Richard Asirifi, Electrical Engineering
“I’m an electrical engineer, and me and five other people have been able to make this [business] happen in four years. That’s an amazing feeling, to have this dream come true.”
Of all the designers invited to showcase their latest lines at New York Fashion Week in February 2016, it’s a safe bet that Richard Asirifi ’16 was the only one simultaneously finishing up a degree in electrical engineering.
Asirifi is founder and CEO of Lief Kultuur, a clothing line he started four years ago as a sophomore in the Francis College of Engineering.
“I made this African infinity scarf,” Asirifi recalls, “and when I started wearing it around campus people were like, ‘That’s really nice.’ Then people started seeing it on Facebook and saying, ‘Wow, I need one.’ ”
Four years later, Lief Kultuur (which is pronounced “Lee-ay Culture” and means “love culture” in the Dutch Afrikaans language) is turning heads far beyond campus with its colorful and abstract line of men’s and women’s “athleisure” wear, a $97 billion market that Asirifi has quickly tapped into.
“It’s become such a blessing. I thank God,” says the 24-year-old Asirifi, who was born in Ghana and moved with his family to Worcester when he was 8. “I thought I was just going to do this for fun on the side, and it’s just propelled into this massive thing.”
Of course, Asirifi really is running Lief Kultuur (and its six-person staff) on the side. His day job is at National Technical Systems in Boxborough, where he’s worked as an electrical engineer since March 2016.
“It’s a difficult balance, but it keeps me grounded,” says Asirifi, who used to tag along with his father, Samuel, a church electrician.
“Being an electrical engineer reminds you that you know nothing about anything. Every single day comes with a challenge. With a clothing line people see your stuff and you see the ‘wow’ factor in their faces, and you can begin to commend yourself. And then you get to work and you have an 80-hour week ahead of you because this resistor is blowing up and this other one has to be in compliance, and then you’re like, I’m really not all that.”
But in the fashion world, Asirifi is all that.
Last winter, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert and his wife, recording artist Teyana Taylor, posted a photo of themselves on social media wearing matching Lief Kultuur jackets.
“They reached out to us and said, ‘We like your stuff,’ which was pretty nice,” says Asirifi, who adds that the company has yet to spend a dime on marketing. “It’s all just social media— friends being friends and putting us out there.”
Asirifi discovered his eye for fashion at an early age, when he began getting compliments on the outfits he wore to church. Then, when he was 15, Asirifi thought, “Why am I spending $50 on Ralph Lauren shirts when I could just make them myself?” So he bought $10 worth of fabric and asked his mom, Grace, to teach him how to sew.
As his interest in fashion began to grow, Asirifi approached a friend, Samuel Boakye, about starting a business. Boakye had some friends in the New York fashion industry, including Malika Cuffie, “an absolute killer designer who can make anything from scratch,” Asirifi says. Boakye is now Lief Kultuur’s creative director, while Cuffie’s title is lead design engineer.
To get the business off the ground, Asirifi turned to the Merrimack Valley Sandbox (now EforAll), an organization that seeks to revitalize cities by investing in entrepreneurs.
“The Sandbox was the launcher,” Asirifi says. “I was just a kid with a dream and some sewing materials, but I didn’t have capital. The Sandbox invested in me, starting with $500, and convinced us to believe in this dream.”
Asirifi also took part in the DifferenceMaker program (his solar electric vehicles team took second) and was a Student Alumni Ambassador, experiences he sees as deeply influential on his new careers.
“Working with Marty Meehan, Jacquie Moloney, Steve Tello, Ralph Jordan … they built this entrepreneurial spirit in me,” says Asirifi, who hopes to one day build Lief Kultuur into a global brand — with a conscience. “Ten years from now, if Lief Kultuur can be self-sustaining, take care of everybody that’s working for it, and give back daily to those in need, then I’m good.”
Lief Kultuur doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar store yet (although it does have a partnership with Humanity, a boutique in downtown Lowell), which means nearly all of its sales come through its website. “But I would love to see Lief Kultuur in every major city in the world someday, just like you see Zara,” Asirifi says.
As CEO, Asirifi says the biggest challenge is maintaining morale and communication on the team, which is scattered across the Northeast. Boakye, an MBA student at D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y., handles most of the day-to-day operations of the company but will check in with Asirifi by phone several times a week.“
For me, it matters that I have a working relationship and a personal relationship with everyone on my team,” Asirifi says. “I think anything can be done from a structural point of view, but when life comes into play, that’s the hardest part. This is like having another family that’s been backing you from DayOne, and you have to care about them.”
Production is another hurdle that Asirifi is learning to manage. Most of the line, which is aimed at the 18-25 crowd, is produced in Pakistan and China, but Asirifi is trying to make headway in Ghana and also build manufacturing relationships in the U.S. and Canada. While some of the items (such as the $199 printed blazers or $150 peacock tier skirt) are a little pricey for the average college student, Asirifi says he strives to produce pieces that everyone can afford.“
It’s about ‘love culture,’ so you can’t say ‘love’ and then only tend to the upper class,” he says. “You have to make sure everyone feels like they’re on the same level.”
After appearing in a handful of fashion shows their first two years, Asirifi and his team have been invited to around 20 this year, including February’s New York Fashion Week.
“That was mind-blowing,” says Asirifi, who spoke with a fellow designer there who had waited 20 years for an invite. “I’m not a business major. I’m not a marketing major. I’m an electrical engineer, and me and five other people have been able to make this happen in four years. That’s an amazing feeling, to have this dream come true.”