When Dinzi Amobi migrated to Australia, she never realised connecting to her African roots would begin a business she could only dream of. But that’s exactly how it all started.
One evening, for a dinner party at her house in Sydney, Dinzi wanted to dress up her “old and battered second-hand dining table” with something bold and bright. So, she made a set of placemats and napkins using wax print fabric that a friend had sent to her from Nigeria.
When Dinzi’s dinner guests arrived, they were so excited by the colour and prints on the table.
“We spent the entire night talking about the fabric, my Nigerian heritage, and that’s when I realised that these fabrics were doing more than just looking pretty – they brought joy and conversation and storytelling to the dinner table.”
What started as a side interest organically evolved into ULO, Dinzi’s textile business that produces clothing and lifestyle products from gorgeous African wax print fabrics.
But her story starts long before her business took off.
Dinzi was born in London, UK to Nigerian-British parents, before she moved with her family to Nigeria. She spent her childhood in Nigeria before returning to London when she was about 8 years old. Along with her sister, Dinzi attended school in London and tackled the challenge of culture shock and assimilating into a country that felt very different to her homeland in Nigeria.
Dinzi studied and worked as a lawyer in the UK until her mid-thirties, and made the journey to Sydney, Australia about seven years ago. She met her husband in London, who is originally from Melbourne, and they decided to live in Australia for a while to enjoy a change of pace. They spent a couple of years in Sydney before making their way to Melbourne, which is now their base.
With such an international background, it’s probably not surprising to see how that life experience has culminated into Dinzi’s modern textile brand ULO, and how it is inspiring women across the country to embrace bold and bright African prints.
“Nigeria is the place that I call home,” she said.
“ULO actually means ‘home’ in the language that we speak as a family in our Nigerian dialect.
“Nigeria is the place that I was always surrounded by what I’m doing now – the fabrics, the designs, the music, the colours. Everything we do here at ULO is really inspired by Nigeria.”
‘Slowly and gradually’: Shifting from corporate career to business owner
ULO launched in November 2017 in Melbourne with only two lifestyle products: a placemat and a napkin. From there, the brand expanded to include fashion items like dresses, pants, skirts, and tops.
“I don’t know that I purposefully decided to start a business that year, but it was because I was getting so much interest… and I was starting to share the ideas with friends and family, and there was just a real interest and people started placing orders,” Dinzi said.
“So, I thought, let’s just get it out there because there is only so much planning you can do. Planning can sometimes lead to procrastination. And a lot of the time people think they shouldn’t start a business until everything is perfect. And three years in I can actually, hand over heart, say that it is never going to be perfect. So, I just decided that was the best time to launch.”
For about six to eight months before leaving her corporate career as a lawyer, Dinzi spent her evenings and weekends planning and building the foundations of her textile business before taking the leap.
“What I would say to anybody who has the full-time job and stability is to make sure you are comfortable enough to start a business slowly and gradually. And a lot of that means that you don’t see the fruits of your labour instantly. You have to be really patient,” she said.
“That’s the way I did it and I think it helped me because there wasn’t this pressure that this has to work. When you don’t have that pressure, you do it slowly. And doing it slowly means you do it properly, and you don’t rush and make silly mistakes.”
“To see other people embrace these fabrics is what gives us joy.” – Dinzi Amobi
Quality over quantity
The unique approach of ULO is that the team makes everything themselves, and every item in the collection is produced in their studio in Melbourne.
“When I started the business, I had always wanted quality. These fabrics are too beautiful to just chop up and make just for the sake of making. So, I decided we would do production ourselves rather than outsource it,” said Dinzi.
ULO started by creating placemats and napkins, before expanding to include small batches of clothing for women, via a made-to-order model.
The first ULO clothing collection only comprised three dresses, two pants, and one top.
Even though she was criticised for launching with such a small collection, Dinzi used the time to get to know what her customers really wanted from the ULO brand.
Looking back on the launch, Dinzi thought: “This is our first collection. I don’t know who the ULO woman is. I don’t know who’s going to buy this stuff. So, let’s be sensible about it.
“Let’s wait for orders, let’s talk to our community, let’s talk to our customers. Let’s engage with them and understand what sizes they want – what does the ULO woman like, what is her lifestyle?”
As the orders came in, each garment was hand-made. And Dinzi said this approach was the best way to learn about her customers, as well as the production process.
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This approach to business was one that served ULO well during the pandemic because it allowed them to pivot quickly during a very unstable time.
“We had no waste. We didn’t have stock sitting in a warehouse, and then when a pandemic hit we had to try and sell 2000 dresses. What we had was rolls of fabric,” said Dinzi.
“And when COVID hit, I said to our team let’s stop making dresses because our clients are asking us for face masks. And that’s how we pivoted; that’s how this business survived last year.
“Because we were focused on sustainability, it allowed our business to grow and survive during a very weird time. I put that all down to doing our own production and being sustainable.
“So many people told me that I wouldn’t be able to run a business like this because it’s not efficient, you need to have stock available, you need to mass-produce, and it’s cheaper to go offshore or get an external manufacturer. And I said to them: you watch me!”
This attitude, and believing in doing things her own way, underpins everything about ULO and the way Dinzi likes to run her business.
“The business represents my family. It represents the home I grew up in. It represents everything about this brand and this business – the values are very much inclusive, open, respectful, inviting, and welcoming,” she said.
This is also why the brand follows a made-to-order model that can cater to women of all shapes and sizes. Dinzi said there is rarely a woman that comes into her shop and says, “I don’t think I can wear this” or “I won’t fit into your clothes”. Instead, the ULO team encourages customers to try something on to see what can work, and then they’ll make something tailored to suit the customer.
“We also have customers who ask me: is it appropriate to wear this fabric? Is it okay for other people who are not African to wear it? I always say: absolutely. Because this brand, like my family, is very welcoming.
“To see other people embrace these fabrics is what gives us joy.”
Visit the ULO showroom at Abbotsford Convent, Sacred Heart Building Level 1 / SH1.32, 1 St Helier St, Abbotsford, VIC 3067.