Interview with Tolu Cecilia Oye

Tolu is a busy and hard-working woman, with a love for braids passed on from her mother, as well as a passion for design. You might know her as being the co-founder of Oye Green, a brand of African beauty products run by her and her mother. Or you might recognize her as the aspiring designer she is and her beautiful draping skills. In this interview she shares with us some of the difficulties she faced when co-founding a company, how her love for the art of braids came to be, plans for the future and even some of her favorite podcasts.

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Quick fire

Favorite hairstyle?

My favorite hairstyle is braids. From Cornrows to single braids. When I was younger I experienced a disconnect with braids because it was a daily reminder of being African, but as I got older I started to use braids as a way of expressing myself.

One thing you cannot live without?

My Oye green Shea Mix.

When/ where do you feel most like yourself?

I feel the most myself back home in my room in Columbus, Ohio surrounded by my siblings and parents.

If you could pick any destination in the world, what would it say on your plane ticket?

Back to Lagos, Nigeria. Nigeria is similar to New York, however, 10x more chaotic but I still find myself at peace.


How would you describe yourself?

Hard working and a creative that loves to share her culture through her work. I’m determined when I set my mind to something, no matter the circumstances. Grinding is in my blood.

Take us through a typical day in your life.

I live in Brooklyn, I spend my morning through evening either at my part time job or my internship and during my free time, plotting duringabout my family brand Oye. I spend my time during my commute listening to my favorite podcasts Cutting Room Floor by Omondi, The receipts, Transformation Church or reading articles from BOF. During my part time job, I have the ability to sketch, work on my design illustration when customers are not in the show room. My goal is to to drape one of my illustrations every two weeks.

Can you talk a bit about how your mother’s background and your trips to Nigeria has influenced your identity and sense of style?

When I traveled back home to Nigeria in 2016 by myself at the age 18, my love and appreciation for traditional African Braid style evolved. I started expressing myself through braids and yearning to learn about traditional Yoruba braids style and Nigerian culture as a whole. I was tired of conforming to fit in. My mother ( Adepeju Oye), the founder of Oye Green, studied accounting during her time at Uni, after her family didn’t believe that cosmetologist was a profession to pursue. When she moved to The US, she pursued her dream and received her cosmetologist license. She is marking 23 year as a hairstylist and 13 with her license.

One thing you wish you could tell your younger self?

I’ll tell my younger self and older self: Live your life for yourself. Stop trying to please others. “DO YOU BABY”.

Fashion and Oye

Can you tank a bit about the art of braids and how your passion for hair came to be?

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio in a braiding salon with six women. My mother was one of them. Since the age of 8, everyday after school, my mother would pick me up so I could sit next to her and assist her on holding braid extension on my lap. Being a part of the process that brought a smile to several women faces made my day. From kindergarten to First Grade, all I knew was braids.  Sixth grade came along, so did a flatiron and some Brazilian bundles from Aliexpress. My hair resembled french fries deep in hot oil. It was burnt and forever greasy. My mother would try to bribe me so that she could run her hands through my scalp to braid my hair. Little did she know that I detested getting my hair braided, it was a daily reminder of being African. My features already gave it away. Even though I grew up surrounded by braids, I did not see the art behind it. That changed after my mother stopped giving me allowance money and replace it with a mannequin. She assured me the importance of learning how to braid. I started working in her shop and our basement braiding my friend’s hair.

Describe how you came up with the idea of starting your own brand and what the catalyst was for you to start Oye with your mother.

Oye Green started in my family kitchen in Columbus, Ohio. Mixing shea was one of my favorite bonding time with my mother.  Every time I came back home for the holidays, that’s one of our traditions that we carry on. My mom would mix shea for my family and I. We all had different uses with shea, I use it for my eczema, my sister was covered in burns after scorching hot water spilled on her. My mother had alopecia and she uses it for her hair, as well as her client's hair. We all notice the significant change in our skin and hair due to the shea mix. My mom’s customers started asking if she could mix a few jars for them. It was first called Grace Oye Shea mix.

In 2016 my mom went to barbering school. That’s when I decided to pitch in and help brand Grace Oye Shea Butter into what is now known Oye Shea Butter officially. This was the same year that I traveled back to Nigeria, without my parents, and became more connected with my roots. Oye Green was founded on sharing the goodness of natural unrefined ivory shea, mixed with essential oil, to the world. After our recent trip to Nigeria, we realized that a significant part of our culture is underappreciated. Traditional African products are no longer valued. OYE mission is: to preserve and share the best of authentic skin and hair products,  straight from the motherland.

What was the hardest part and what was the most rewarding part of starting your own business?

Hardest part - is doing everything alone with my mom, but I know the hard work will pave a way for my family and other families to come. Most rewarding part is connecting with the women corp that makes our shea butter. Being able to use our profit to help families in need in Nigeria; from distribution of meals, to backpacks and school supplies.

I know you’re currently a fashion design student, can you tell us about some of the similarities between fashion and braids in terms of artistic expression?

Fashion and braiding have a lot in common from the process behind each braid creation to the different types of material that goes into creating a garment or braids style.  For example, there's different techniques that goes into creating braids, flat braids, conrow, feeding, single braids etc. With garment construction there's different finishing from straight stitch, french seam and hong kong. Depending on the braids style and garment being created, you need a certain material to bring the creation to life. There’s different braiding hair, the same way there’s a list of different fabrication. 

What is a change you would like to see in the fashion industry in 2019?

During my Junior year in Highschool I interned at a production house and I got to see the amount of waste created in the fashion industry first hand. If we can change one thing within the fashion industry is stricter more enforced production and textile regulation.

What is your dream job and how far have you come making it a reality? Are you planning on one day creating your own clothing brand or are you planning on mainly focusing on Oye?

My dream job is to pursue my lifelong dream as a designer. Since I was six years old, I would prance around the house with a sketchbook. There was only one high-school in Columbus, Ohio that offered a Fashion design career technical education program which began junior year. Ending of sophomore year, I found out that my school could no longer afford the program. That’s when I started plotting. I had only visit New York once at the age of 12, but I knew that was where I wanted to be. I started looking for another high school that offered a career technical program, and I came across Art and design High School. But in the process, I had to convince my parents to let me move to New York at a young age. I put a presentation together and presented it to my parents. My mom was all for it. When she was younger, her parents forced her to get into accounting because they did not see cosmetology as anything more than a hobby. So she helped me convince my dad. All I had to say was “Hey, you won't have to pay for state tuition.” They made a few calls, and that summer of 2015 I moved to New York and started attending the Art and Design High School.

Proudest moment in your life so far?

Making the decision at the age of 16 that New York was where I wanted to be, and convincing and getting support from my parents to move away on my own.

Do you have anything exciting coming up this year?

I’ll be going back home to Nigeria for Christmas and I have a lot of projects lined up. Can’t wait to get back on more creative projects. In December I’d be graduating with my associate degree in Fashion Design at FIT. Nervous about post grad, but I am excited to see what the future has in hold for me.

 All photos are credited to Tolu herself.

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