break even but success to us is more about establishing a market and building an identity among our consumers. When that comes, then profits are gonna come, by all means.
How did you have to accommodate Lewini with your studies at Jacobs?
The structure I was able to develop before [coming to] Jacobs was kinda what helped me at Jacobs. I can get by with one or two hours every day for Lewini. It doesn’t have to be like a full-time commitment––at least for now. In my first semester, I had to design a couple of collections to be distributed for a fashion show in the US. For me, the first semester was actually fairly quiet because I had people who I could send the designs to [sic] and they could make them out. So I could actually have enough time for my academics and Lewini on the side.
Lewini's debut fashion show, Trinity College, USA, 2018 (Source: David Lewis)
Despite what he said about managing his time, it seemed as if David was always working on Lewini and that something big was just around the corner. And so in November of 2019, with the help of Otmane Sabir, a classmate and film buff on campus, he produced and premiered Stories of a Dream, a documentary that details the founding of Lewini. “Otmane came to me and wanted to interview me. We sat down and discussed the project together,” he recalls. “I just realised I had never told the Lewini story, or at least documented it. I had no script or plan, and we were just like, ‘Let’s get the Lewini story out there‘. I found that really cool. All this time, there had never been a video or a write-up about how we came about.”
He continued to have 40 to 50 articles of clothing shipped to Bremen and sold them to students on campus. I ask him if he experiences any challenges that come with selling to students. “When we interact and talk to people at Jacobs, everyone is like, ‘I wanna see‘... but in terms of trying to win the Jacobs market, that’s not something we’ve successfully done,” he admits, “but I think that’s something of a priority now.” David essentially goes on about how he wants to build a market on campus that goes beyond his immediate friends. His main mode of marketing is the Lewini Instagram page, which is filled with images of his friends modelling in Lewini attire.
After having an article published about his work with Lewini through the Jacobs University website, David gained the attention of Kontrast Männermode, a local menswear store in Bremen, and struck up a deal in which Lewini apparel would be sold through their establishment. What’s peculiar about David is that—in contrast to our insecure dopamine-fixated social media generation—he can actually talk about himself without fear of exerting a false bravado or being misunderstood. As a victim of the internet since my childhood, I find David’s self-assurance quite refreshing. “I didn’t go to Jacobs to ask to be featured on their website,” he says. “I also didn’t market myself to any specific shop. I just did the best I could and these opportunities just came by themselves.”
The launch of a Lewini branch in Germany made me wonder about the increasing prominence of African tribal wear and tradition in the global fashion landscape. I noted how eerily similar it is to when Buddhist and Hindu dress seeped into the Counterculture movement of the sixties. Take Black Panther, for example, a billion-dollar grossing Marvel comic book movie that takes traditional dress codes from various African tribes to bring the fictional city of Wakanda to life, or more recently, the donning of Kente clothing by Democratic Congressional leaders in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Some have welcomed this change, calling it a long-awaited move towards representation; and others not so much, citing it as self-interested co-option. So that begs the question, one I pose to David, of whether the rise of African fashion is a result of appreciation or appropriation.
Fellow Jacobs student, Safell Siguenas posing in a Fall/Winter '18 Lewini dungaree, Bremen (Source: David Lewis)
“Consumers are a bit more conscious today of what they consume and [the reason] why. So anything that has a story or culture attached to it is more likely to gain, I guess, the hearts of the people than some random mass-produced fashion accessory,” he says. “For me, as long as there’s mutual respect or appreciation for the pieces that people are wearing, I think it’s okay. You don’t want the culture [to be taken] out of context.”
He recalls a story of when an elderly man, upon seeing David in Lewini pants, asked where he had purchased the article of clothing. “The styles [of the pants] have their own shape and form,” he argues. “In that context, it’s no longer a traditional piece.”
Just because the prints stem from African cultures, it doesn’t mean that [the article of clothing] of today is a traditional outfit. As long as people understand that, that’s fine to me.”
As we run out of things to say, I ask what is perhaps the most asked question in job and college interviews to cap it all off. Besides, I better leave David to dramatically screw his best friend out of the company à la Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Seriously, this article is as much a plug for David Lewis and Lewini as it is for Jesse Eisenberg’s riveting performance in what is undoubtedly the best film of the past decade—so watch it!
Where do you see the brand in ten years?
Um, so I have a couple of interesting ideas for Lewini. Like, I want Lewini to be something that is very widespread because we’re trying to connect clothing to an individual identity. I think that’s something many brands don’t offer. Because the pieces are colourful and expressive, you express yourself consciously. It’s in the sense that, ‘I don’t just wear this pair of pants because it goes. You know how you see pictures of clothing on the runway? Often, you don’t see that clothing worn every day by the general person. For Lewini, how can we take exclusive runway pieces and have people wear [them] every day. I want Lewini pieces to be in film and video, but right now, I am still like, ‘Do we plan to settle in Germany or not?‘ If that’s the case, then the majority of our marketing will be here for the general market in Europe. I don’t see why we can’t have a student or two in every university wear Lewini.
Spring/Summer '19 Lewini shorts, Bremen (Source: David Lewis)