This Cameroonian immigrant has built a luxury bag company approved by Beyoncé

BY Preta Peace Namasaba May 17, 2024 6:06 AM EDT
Wilglory Tanjong. Photo credit: Our FTales

Wilglory Tanjong has always loved fashion. She found joy flipping through the Vogue Fashion book and constantly begged her mother to buy it for her. However, it took Tanjong reconnecting with Africa to realize that she could thrive in the fashion industry. What began as a fun venture is now a reputable luxury handbag line that has been featured on HBO’s Insecure, Beyoncé’s Instagram page, and is sold in major retailers such as Nordstrom.

“[Anima Iris] was a therapeutic project that was just making me happy. I’ve always been a very fashionable person. People always ask me, ‘Where’d you get this? Where’d you get that?’ And then I realized, ‘Hey, maybe people will just buy [products] from me.’,” Tanjong explained how she turned passion into profit.

Born in Cameroon, Tanjong and her family relocated to Maryland when she was two. Her parents owned and operated a laundromat, her father flipped houses, and her mom juggled working as a nurse and owning a small cosmetology studio. Although it’s clear that she gets her entrepreneurial spirit from them, she hated the entire concept at the time. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when Tanjong was eight and her parents divorced when she was 14. She watched her family fall on hard times and had to rely on food stamps. These experiences pushed her to work hard at being financially independent.

Tanjong consequently worked hard and earned a free ride to Stanford University. Her mother unfortunately died during her senior year and Tanjong was emotionally bereft. Three weeks after her graduation, she moved to Atlanta to work as an operational manager at a manufacturing and supply company. She was earning $86,000 annual salary, had saved about $22,000 from on-campus jobs and summer internships, and had inherited around $50,000 from her mother. Although her bank account was smiling, Tanjong describes this period as the unhappiest she had ever been.

After a year in the professional world, she took a leave of absence for her mental health. Tanjong relied on her savings while traveling around Africa for six months. She began her voyage in Ghana, where she began to network with young entrepreneurs. She also interviewed local entrepreneurs for her African Hustle series on YouTube and Instagram as she traveled. Her inspiration struck when she found a community of artisans who handcrafted shoes, jewelry, and handbags in Senegal.

“I realized that there was a significant gap in the market. Women of color, and specifically Black women, have always been excluded from the luxury narrative. Building a brand that centers these women while also bringing forth African culture into the global landscape was like a bingo moment for me,” Tanjong said about her inspiration to create Anima Iris.

Tanjong discovered a business model where a local artisan could craft her jewelry and purse designs. She then explored what it would mean to start a small business by speaking with and hiring other artisans in the area. From her savings, she invested approximately $5,000 to fund travel, materials, and labor to make 50 bags.  She narrowed her focus on handbags following a soft launch at the end of 2019. In 2020, Tanjong opened Anima Iris,  formally quit her full-time job, and moved to Philadelphia to start over.

Anima Iris has used its online presence to grow and expand. The brand experienced its first viral moment in June 2020 when it was featured in a Vogue article promoting Black-owned beauty and fashion brands. A blogger then tweeted photos of Tanjong’s purses with links to the company’s webpage and social media accounts in a post that received almost 30,000 retweets, causing the Anima Iris website to instantly sell out.

In August 2021, the brand received the “Beyoncé approved” stamp of approval when the popstar shared a picture of the Raspberry Zaza bag on her Instagram. Following this endorsement, Anima Iris sold over $23,000 worth of luxury handbags, got verified on Instagram, and exceeded its projected earnings for 2021. This success prompted Tanjong to consider expansion. In 2024, Beyoncé once again shared an Instagram post featuring a luxury handbag designed by Tanjong. The bag, named Cowboy Carter ZAZA, was specifically created for the singer and was released to the public after receiving her stamp of approval.

“ANIMA IRIS IS BEYONCÉ APPROVED… AGAIN !! Beyoncé really loves Anima Iris, no cap all facts. I know y’all will ask so YES, I’m releasing the bag we made just for Bey and I’m naming it the Cowboy Carter ZAZA. Available now on…AHHH BEYONCÉ APPROVEDDD,” Tanjong excitedly wrote on Instagram.

In addition to earning through its Shopify site, Anima Iris has secured partnerships with retailers like Revolve, Nordstrom and soon Saks Fifth Avenue. Tanjong projected the brand’s revenues to exceed $5 million by 2023.