Hello, I’m Vanessa Lacewell, founder of V V Designs for Asante Kente, trade name Worldwide Origins. Founded in 1992, we are celebrating 29 years in business. I began this company designing jewelry and accessories made from authentic Kente cloth imported from Ghana, Africa.
The success and popularity of these products encouraged me to seek other fabrics from Africa, which led to the discovery of mud cloth and later Adinkra cloth. I mentored under Warren Dobson, founder of Dobson Products located in Chicago, Illinois.
He made beautiful dinner and glassware with an Afrocentric theme. He told me to test my product; I’d have to go to New York and exhibit at the New York Kwanzaa, which was the largest Afrocentric retail event of the year. I traveled to New York, and it was amazing! There were probably 500 exhibitors showcasing products from all over the US and abroad.
I set up my products which consisted of hats, purses, head wraps, belts, wrist bands, earrings, anklets, vest and ties, and cummerbunds. All products were handmade from Kente cloth. Wouldn’t you know it, I almost sold out of everything I took.
Warren told me he knew this would happen because of his experience in the business and traveling to this show in previous years; he could tell which companies had something special and unique, and I did. He also said that many of the companies we saw there would fall by the wayside, but I would still be around in years to come. He was right.
I later met the creator of African Animals at the St. Louis Kwanzaa, where he was wearing one of my Kente wrist bands. Later that day, Warren introduced me to him, and he raved about how much he loved my wrist bands; Dave told me he wore one every day and had no idea of who made them. He wanted to know how I was distributing them?
Of course, I went from show to show, selling them at retail and to some wholesale customers. He talked of the Atlanta Gift Show, one of the most significant wholesale gift shows in the country and said I should exhibit there. I told him I wasn’t ready for that, nor could I afford it. He then offered me space in his booth if I could make it to Atlanta. Talk about God!
Although I didn’t write many orders, I walked the show, which was floors of manufacturers from everywhere, and there I met my first jewelry manufacturer. With this, I would make Afrocentric jewelry, cuff links, tie bars, lapel pins, and formal sets. We were now makers of handmade plus manufactured jewelry and accessories.
The Essence Festival commissioned my Kente weaver to do a weaving demonstration at the New Orleans Essence Festival the first year of the event. They invited me to exhibit and sell my products made from his cloth. This invitation came days before the event, and that same weekend I had paid to display at a festival in Knoxville, Tn, where I had a hotel reservation. Etc.
My dilemma now is where to go. I lived in St. Louis, Mo., and would be drive by myself to either Knoxville or New Orleans. I was so green that I got in my van and headed south on highway 55. After several hours I realized that this was not the way to Tennessee but New Orleans.
Decision made. I made it to New Orleans and realized I had nowhere to stay. I had no idea how big this event was. I finally found a no-tell motel, a room that you rent by the hour. I was so afraid the three nights I stayed there I barely slept.
However, there were two good things, my inventory was safe at the exhibit booth, and I made a lot of money; I mean, by the end of Saturday night, I had about five thousand dollars in cash on me. I was terrified of being robbed, and no one knew where I was.
I checked into a good hotel on Sunday as many people were checking out and stayed one more night in New Orleans before driving back to St. Louis. There are so many stories I could share with you, but this isn’t a book.
Fast forward five years, we now exhibit at large African American conferences including but not limited to, The National Medical Ass, Congressional Black Caucus, National Black MBA’s, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, Mo. Legislative Black Caucus, NABSE, and Blacks in Government.
I soon became aware that many of these organizations were also members of a fraternity or sorority. I had no idea of the magnitude of these memberships. I researched the Divine Nine and soon realized that I needed to be in this business. “A new avenue to revenue”
I took what I knew about the products we then made, and instead, on an Afrocentric flare, we made the same products in fraternity and sorority letters and colors. It worked! We soon now made desirable, cutting edge, and unique fraternity and sorority accessories and jewelry.
Because we are the source for everything we sell, we can offer custom products for events, groups, and organizations. To increase the available custom products, I learned of the Ad Specialty Institute.
This organization makes available contact information on companies who manufacture and source over 500.000 products to customize for your clients. This ASI, coupled with our contacts overseas, could get large orders to produce conference and convention giveaways. We were rolling!
From 1997 through 2019, our company grew, as did our product line. We have a good reputation in the Greek industry for having excellent customer service and excellent products.
For 2020 sales, I produced several new designs for our licensed fraternities and looked forward to launching them. We were poised going into 2020 to have probably our best year in sales ever. On tap was the Zeta 100 and the Omega Psi Phi Conclave in Tampa, where they had record registration for both events.
These events were in addition to all the regional and district meetings scheduled for spring and summer. We got as far as the CIAA in Charlotte, NC, and began the MEAC in Nor Folk, VA. MEAC week, I saw the news about the spread of Covid-19 and the halt of the NCAA and NBA.
By Wednesday, March 8th, they told us to pack up and be out of the stadium by Thursday at the latest. The girl’s game played that Wednesday was the last game of all national and collegiate tournament play.
On March 8th, everything stopped. I made my way back via St. Louis, MO home to Michigan, where I’ve been there ever since. My successful face-to-face business also came to a halt.
It took me a couple of months to realize that I needed to do something to keep going and pay the bills; being self-employed meant I’d need to find a way to continue generating income to keep my business going.
One thing I know is the products we offer are not needed. That’s to say what we sell is desired, not necessary. Our success was due to appealing product presentation, our displays, and outstanding customer service. When you’re at our booth, it’s all about you and how we make you feel. I call this “emotional buying.” Customers come up to the booth and get caught up in the excitement!
So now my task is to create this feeling when not there, and all you see is the product. How do I create emotion enough for a shopper to click and buy? The only way we can stay relevant is to stay relevant!
Like many vendors, my website was no place you’d want to shop; it was disorganized and not very appealing to a shopper.
The first thing would be to entirely overall my website, which meant photographing all the new products I had produced to roll out in 2020 and retake photos of all the existing products; in addition to photos, you need descriptions and pricing of products. OMG, It’s a daunting back-breaking task; there are hundreds of products. But it was necessary, so I got it done.
With the help of my graphic artists, now I have a pretty decent website, but I have to figure out how to get my previous customers, not to my booth. but to my website and actually buy. “A new avenue to revenue”
By the summer of 2020, many of the organizations were beginning to have virtual meetings and gatherings. I contacted every Alpha, Omega, and Kappa contact to see what they would devise to help their vendors. Some responded, and some didn’t, but those who did, made me realize that I would have to start making YouTube videos introducing myself and our products directing people to our site.
Fast forward to spring/summer 2021. I’ve participated in about 12 virtual fraternity meetings, and we have a formula designed to create that emotion I spoke of earlier. We redesigned our logo, which was almost a decade old.
In addition to videos, we produce a flyer promoting their event with featured products, the link to the website where we advertise their event on our landing page, and their product webpages.
We offer a unique coupon code saving them 15 to 20 percent on the flyer and video throughout the conference. I might add that in our videos, we start with a greeting specifically for that group, coupled with perfect music, good product pictures, and close with the special offer.
For the first time since Covid-19, we traveled to Little Rock, AR, for the Alpha Phi Alpha SW Region. It was terrific to be out, and it was tough to set up and work the show. It’s been 16 months since we’ve done this.
I left inventory and display items back in Michigan, which never happens, and by Saturday, the attendees and the five companies exhibiting were ready to go. I need to get back in shape and the right mindset to go back on the road.
Let me close with our excitement to be participating in this year’s Alpha national convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, July 13-18, 2021, and the Phi Beta Sigma national convention in Myrtle Beach, SC, August 2-8, 2021.
We will be on-site and virtual for both conventions and virtual for Kappa Alpha Phi national convention in Phoenix, AZ. I’ll let you know who and how they turn out!
To learn more, click here.