It’s been a long time coming but many African brands are finally receiving the transformative exposure that they have been deserving of. Yet as brick and mortar foot traffic dwindles in the age of a global pandemic, a limited editorial perspective told by fashion’s current leaders is not enough to substantially move tangible products. Enter a handful of women entrepreneurs who are stepping up to change this daunting challenge, creating innovative digital platforms that get the region’s products out to the masses. These four digital platforms are creating their own authentic stories expressed by the hearts of African designers from around the continent. At Models.com we spoke to these entrepreneurs about brands building momentum during COVID-19, structural challenges African designers face, and the growth the African fashion industry has made by embracing digital.
Ayaan Mohallim has the first-hand experience of the ins and outs of running a brand with her sister Idyl. After creating their clothing line Mataano, which means twins in Somali, they started Ditto Africa “after noticing that for designers from the continent there was a lack of visibility and opportunity in global markets.” Launched in 2018, the e-commerce platform and the digital marketplace carry 50+ brands from over 8 countries throughout Africa, the US, UK, and Turkey. Mohallim expressed that after living in Brooklyn, Somalia, and now Lagos she “sees the fashion industry through a new lens, one of reclaiming the African narrative.” Focusing on being a tech company first by using an API enabled platform then, a retailer second, the Mohallims also made it their mission to ensure that their team and investors were 100% Black. Shipping worldwide, they work with stylists and tastemakers to further the platform’s vision of placing the baton into the hands of African artists to tell their own stories. The majority of these designers have trouble logistically and Mohallim helps them by “reducing their overheads and eliminating shipping of physical samples while connecting them to consumers worldwide.” The African fashion industry needs to build a larger capacity for production, says Mohallim and Ditto Africa is working on initiatives that will escalate the digitalization of design and manufacturing sustainably. With buzzworthy brands like Orange Culture, Kenneth Ize, and Adama Paris, Mohallim says, “the designers that we represent are on the same level as brands anywhere else in the world. We don’t need any special favors and we no longer need platforms like Moda Operandi, Matches, Net-A-Porter, or Farfetch. We’ve created a platform that has consistent product photography, a customer service access point, and a flat shipping fee.”
African fashion and storytelling have often been misappropriated and Amira Rasool, the founder of The Folklore, aimed to cultivate a retail concept store that is focused on sharing powerful stories through designers’ artistry. The NYC-based owner created the luxury fashion space, The Folklore, after an educational focus in African-American and African Studies at Rutgers University and a study-abroad stint in Cape Town. Inspired to create a cultural hub that “allows brands to thrive even beyond their platform on The Folklore – we like to act as partners to the designers.” The e-commerce site not only carries 20+ luxury brands with names such as Loza Maléombho, I.AM.ISIGO, Chalk Jewelry, and Andrea Iyamah — but with Rasool’s background working at TIME, Vogue, and i-D Magazine, she is also set on having conversations that connect race and the Pan-African experience. Through her podcast series “Our Folklore” she speaks to creatives in fashion, tech, and music around their process as innovators. “I’m of the opinion that black people should be owners of these stories and of these channels,” Rasool explains. “I think that it’s important that we’re the ones telling the stories and that we’re the ones making these connections. Oftentimes, people won’t acknowledge these brands until they’re acknowledged by non-black people and that’s problematic in my eyes.” As a board member of the Black in Fashion Council, she states that “We as black women…need to recognize that we’re deserving and that people need to give us these opportunities, not because we’re black but because we are brilliant and because we are able to.”
“I think that it’s important that we’re the ones telling the stories and that we’re the ones making these connections. Oftentimes, people won’t acknowledge these brands until they’re acknowledged by non-black people and that’s problematic in my eyes.” – Amira Rasool
One of the discerning differences between The Folklore and other e-tailers is the choice of shipping and holding products in New York. When their largely American clientele places an order, Rasool and her team are directly fulfilling whereas most other retailers do so on a drop-ship basis, which is a long process that makes consumers have to spend more money on shipping costs. Adding on top of that The Folklore works closely with many first-time international market designers and helps them come up with international pricing, logistics, and even showcasing sponsored fashion shows. “For the Orange Culture A/W 2020 show in February, we got Courvoisier to sponsor in 14 days – our biggest focus is assisting these brands so that they can have a strong economic impact on the continent.” Rasool explains that at the beginning stages of the lockdown due to COVID-19, it was difficult for designers to produce but that “many of these brands are used to being creative to get things done because we already work with limited means and a pandemic isn’t going to switch too much for us.”
When Ijeoma Ogbechie was first thinking of her e-commerce platform the name came to her before the data-driven business. Avivere derives from two words, Africa and vivere, which means to live in Italian and Latin. Ogbechie who comes from the finance and tech worlds with an Executive MBA from London Business School to boot, always had the entrepreneurial drive growing up in a household full of them. With a desire to bridge the gap between the lack of distribution and consumer demand using technology, the boutique platform allows a slow fashion approach that aims to redefine the contemporary and luxury African market. By showcasing designers that “juxtapose traditional elements with modern aesthetics,” she’s able to create longevity for designers like Washington Roberts, Eki Orleans, Emmy Kasbit, and Sukeina. Ogbechie believes that “buying African does not limit customer style choices, it simply enhances their options.” Ogbechie expresses that “you do not have to change who you are or change your style to wear African. The luxury global customer can easily pair the Washington Roberts’ Archer Skirt with the Jacquemus Le Haut Ascea Top for a complete look.” Ogbechie indicates how her process of discovering new talents has been through traditional platforms like Lagos Fashion Week and a surprising crowd-sourcing tool, Instagram. “One of the brands we are going to be stocking soon was discovered via Instagram,” highlighting how creatives in social media, film, music, and stylists have all played an integral part in raising awareness of African brands.
With Europe and America’s fashion sustainability problem, Ogbechie explains how Africa has learned from the West’s environmental mistakes in fast fashion. “Most African brands have always embraced slow fashion – and this should continue. A lot of what gets produced is custom or made to order.” However, the need to scale beyond the continent still is a necessity if brands are to have any chance at longevity. Ogbechie believes that in order for the African industry to grow, brands must have a digital presence with designers educating themselves on incorporating intellectual property into their business strategy. “There have been many cases of brands being exploited by larger brand names due to the lack of IP protection.”
Nisha Kanabar the Tanzanian-born co-founder of Industrie Africa, is redefining the dialogue around mainstream fashion by offering consumers contemporary global fashion brands to shop from. Kanabar says, “We represent a new wave of conscious consumption, one that is both tailored to the environment today and the continent.” After graduating from Parsons and working in the editorial departments of Vogue, Vogue India, and Style.com, she co-founded Industrie Africa and has been busy evolving the fashion insider encyclopedia to an e-commerce marketplace. Introducing this shoppable element in May, the site now offers designers from over 11 countries in Africa like Studio 189, AAKS, Christie Brown, and Lisa Folayiwo creating an immersive experience of editorial and product discovery. Partnering with DHL and their already ingrained presence in Africa, Kanabar is able to offer a seamless supply chain to a global audience, “with reasonable shipping prices: the flat rate for shipping to the U.S. is $40 with Europe slightly lower at $35.”
“Africa is not a monolith, so there’s no single curatorial aesthetic.” -Nisha Kanabar
Kanabar explains that Industrie Africa hopes to cultivate a unified voice for the African industry, while “educating consumers by telling designers stories and creating ethical, artisanal awareness.” She hopes that the pause that came out of this global crisis allows for brands to rethink their unique selling propositions, selling calendars, and adjust wholesale strategies to be e-commerce friendly. “I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that we’ve also witnessed a palpable internal shift in the direction of creative and intellectual pan-Africanism,” says Kanabar. “Africa is not a monolith, so there’s no single curatorial aesthetic.”