After nearly a decade of designing eyewear, Abaynesh Jembere decided to live her dreams by launching her own line of sunglasses. Her brand, Jembere Eyewear, fuses Abaynesh’s passion for style with her Ethiopian heritage. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Abaynesh about what fueled her drive for design, and the highs and lows of launching a small business.
How did you decide to pursue design?
I got into fashion a very long time ago. I’m from Seattle, Washington, but decided to go to school in Philadelphia to attend Drexel University and study design and merchandising. After graduating, I moved to New York. I always thought I would fall into apparel, but I got a job at an eyewear company. I worked in the industry for seven years, but got laid off and decided to take the initiative and follow my dreams of being an entrepreneur. Working in the industry for so long gave me a lot of insight into the ins and outs and more technical details. I decided to create a product that would provide quality at an affordable price. Sunglasses are often very expensive, but I didn’t think you had to pay $500 for a great pair of eyewear. I decided to bring together culture and fashion and take some awesome aspects of being Ethiopian – the beautiful colors, clothing, and jewelry – and infuse that into the line.
What does Jembere mean?
It’s my last name, but it also ironically means “my sunset.”
That is an amazing coincidence. I saw that you used crowd sourcing to fund some of the start-up costs. What were some of the pros and cons of that approach?
Once I learned about crowd funding, I thought it would be a perfect way to get some capital to pay for first-run production. I think it’s a great outlet for designers and entrepreneurs to share their ideas with large groups of people who probably might not otherwise have the ability to see your brand in person. People go to these crowd funding campaigns just to see what people are working on. On any given day, there are people who just stumble across things. I decided to use Indiegogo to do a presale on the eyewear. It was a long-shot: you’re asking someone to buy something they can’t try on, that goes on their face and they have to wait two to three months for. I also decided – because of timing and where I was – to do my campaign over the holidays. I knew it was going to be tough, but I wanted to launch in 2014. I didn’t want to wait. I ran a forty day campaign. My goal was to raise $25,000, but I raised over $19,000. Even though I didn’t meet my goal, I couldn’t believe that I raised that much money. I had a ton of support and traveled all over the U.S. to get in people’s faces to encourage them to try on samples to help them see that it was worth the wait for production. I recommend crowd funding to any entrepreneur hoping to raise some capital. It gave me that extra push to get my first collection created.
What is the greatest challenge that you’ve faced since starting the line?
It was really figuring out how it was going to work. These things are expensive. That crowd-funding campaign wasn’t easy: I had to convince people to support me. As a small business, it’s hard to get your name out there and being a one-woman show can be difficult at times. There’s no funding to hire people or bring people on to build the brand.
Coming off the theme of struggle and looking to success, how did you feel when you saw Taraji Henson rocking your sunglasses in a recent issue of Essence?
It was so amazing. That issue came out a week before my launch. It couldn’t have happened at a much better time. My boyfriend is very good friends with her stylist who was looking for products, so we sent her some of my samples and she loved them. She was already wearing my sunglasses and I hadn’t even officially started selling yet! I remember getting the email from Essence asking for all of the credit info.
What does success look like to you?
At the end of the day, of course, I’m trying to make money and can be solely focused on my business. I also work to care of myself. The end goal is to make a name for myself in the fashion industry and to show people that you don’t have to fall in the footsteps of high-end designers to sell your product. You can make your niche, find your own footing, and make a creative product that you believe in. For me, it was about showing my creativity and getting people to appreciate and love it.
What’s your favorite piece in your current collection?
It’s hard to choose, but probably the Meskel style. They’re the ones with the Ethiopian cross on them. In the first collection, it was a bestseller. It’s a frame that fits comfortably on everyone’s face, male or female. I love the detail of the cross. For the new collection I just launched, I did a new shade of the previous Meskel design. I think I’ll continue expanding the Meksel collection because it has been so popular.
Where can readers buy your sunglasses?
Primarily on my website, but if you are in the New York area, you can visit Harlem Haberdashery in Harlem or Leisure Life in Brooklyn.
What design philosophy do you live by?
Comfort. My collection is about creating wearable style with a cool edge.