My interview with Abi Oyepitan and Liha Okunniwa, founders of Liha Beauty, was one of the most fun hours I’ve spent in a while. A British brand committed to using natural, organic and traditional African ingredients, Abi and Liha were open, honest - and hilarious at times.
Has being as natural as possible always been ‘a thing’ for you?
Abi: Not so much skincare, but definitely my hair, because I’ve been natural for most of my life. Literally, I’d be in my parents’ kitchen cupboards; mayonnaise, egg, whatever. When I was about 25 I had allergies and started getting a really bad scalp. Liha was the first person to say, ‘don’t use shampoo, don’t use shampoo.’ I went to the doctor and they gave me a medicated shampoo. It worked initially but when I went back to shampoo, the problems came back. So I just cut out using shampoo. That’s what started my natural journey; I remember thinking, ‘actually, all you really need is water.’ Now I wash my hair around five times a year. The less product I put in my hair, the less I need to wash it.
Liha: My mum’s an aromatherapist so I’ve always been used to experimenting with products, but I think I got more into it at university. Hair does start self-cleaning. Everyone’s different; I actually like to wash my hair up to once a week. I get a weird headache if I don’t wash my hair. I know when I need to wash it. It just depends on how your hair reacts to water. I used to think water was my enemy, but then my hair would go completely dry; at one point all my hair broke off, so I’ve been through it all!
For anyone thinking about trying to go more natural, they should try co-washing. Just skip the shampoo, use the conditioner two or three times and wash it out. You don’t need shampoo!
Abi: I think they put something in the shampoo to get people hooked on using it.
When did you start having conversations about starting a business?
Abi: Probably when I retired from athletics, in 2012. I was going to do something in hair with my sister – so glad I didn’t do that! Me and my sister fight. We used to sell vintage stuff.
Liha: We’ve got a friend, Nita – we’re a bit of a three – she was talking to Abi, and I was talking to Nita, thinking about doing something. Nita said ‘why don’t you talk to each other and do something together?’ We just hadn’t made the leap.
Abi: We just hadn’t really thought about it. I was always into hair, and Liha was more into skin. It evolved into selling other peoples’ natural products.
Liha: At the time there weren’t really any curated websites selling natural products. The natural market was growing but then people didn’t really know about Shea butter, for example. We wanted to give people quality.
Abi: There certainly weren’t any black curated sites. But then things started to evolve and I was a bit reluctant to launch a brand with two products. Liha was like, ‘of course we can’. Then we did some workshops at the Port Eliot festival and the response was overwhelming. It’s run away with itself now, and we’re just trying to keep up!
What’s been the biggest ‘wow’ moment so far?
Abi: American Vogue! It was serendipitous. It was such great timing. The feature was amazing. It wasn’t in the magazine but online is just as good!
Liha: It was amazing; that and being stocked in Liberty. Both of those things were things we’d visualised in a five-year plan, but they happened within the first two years, so it’s still kind of a ‘pinch yourself’ moment.
What’s been the biggest lesson so far?
Liha: We’re still learning every day.
Abi: We’re very similar in a way. I read this article the other day; a store owner in New York who was saying that her and her business partner were very similar, and that what they really needed was to be different to each other: one of them needed to be more business-minded, logical and organised – which we are!
Liha: We are - don’t sell us short! We’ve always done it quite organically. To be honest, we probably should sit down and define our roles, but it doesn’t work for us. We just work with it and it’s been fine, we haven’t had any major issues. Our workshop’s in Cheltenham; we just have to make sure that we communicate regularly. It’s not that we’re not business-minded, it’s that we’re both creative. And neither of us loves Excel!
Abi: We kind of have certain roles that we’ve fallen into. It’s difficult because we both work – Liha’s got a family (and works in art publishing; Abi is a personal trainer). When one of us travels the other has to take over really. I’ve never run my own business although I’ve worked for myself, so this has been a real learning curve for me.
Liha: We’ve learned a lot about forward planning. I’ve had my own business for 10-12 years, but it’s been kind of small. When you’re looking to take things to the next level, people like Sharmadean Reid (founder of Wah Nails) have been really helpful. She’s in the middle of our moodboard! She’s smashed it in terms of her business model and how she did things and the types of people she’s been able to reach.
Women in business
Abi: I bumped into Sharmadean at a hair and beauty show. Liha had always mentioned her and I’d seen a picture of her. I told her my business partner would kill me if I didn’t give her our card. I emailed her and sent her some samples and since then she’s been absolutely amazing. She’s given us so much advice – even though she’s younger than us! Aesthically she’s on point.
I was in a sport where it was a real dog eat dog situation – you always felt like someone was clipping at your heels, but with Sharmadean it’s more a case of looking up to someone. It would be great if all women could work together this way, seeing it less as a competition. I want to be that woman. I want our business to show people that it’s not a competition; it’s about building something and bringing people up.
Liha: We want to work with everyone. I’ve done so much research and discovered there are so many similarities between black skin and mature white skin. At the end of the day, it’s all just skin.
Abi: It’s an education. The skincare industry segregated us, so it becomes embedded in your mind that you’re different – which is weird.
Liha: I get people asking me, ‘how do you comb your hair?’ With a comb! ‘How do you wash your hair?’ Under water!
I do think things are moving in a really good direction though. So many big brands are copying what people are doing on social media and coming out with all the swatches on all skin tones. It was a real sign when Lupita Nyong’o started modelling for Lancôme – they could see that there are this many brown people in the world and that they need to cater to everyone. I just hope that it isn’t a fad. Sometimes you’re in vogue, sometimes you’re not. It needs to be everyone – all the time.
Abi: For me, it’s not about trying to be included; it’s about branching out and doing our own shit. I look at MDMflow and think, good on her, because it’s not about trying to wait. It’s about, you know what, let’s do it, and the brands can catch up.
Who’s the Liha woman?
Abi: Solange Knowles is my Liha woman; I lurve Solange Knowles.
What’s your beauty routine?
Abi: I’m very simple. I know nothing about brands, I just know what I do; I know what works for me. Because my face gets oily in warmer weather, I spritz – I don’t actually put oil on my face. Sometimes I might dab a bit on my nose as it gets quite dry, and then I’ll put makeup on. I started making my own natural deodorant; I need to tweak it a bit though. Occasionally, because I’m a personal trainer, I’ll wear deodorant. Other times I’ll just use our Idan oil as coconut is a natural deodoriser. In the winter I might use some shea on my face, because I get really dry. I don’t wear perfume because it gives me a headache, so again I’ll just use Idan oil.
Liha: Abi is super natural, and I’m trying to detox, because I’m a bit of a product junkie. I’m really over the top. I’m all about the trends, double masking – watching YouTube all the time. I like to try things – I know it’s not good for you! But I do still have my staples that I can’t live without; Dermalogica’s cream exfoliant, for when you need that glow. Randomly, Mudd mask; super cheap, from Boots. I’ve used that since I was 15, once a week. Pop it on overnight and your skin will clear right up.
When it comes to my hair, I tend to do twist-outs quite often, but lately I just wash and go. I can’t be bothered; I’ll take the shrinkage. Product-wise, Lush’s H’Suan Wen Hau is a staple for me – it’s an amazing deep conditioner thing. I also use Bumble and bumble’s Crème de Coco masque (currently sold out across most UK websites) and I use coconut oil from The Body Shop. It’s not pure coconut oil but it’s got something in it that just works for my hair.
Who do you admire?
Liha: Betty Davis (former wife of and major influence on Miles Davis). How long have I been obsessed with her? From when I was 19 I’ve had plans to make a documentary about her. I just don’t have the money to do it, but one day I will. She was so ahead of her time; no-one was ready for her.
What gives you peace?
Abi: I need to get back into my guided meditation and Pilates. Spending time with my niece and nephew always makes me feel good. When you see kids, they just put a smile on your face.
Liha: I like to do yoga. But it’s finding the time to be consistent with it.
Words to live by?
Abi: Feel the fear and do it anyway.