By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions
SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY
Tales of African global fashion successes have multiplied in the last few years. African fashion is seeing its profile rise as more and more shows and festivals boost awareness of the continent’s designs, designers and models. In turn, African fashion and design is being taken more seriously as an income and job generator, and as a sector able to weather the ups and downs of the global economy: people always need to wear clothes.
If the global fashion industry were a country, it would rank 7th in global GDP (gross domestic product) (Fashion Performance Network).
In 2011, the apparel retail industry was worth an estimated US $1.1 trillion, and that could grow to US $1.3 trillion by 2016. And the sector is expanding in the global South. It is forecast that India and China combined will be as big a fashion market as the United States by 2015.
One visible aspect of this is the plethora of African fashion weeks that have sprung up.
Launched in 2011, African Fashion Week in London (africafashionweeklondon.com), or AFWL, is a reflection of how far things have come and how much higher the profile of African fashion now is.
The mission behind AFWL is “to promote emerging and established African designers and African-inspired designers from across the globe.” The number of attendees grew from 4,700 in the first year to 20,000 in 2012.
In 2012 it partnered with Côte d’Ivoire Fashion Week (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cote-dIvoire-Fashion-Week/364950310210789), which will hold its third annual event in December 2013. This partnership has meant fashion designers from Côte d’Ivoire can benefit from the higher international profile of appearing at African Fashion Week in London. The theme in 2012 was “Ivorian Textile Products on the American Market.”
“London is one of the most important fashion capitals around the world,” said Côte d’Ivoire Fashion Week’s founder and CEO, Coulibaly Severin on the AFWL website. “It is a great honour for us and the African continent to have a professional international platform to promote African Fashion industry actors, African heritage, African values, African textiles through Africa Fashion Week London.”
The idea is to use the fashion week as a bridge to access the European market.
With the right support, African fashion businesses have huge potential for growth.
A distinctive “Afropolitan” aesthetic (http://afropolitanaesthetic.tumblr.com/) has grown as a phenomenon since 2005, influencing global urban design trends. It can be characterized as urban, sophisticated, tailored and boldly African in its use of colours and patterns. British designer Paul Smith (http://www.paulsmith.co.uk/uk-en/shop/) has been one of many designers to be inspired by the afropolitan look.
While African fashion trends have always influenced the global fashion business, the challenge has been to create viable global African fashion brands that can compete in the global marketplace and in turn create sustainable jobs in Africa.
Pioneers are showing that it can be done.
Featured at Africa Fashion Week in London in 2011, the Nigerian fashion brand Mmabon (mmabon.com) is now looking to pioneer new ways to buy and sell clothing in Africa. The company, which sells affordable casual and custom apparel, is launching a mobile phone app for all devices and is building its own Internet e-commerce website as well. Mmabon had been engaging with customers through Facebook and the BlackBerry smartphone, but realized it could offer a much better experience for customers through an app and an e-commerce website. This shows the future for fashion in Africa is going mobile and going online.
Founded by Elizabeth Idem-Ido, Mmabon is capitalizing on the fact Internet access is improving in Nigeria and is turning to online advertising to drum up customers. The fashion brand is trying to reach 16 to 34 year olds, of which 8 million are believed to be currently on Facebook in Nigeria, according to Idem-Ido.
There is a cultural change underway in the country: people are increasingly feeling comfortable doing commerce online and on mobile phones.
“Nigerian youths are now more willing to buy products over the Internet, unlike five years ago, with the likes of konga.com and jumia.com revolutionizing the online retail scene in Nigeria,” Idem-Ido, who is also a trained lawyer, told VC4Africa (https://vc4africa.biz/).
Konga (Konga.com) is Nigeria’s largest online mall. Opened in 2012, it offers a wide range of products for order across Nigeria. Jumia.com calls itself the “the biggest online shopping mall in Africa”, operating in Morocco, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Kenya. Another player is Ecwid (ecwid.com), which bills itself as an e-commerce solution for small businesses that “is a revolutionary shopping cart that seamlessly integrates with your existing website. It can also be added to your page on social media networks, such as Facebook or mySpace”.
Idem-Ido’s experience with Mmabon over the past two years shows how online marketing can be an effective – and cost-effective – way to broaden a company’s customer base.
“As a business, we have not physically met with 80 per cent of our current customers,” she said. “Orders have been achieved from referrals, BlackBerry Messenger contacts and our official Facebook page. Online marketing improves our visibility without owning a prime-location store and reminds, assures our already existing customers on why we are their preferred brand.”
Her fashion business began humbly as a part-time t-shirt printing hobby for her friends. Then people started ordering custom-designed t-shirts, and so she began a journey exploring fabrics in local and foreign markets.
Mmabon is now the official merchandiser for the Calabar Festival 2013-2015 (calabarfestival.com), the biggest street carnival in West Africa. Taking place in Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria, it attracts a million people.
Mmabon is receiving help from Venture Capital for Africa, or VC4Africa (https://vc4africa.biz/), a community of entrepreneurs and investors helping to build companies in Africa, to raise further investment to grow the brand and the business.
Another success benefiting from international exposure is Malian designer Boubacar Doumbia (http://www.ndomo.net/english/index.html), who is currently making fabrics for design-savvy British furniture and home furnishings store Habitat. The prints with African themes have proven a hit with Habitat customers.
Working from a new studio in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, Doumbia (https://www.ashoka.org/fellow/boubacar-doumbia) is a leading advocate of bogolan (http://www.malimali.org/what-is-bogolan/), a Malian traditional textile dyeing process using mud.
He uses locally grown cotton, which is first dyed using plant-based dyes. A chemical reaction occurs when the iron in the mud is applied to the fabric and turns the existing plant dye black after three applications, or grey after two applications. The mud is washed off and the fabrics are placed in the sun to dry. It is a sustainable and chemical-free approach to dyeing fabrics and also creates vibrant patterns that have caught the attention of people in Europe and elsewhere.
Other outlets who have become enamored with African patterns and themes in Britain include Darkroom Boutique, House of Fraser and the V&A Museum, The Guardian newspaper reported.
As an Ashoka fellow (ashoka.org) – Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide – Boubacar is using the craft as a way to boost skills and opportunities for youth in Mali. He has “overhauled the traditional model of youth apprenticeship in Mali by putting young people in a central, entrepreneurial role from the outset. Rather than simply train students in the methods of textile production, he teaches professional, people and life skills, and encourages his apprentices to become self-sufficient, creative, and innovative”, according to the Ashoka website.
Elsewhere, African fashion style pioneer Gilles Belinga (https://www.facebook.com/GillesBelinga) has become a fashion phenomenon in China. The former communications engineering student had a deeply personal conversion to fashion and style upon arriving in Beijing; the buzzing and vibrant Chinese capital captured his heart.
“I discovered my talent and passion for fashion in China,” he told China Daily.
“I’ve also been given many opportunities here, so I want to pursue my fashion dream in China.”
The Cameroon native has a distinctly afropolitan take on fashion – elegant, tailored suits, strong colours, and a gentleman’s manner – and this fashionable posture landed him modeling work in fashion shows.
He arrived in China in 2008 after his parents divorced and he went from being in a wealthy family back home to having to do any job he could get to survive. He started out in Tianjin, China – an industrial city with a large high-technology sector – and then moved to Beijing to study.
It was there that he fell in love with the city’s fashion scene and hasn’t looked back.
“I never attended fashion school in Africa, but in Beijing, in this fashionable environment I realized that I like drawing clothes, matching colors and mixing fabrics,” he said.
“There are so many fabrics here, which has given me the chance to try out different things. Sometimes you might have a talent in you, but you might not discover that talent if you’re not in a place where it can come out.”
He now designs clothes and has them made by local tailors.
“When I design clothes for clients, I look at the whole person and what kind of message they want to deliver to people,” he said. “Then I check their skin color and think about style and fabric.”
He defies the elitist take on fashion that can be promulgated by fashion magazines and thinks good fashion is for everyone.
“I believe the way you dress sends a message to people about how you want them to think about you.”
He finds Beijing is full of opportunities and he is regularly stopped in the city’s trendy Sanlitun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanlitun) neighbourhood and asked to be in fashion shows.
“In China, you don’t know who you are going to meet. You could be anywhere and meet someone who can change your life.”
And he plans to perfect his skills and designs in China and then take them back to Cameroon one day.
And maybe, in time, Belinga will be the next big fashion thing.
1) African Fashion Week London: AFWL celebrates London’s unique and diverse cultural heritage, topped with the flamboyant mixing of Western and African culture through fashion at the same time promoting Africa’s rich ethnic culture and interpreting it into contemporary designs. Website: africafashionweeklondon.com
2) Gentlemen of Bacongo by Daniele Tamagni, Paul Smith and Paul Goodwin, Publisher: Trolley. Website: amazon.com
The Afropolitan: A magazine and website from South Africa packed with content from an afropolitan perspective. Website: afropolitan.co.za/
Association of African Designers in Diaspora: The Association of African Designers in the Diaspora is the non-profit social enterprise arm of Africa Fashion Week London that supports emerging designers with the aim to make a positive contribution to society through fashion and creativity. Website: http://africafashionweeklondon.com/africafashionweek/association-of-african-designers-in-diaspora/
The Creative Economy: How People Make Money From Ideas by John Howkins, Publisher: Penguin. Website: creativeeconomy.com/book.htm
Creative Economy Report Website: This annual report offers a snapshot of the state of the global creative economy and its key trends. Website: http://unctad.org/en/Pages/Publications/Creative-Economy-Report-%28Series%29.aspx
7) Copyright + Creativity = Jobs and Economic Growth: WIPO Studies on the Economic Contribution of the Copyright Industries (WIPO 2012). Website: http://www.ip-watch.org/weblog/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/WIPO-Copyright-Economic-Contribution-Analysis-2012-FINAL-230-2.pdf
8) The Afropolitan Shop: The Afropolitan Shop is an online boutique founded by Beverly Lwenya, that desires to tell an African Design Story. It began as a blog in 2007 called The Afropolitan Network, which highlighted stories and images of the African Diaspora. The Afropolitan Shop is now a growing global brand, specializing in handmade and designer accessories such as jewelry, bags and shoes. Website: theafropolitanshop.com/
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