In a sea of students similarly dressed in plain shirts, sweatshirts and dull colors, Samuel Uko, ’18, stands out in an original T-shirt that sports a bright African pattern.
The shirt is one of the first products launched by his fashion line, Kinuko.
Kinuko — a name created by combining Uko’s with part of a friend’s name — started as an idea for a clothing line in one of Uko’s entrepreneurship classes.
Uko’s love for fashion began at a young age. He was always attracted to the most stylish clothes on the racks in stores and mesmerized by the outfits celebrities wore on TV. This passion, combined with his African roots, inspired him to create his own fashion line to bring diversity to Western fashion.
“(I like) the idea and the concept of starting something of my own and branding it in a totally different way with my patterns,” Uko said. “I’ve just had so much love for fashion all these years and the way I’ve dressed, too, and what I specifically look for when I’m shopping and keeping up the latest trends of fashion.”
Uko liked the authentic African designs that adorn his mother’s clothing and asked her to send him some designs he could print on T-shirts. For the Kinuko line, these designs are screen printed onto the fronts of plain T-shirts, with Uko’s company logo printed on the back.
In prior entrepreneurship classes, Kinuko was simply an idea. But in his current senior capstone class, The Garage: Launching Entrepreneurial Ventures II, Uko is developing Kinuko into a business with an actual product.
The course is taught by Joshua Ehrig, a professor of practice in the management department, who also taught the other entrepreneurship courses Uko has taken as a part of his minor. Ehrig said the senior capstone project is less of a formal assignment and more a part of a class discussion of the students’ goals regarding their business ideas and companies.
Throughout the development of their projects, Ehrig guides his students through the entrepreneurship process, from business development to customer discovery, encouraging them to learn from their real experiences with their projects.
Ehrig sees Uko’s vision as one with a purpose and thinks people will buy Kinuko shirts not because of what he’s selling but because of why he’s selling them.
“I’m not an idea judge — I’m more interested in the business model and how you actually execute on it,” Ehrig said. “But I think this kind of merging of his background and his roots along with Western culture, using the apparel aspect of it as the vision, I think it’s great.”
To start, Uko has manufactured three sample shirts with the help of Style You Need, a printing shop on West Third Street in Bethlehem. He, his project partner Brett Rothberg, ’18, and another friend have been wearing the prototypes around campus.
Rothberg teamed up with Uko through their senior capstone class. Rothberg liked Kinuko better than his own business idea, so he asked Uko if he could help him with the project, as Ehrig allows students to work in teams. He has since taken on the marketing responsibilities of the project, letting Uko take the lead on major decisions, such as T-shirt designs.
Rothberg said he liked that Uko’s idea involved spreading the designs and meanings of one culture throughout another culture. Through past experience with clothing company ideas in other entrepreneurship classes, Rothberg said he has noticed that the ones with meaning usually do better.
“Obviously having a meaning behind a product is a lot nicer than just doing it because you want to make money,” Rothberg said.
With three sample shirts made and more on the way, Uko and Rothberg are working to sell 100 preorders to customers. They’re creating a Kickstarter campaign and are developing social media accounts and a website to target customers both on and off Lehigh’s campus. If Kinuko reaches 100 preorders, they will begin to print those T-shirts, which will sell for $30 each.
Uko has developed a passion for Kinuko, and if the brand is able to gain customers and generate sales, he hopes to continue the business after the class ends.
“Even though I might work in corporate after graduation, I still want to be doing (Kinuko) as a personal thing,” Uko said. “I feel like I really resonate with it because I just love fashion, so I don’t think I’ll stop if it gets a lot of traction.”
Rothberg has interest in continuing with Kinuko as a side project and said he doesn’t think of the project as work because he enjoys the time he and Uko spend on Kinuko.