An Interview with Co-Founder of Cee Cee’s Closet: Chioma N. Ngwudo
Founders of Cee Cee’s Closet NYC, Chioma and Uchenna Ngwudo, are breaking barriers in the fashion industry while continuing to make women confident and beautiful. From their headwraps, waist beads, and body care products, it’s obvious why they’re much needed in this space. These two have taken creative risks to express their African culture and beauty to the world. It’s something that they felt was missing before they created their brand. The lack of accessibility for different types of accessories and clothing from their country in New York was painfully obvious. However, they had a vision and turned into what we see today. They’ve been mentioned on Forbes, Harpers Bazaar, ELLE and have seen their designs worn by Tracee Ellis Ross and Jackie Aina. Although their business is growing and succeeding every day, their main goal is to give back to the community. Because of their business, they’ve created equitable paying jobs and provided financial opportunities for their people in Africa. Cee Cee’s Closet NYC is a fashion company that is making things happen on all fronts. I talk to the co-founder, Chioma N. Ngwudo, about the importance of headwraps in Nigeria, her fashion inspirations growing up, and her sister Uchenna.
Talk to me about the importance of headwraps in Nigeria
In Nigeria, headwraps are something that you grow up with and it’s a part of the culture. So you have the gele style that you do for significant events. Then we have the headwraps that we work on that people can wear for casual and dressy occasions. It’s very much integrated into our lifestyle and when it comes to Nigerians wearing headwraps, we style them however we want. It’s a lot more freeform, so every headwrap you see will be unique depending on the person, occasion, and what they want to do with the wrap. However, I think it’s a lot more unstructured than it is here in America where people expect it to be styled in certain ways.
You and your sister created Cee Cee’s Closet NYC because your sister, Uchenna, couldn’t find anything in the market that fit her style. Was that lack of accessibility for your culture always there during that time?
Yeah, I believe with social media we’ve seen a real resurgence and interest in African cultures and things that are associated with the African experience and diaspora. However, when we first started back in 2015, it wasn’t the case yet. So it wasn’t accessible in that way and also we weren’t seeing people with the patterns that we knew so well going back home. The variety and quality weren’t there and we saw that there was a space for us to make the market better by adding our voice into it.
What were some challenges you two faced as Nigerian women in the fashion business?
The hardest thing you find when it comes to fashion associated with Africa is getting people to take you seriously. I think it’s pervasive a lot of times throughout fashion when it comes to copying and who’s a real designer versus who’s not. However, there are times when people will try to undercut what you’re doing because it’s something that’s based on an African aesthetic. It’s hard to find partners that understand what you’re trying to do in terms of the quality you’re trying to deliver, the level of fashion you’re trying to deliver, and creating pieces that make women feel amazing. When a woman puts on a CC’s Closet piece, she holds her shoulders back, her head is held high, and she feels confident and beautiful. That’s what we aim for in everything that we make. When you want that experience for your customers, you have to be demanding in the quality and products you deliver.
When was the moment that you realized there was a demand for your product?
One of our defining moments was our first big pop-ups was at CURLFEST. It was one of the early ones and we had lines outside of our booth. We ended up closing early because we sold out of everything that we had. So that let us know that people were excited about what we were doing and putting out there. From there, we continued to grow and experiment and we’ve been so lucky to have our audience support us through a global pandemic. It’s not lost on us that 40% of Black-owned businesses have closed during this time because they weren’t able to continue to support themselves financially. We’ve been fortunate enough to still be here, continue to grow, and have a team on both sides of the Atlantic in America, Nigeria, and Ghana.
You guys have sold thousands and thousands of headwraps over the years which led to expanding the business to clothing, wristbands, and earrings. How did the expansion come about?
Our first expansion was into accessories because when we would style our headwraps for our photos, people would want the earrings we had on there. So that’s when we expanded into earrings, headbands, and clothing. We kept building on what people needed and asked us for. Also, we expanded into clothing because that’s something we’ve always wanted to do. Fashion is always something that excited me and my sister has been a fashion trendsetter since we were young. Recently, we’ve expanded into body care such as scrubs, butters, African exfoliating masks, and all of these products that help us expand into a lifestyle brand. We wanted to make sure that every woman in every aspect of her life can be positively touched by our product. In a way that makes her feel seen, beautiful, and confident. So we try to make sure that our product is aligned with that.
Who were your fashion inspirations growing up?
One of the people I’ve always looked up to in terms of style was Tracee Ellis Ross. I’ve always loved how she looked because she dresses so well for her body. One of the things I love is that you don’t necessarily have to look trendy to look good. If it fits you right and you walk with the right level of confidence in it, you’ll look amazing. She embodies that from head to toe. I love the risks that Rihanna takes and she always looks incredible. Also, when I was working in corporate, I was obsessed with Michelle Obama because her workwear was amazing.
Why was it so important for you two to make sure this brand was accessible to women of color just as much as the women in Africa?
We ship worldwide, but the majority of our customers are in the United States and Canada. We also have customers in Europe and South America. We don’t sell in Africa because, culturally, if someone sees a design that they like they’ll most likely go to their tailor to get it made. It’s not the best market fit for us in terms of selling, but we need to produce part of what we’re selling from there. We want to have that positive economic impact in Africa and the United States as well. Also, in terms of creating an online shop, it’s been incredible to see the wide reach and the people who are so excited about the products we sell. It didn’t dawn on me how global there was a need for a brand like ours until we did Afropunk Paris a couple of years ago. We had this woman and her daughter who came from either Germany or the Netherlands tell us that there wasn’t anything like this where they were from. Her daughter felt so seen and beautiful and she was wearing one of our two-piece sets. The mother was legitimately crying seeing how happy her daughter was! It never fully hit me that our clothes can do that for someone.
You have impacted people, more importantly, you have impacted the whole fashion industry. Do you see you two’s influence on products from other fashion brands and companies?
Yeah, it’s pretty funny. I take it as flattery and keep it moving. It just gets frustrating from time to time because we are smaller than other brands that we see do things similar to ours. However, we try to stay focused on the women we are trying to serve and make sure we’re giving them the best possible experience.
It’s crazy how you two continue to innovate and reinvent Cee Cee’s Closet NYC in more ways than one.
One of the key reasons for that is that Uchenna just loves to experiment. She’s always been that person who likes to be more daring with her style. So by the time someone has copied us, we’ve already moved on to something else.
So is Uchenna more of the risktaker?
Yeah, for sure!
Since she’s not here, talk to me about how important Uchenna has been to Cee Cee’s Closet and you professionally and personally.
Cee Cee’s would not be what it is without her. She is our Creative Director and helps create the aesthetic, brand, and products that we do. She’s also my big sis and I love her. She’s one of the most incredible that I’ve ever known.
What tools and resources do you two use to make sure the brand is represented well across the world?
Social media has been a huge tool for us. We’ve been expanding more on TikTok and Pinterest. Also, we use email marketing and text lists to keep our customers up to date. In terms of communicating with our team, we use different apps to help us make sure we are effective in how we get things done. WhatsApp has been so core to our business and it is such a huge app outside the United States. It’s how we communicate with our teams in Ghana and Nigeria, so it’s integral to our business.
What is next for Cee Cee’s Closet NYC as a brand?
We’re going to be expanding to more products that you can use for different parts of your life. Our fall and winter drops are going to be amazing because we’re going to be stepping into different materials. We’re going to see Cee Cee’s original designs by Uchenna that are going to blow your mind! Also, we’re going to continue creating quality products that make women feel incredible because that’s always the goal.
What would you call this chapter of your life?
I feel like growth sounds cheesy, but I do look at it as a chapter of growth because I spent most of my 20s working on Cee Cee’s. So every day, week, month, and year has been something different to force me to learn, grow, and develop in different ways. It has helped me learn about myself, what I’m comfortable with, and interested in. It’s been a moment of growth and change and I’m excited for when things are easier. When it comes to entrepreneurship, it’s always a new challenge around the corner as you keep moving forward. However, it’s been such an incredible journey. I’m appreciative of what I’ve learned because I don’t think I can learn any other way.
Shop at the Cee Cee’s Closet NYC website for headwraps, clothes, waist beads, and more.