FASHION BUSINESS IN AFRICA: DESIGNERS SPEAK.
Here five pioneering African designers discuss the business of fashion in Africa and the struggles that come with it.
Loza Maleombho, Cote d'Ivoire
Ivorian designer Loza Maleombho has powerful views on the current state of the fashion industry, and minces no words on how and why Africa should put its house in order to get the industry right.
"The fashion industry in Afri- ca is evidently growing," she says. "New designers are emerging every month. Online African market ven- tures are launching at a fast pace. Fashion weeks in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Senegal, An- gola, Tanzania, happen almost every 4-6 months. This hub of activities is stimulating a global fascination around African fashion and African art in general. But as exciting as this is, we need to identify and create structures in the context of the actual realities that we live in as an industry.
"We need to facilitate a better trade for African-made [fashion] items. Better import, export tax- es and duty costs between African countries as well as globally. We also need African governments to start paying attention to what is happen- ing and get involved. For example, by offering tax relief for labels that use local labour, promote job creation, use local materials and in-house manufacturing. We also need better shipping costs to crack the interna- tional market."
The designer, who established her label in New York in 2009 and relo- cated to Cote d'Ivoire in 2012, com- bines Ivorian traditions with modern fashion. "Our silhouettes celebrate the paradox of the old and the new, cultural and futuristic, but more spe- cifically the synergies, the contradic- tions and similarities between Ivori- an tribal aesthetics and New York's urban fashion."
Most recently, Maleombho's fame skyrocketed when her brand was fea- tured in Beyonce's hugely successful album, Lemonade -- and is seen on some of the dancers on the famous song Formation.
Evelyne Akinyi Odongo, Kenya
An authentic, grassroots and eco-con- scious fashion brand doesn't come any better than Akinyi Odongo Kenya. The label's take on designing with vi- brant African prints or the traditional Maasai plaid is unique, and its diverse range -- from whimsical and youthful, to sleek office looks and intricately embellished and expressive evening wear -- attracts a broad range of cus- tomers. These include some high-pro- file names: when prodded, the brand's founder, Evelyne Akinyi Odongo, name-drops Kenya's First Lady Mar- garet Kenyatta, former African Union chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlami- ni-Zuma, and Arancha Gonzalez, ex- ecutive director of the International Trade Centre, as just a few.
"But to me all my clients are im- portant and I consider all of them high profile, because to be where my business is today, I owe it to the very first client I ever served," she says.
She does have one name she sees as her ultimate client, the former wife of Kenya's founding president Jomo Kenyatta -- Mama Ngina. "For me she possesses a rich history that is linked to our nation and is a strong symbol of femininity and grace. She is every- thing our brand represents," she adds.
Akinyi has been designing for over a decade, including for MEFA Cre- ations. But she is clear that the fe- male-led Akinyi Odongo Kenya is her pride and joy.
"We create high-end couture pieces with fabrics that are of high quality, ethical and sustainable. Incorporating a touch of the rich African culture in our pieces gives us a unique distinc- tion," she says.
Still under three years old, the im- pact the label is having on the Kenyan fashion scene, and the world at large, could also be down to its design ethos.
"Our silhouettes are tailored specifi- cally to the African woman's physique, which is what lacks in most interna- tional brands in general," explains Akinyi. And by deliberately targeting the 30 to 65 year old age bracket, she caters for a demographic considered to have the highest purchasing power in most of Africa.
Akinyi Odongo Kenya is one of the few fashion houses in Africa that applies a zero waste philosophy. Using its unique patchwork technique, fabric remnants are sewn to make beautiful and sophisticated silhouettes, ensuring that no piece of fabric is discarded. This has resulted in the label's patch- work jacket being one of its best sellers.
Akinyi is not a just fashion design- er and industry maven, she is also a strong believer in Africa and Kenya's diverse local talent. She even mentors young designers at the Fashion Torch Africa Hub, the first ever fashion hub in East and Central Africa.
She also works with institutions such as the Kenya Industrial Research & Development Institute, Export Pro- motion Council, and African Cotton & Textile Industries Federation, on is- sues affecting the fashion industry.
What has been her proudest mo- ment so far in contributing to the Ken- yan fashion industry?
"Being selected to showcase our pieces and business ideas at the 2015 6th Global Entrepreneurship Summit here in Nairobi, which was graced by former US president, Barack Obama, was special... I have since been invited to various platforms to share my ex- periences and I have equally engaged with government institutions in Kenya for the betterment of the industry."
Thula Sindi, South Africa
Thula Sindi, who often refers to his designs as 'ramp-to-reality', founded his self-named label in 2005 under the mantra 'Modern, Sophisticated, Simplicity'.
"The woman I create for is a wom- an on the move, and who better than an African woman... who is always so busy working and supporting every- one in her community and family," he says. "I create clothes that are not just of good quality, with a great finish, but I make sure they also fit beauti- fully, are comfortable to wear and to move in, for a woman who is always on the move. Comfort to me has al- ways been how Africans have tradi- tionally dressed. I therefore always keep that in mind."
In more than a decade of its exis- tence, his label has seen exponential growth, to the extent that in 2015 Thula marked his 10 years in business with a grand opening of his own be- spoke store in Johannesburg's Rose- bank Mall -- a feat only a few African designers have achieved.
The 2012 South African Tourism Designer of the Year, who has a strong online shopping market, also stocks in prominent stores such as Luminance, high-end boutiques in Angola and Nigeria, and will soon be present at a fashion store being opened by a Ken- yan in Nairobi.
"A store is like a church," he says. "Online is like praying at home, but when you have a cathedral, people are able to come witness what the gospel is about.
"With the opening of the store people will be able to see how I'd like my clothes worn. We are now able to communicate what the whole Thula Sindi brand is about."
With so much laudable success, the authenticity of the affable design- er's views on the state of the African fashion and design industry is hard to question.
"Fashion in Africa has really moved in leaps and bounds in the past 10 years," he says. "Consumers here in South Africa are loving South Afri- can fashion and the fact that they are designed by South Africans who are incorporating South African elements. However, that doesn't just mean print or tribal, but elements such as pro- portion and sizing, which make the designs beautiful but relevant to the African woman."
He adds: "Many women now also love unique pieces, because most of the [foreign] fashion that comes into Africa is mass produced, so for customers to get a garment that has less units floating around, is a big plus."
But how can African fashion be sustainably improved and where is it lacking the most?
"It's the business and financial side of fashion design, and the textile in- dustries, that are really suffering on the continent and need urgent im- proving and attention," says Thula. "Designers are struggling to expand and to get working capital. The cre- ativity is there, the initiatives are there, the customers are there, but like any other business we need state, banks and corporate support."
Deola Ade Ojo, Nigeria
Think of a doyen of African fashion and the name Deola Ade Ojo will be right up there. The Nigerian 'Queen of Couture' as she is widely referred to, has been in the fashion business for 28 years -- and the House of De- ola (which until 2015 was popularly known as Deola Sagoe) is one the most solid and successful fashion businesses in Africa.
The Master's in Finance graduate's attention to detail is perhaps one of her strongest selling points. For exam- ple, her last collection, the exquisitely beautiful KEmEle Kandids, took her 12 years to research, master the tech- niques and create the looks. She intri- cately combined the use of traditional lace and Aso Oke -- Nigeria's cultural 'haute couture' fabric, which had hith- erto traditionally been reserved for weddings and very special occasions. "I have always found Aso Oke a trea- sure trove. It is totally underestimated. At the M-Net/Anglo-gold Africa De- signs in 2000 my collection was based on fringing Aso Oke, and I remember people being quite shocked at the ver- satility of the fabric. So even as far back as then, I guess you can detect my design attitude... I have always been very keen on making a state- ment, and cultural identity was a big part of that statement.
"You've got to think back to that time in the world. There were so many misconceptions about Africa, Africans, and African style. Today, the conversation is better but we're still not at the level we need to be. So with using Aso Oke in my designs I'm contributing to the global conversa- tion from my perspective -- I'm speaking in my own language as it were," she says.
When KEmEle Kandids images were released, the media described them as "the fashion lookbook of the year". But how does she manage to capture such mesmerising atten- tion?
"I'm always in the 'lab' -- the fash- ion lab -- experimenting on one thing or the other. I have these ideas about fabrics... Sometimes I imagine the way a fabric will move on the body, or I imagine a fabric that plays with light in a certain way."
Deola's premium clients read like a Who's Who of African upperclass society, including some African First Ladies with whom she describes her business relationship as "sisterhood". Her posh boutique in the high-end Victoria Island (Lagos) may reflect the type of customers she attracts, but the legendary designer knows best who the ideal House of Deola woman is.
"My customers are women of any breed. In general, I can say that they have an independent spirit, a love of beautiful things -- I mean that they have an intimate relationship with beauty; beautiful objects, clothes, fab- rics, scenes -- not everybody is into beauty, many are into function, others status, but the women I have in mind are the kind that cherish beauty, and see it as a requirement for living."
But what is her view on the African fashion industry in general, having been in the field for almost three de- cades?
"Fashion is an ever-evolving state of being, because people continue to evolve, and views change, circum- stances change," she states.
Taibo Bacar, Mozambique
True to his motto, 'From Africa to the world', Taibo Bacar has built a fashion brand going beyond the borders of his homeland Mozambique. His en- thusiasm about where he wants to take the eponymous label he created in 2008 is palpable -- and for good reason.
"African fashion needs to be liber- ated of all ingrained preconceptions about its culture, and the socio-eco- nomic politics that surround it, if we are to truly flourish on a global scale," he says, adding with emphasis: "We feel the world views fashion in Africa to mean only for Africans. Yet the reality is that fashion transcends all bor- ders."
As the son of a seamstress, Taibo grew up in a house filled with fab- ric and surrounded by the tailoring talent of his mother. He has since per- fected his own skills after training in fashion design and pattern cutting at the acclaimed Istituto Marangoni in Spain, to become one of Africa's most sought after high-fashion and ready- to-wear designers of his generation. He describes his ideal client as, "A vibrant career woman, who appreci- ates comfort, simplicity and sophisti- cation."
One such client is South Africa's popular television personality and pre- senter Bonang Matheba. After receiv- ing frenzied praises from her millions of fans on social media when she wore some off-the-runway Taibo Bacar S/ S15 collection dresses, she publicly eu- logised about the designer, writing:
"Behind every successful woman is an army of trailblazers, and I would like you to meet the team behind my magic... first up is Mozambican de- signer Taibo Bacar."
Trailblazing is indeed what the pas- sionate and versatile designer is doing. After starting as a bespoke design- er for a few clients in Mozambique, he now boasts an enviable rollcall of successes. In 2010, he became the first African to participate in Moda Donna's Milan Fashion Week. In 2012 he won the coveted Emerging Design- er Of The Year at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Africa. The same year, his label was the focus study at the International Herald Tribune Luxu- ry Conference in Rome. The event, themed The Promise of Africa, also featured brands such as Valentino, Fendi and Gucci, among others. And the list goes on.
But there is one special moment that truly speaks to the designer's heart. "My proudest moment has to be our 2012 Fit for a Princess collec- tion," he says. "It was the first time a Mozambican designer had used our traditional Capulana print, in such an intricate and delicate manner. And it was very popularly received worldwide. As it is such a historic part of our heritage, that was very special."
With so much success under his belt, he has now ventured into designing other fashion accessories and is expanding his client base into Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Botswana, Ni- geria, Kenya, the US, Portugal and Dubai.
"My aim is to fill the void in the lack of clothing made by African de- signers, or those of African origin, on both national and international mar- kets," he says.
IT'S THE BUSINESS AND FINANCIAL SIDE OF FASHION DESIGN, AND THE TEXTILE INDUSTRIES, THAT ARE REALLY SUFFERING ON THE CONTINENT AND NEED URGENT ATTENTION
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