LAGOS, Nigeria — It's tempting to see Africa's potential through the extraordinary lens of a brand like Zegna when it first landed in Lagos, or by way of the glamorous lights of an Elite modeling competition in Luanda. But the firms that often have the clearest view on what it takes to better integrate sub-Saharan Africa into the global fashion world are those with a bigger African footprint.
Among them are Hugo Boss, Mango and Hearst's new digital edition of Cosmopolitan.ng, which have been entering Africa from Europe and America, while local African e-tailers like Jumia, Konga and Spree are the pioneering force behind new regional market networks.
At the same time, South African fashion chains such as Woolworths, Ackermans, Edgars and Mr Price keep pushing retail and distribution infrastructure northward as Saudi, Kuwaiti, Lebanese and Emirati mall and franchise operators move southward into the continent.
Size isn’t necessarily the key to making a profit in Africa. Although there are certainly many advantages to being a vertically-integrated giant like Woolworths, this doesn’t make international success unattainable for Africa’s smaller, specialist players.
Womenswear brand Jewel by Lisa's finely calibrated design and Alara's world-class retail environment have global appeal, while others have turned Africa's challenges into advantages, including apparel brand Woodin, multi-brand e-tailer Kisua and footwear label SoleRebels. What they all have in common is an understanding of how to innovate locally and stimulate consumers and investors globally, while moving Africa up the value chain.
Created in Nigeria
Exactly ten years ago, Lisa Folawiyo decided to make herself a skirt. Like countless Nigerian women before and since, she found a local fabric that caught her eye and — with the help of her family tailor — designed a garment that felt unique and personal. But with this very first garment, Folawiyo also coined the attractive and distinct design signature that would form the basis of her brand, Jewel by Lisa.
By adding luxury embellishment to the softer palette of African prints cut in a range of timeless, trendy and occasionally quirky Western silhouettes, Folawiyo soon realised that she was creating something highly desirable. The brand spoke in a refreshing design language that was more evolutionary than it was revolutionary. To women in West Africa, it felt familiar yet strikingly cosmopolitan and to women elsewhere it felt exotic yet reassuringly familiar.
In the decade since, Folawiyo has shown in New York, become friendly with Vogue, built a flagship in Lagos, partnered with L’Oreal, done a trunk show on Moda Operandi and sold at Selfridges. But even though she has diversified into four distinct labels, Jewel by Lisa remains a relatively modest business.
Folawiyo says that turnover in 2014 was 96 million Naira (about $475,000). After having experimented with production in India, “now, all our garments are produced 100 percent in Nigeria [again],” she says. And while other Nigerian brands can boast bigger revenues, what they don’t have is Folawiyo’s knack of elevating traditional African prints above the status quo, making them relevant to a global audience.
Made in Ivory Coast
One of the few big African textile brands whose wares are actually made in Africa, Woodin has been manufactured in Ivory Coast for over 25 years. Most producers of what appear to be vibrant African prints sold on the continent are actually imports from China, although their origins date back two centuries to when Dutch traders sold Indonesian batik to African merchants on the journey back to Holland.
Woodin has worked hard to position itself above cheaper Chinese imports by opening glossy flagship stores in the affluent urban districts of Ghana, Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since its expansion into ready-to-wear a few years ago, it has used innovative marketing techniques like flashmobs and Twitter campaigns, as well as signing young African pop stars like Korede Bello, M.anifest and Toofan as brand ambassadors.
Woodin is part of the Dutch Vlisco Group that rolls out 70 million yards of fabric per year. While Vlisco, a more upmarket brand operated by the company, is made in Holland, Woodin, a younger more affordable premium brand, is produced by the group’s Uniwax factory in Ivory Coast and GTP in Ghana. From design to production to distribution, the entire process takes place on the African continent where around 1700 of the group’s 2700 employees live.
Though it is still early days, Vlisco Group took a step toward realising its goal of increasing locally sourced materials in its supply chain when it partnered with Cotton Made in Africa, an organisation that aims to improve the living conditions of the 3.4 million smallholder cotton farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
Designed in Kenya, Congo, Ghana, South Africa
“I left a great job, cashed in my pension and sold all my worldly possessions — well, almost — all so I could raise the seed capital to set this up,” says Samuel Mensah, the Ghanaian entrepreneur who, two years ago launched Kisua — an online hybrid retail venture that takes its name from the Swahili for ‘well-dressed person’.
Kisua.com has been building its profile thanks to publicity generated from its co-branded collections, which offer a percentage of sales in exchange for collections from around ten up-and-coming designers on the African continent each season. The Kisua by Jamil Walji collection, for instance, is a more streamlined, affordable range of separates from the Kenya-based designer of the same name. Other collaborations are with Nigerian, Ghanaian and Congolese designers and the e-tailer also sells a private label, Kisua Hariri, designed in-house at its South African headquarters.
Though it can still be a logistical challenge for some African consumers to purchase Kisua’s merchandise, the site does help African designers partially overcome the fragmented and informal nature of the continent’s retail market. Kisua bears the cost and risk of investing in sampling, production and marketing for them, while offering an international retail platform that accesses three big markets where it currently has distribution centres — South Africa, the UK and the US.
“Servicing the global fashion consumer requires investment in technology, modern production facilities, logistics, infrastructure and skills, which is exactly what we’re doing.” But with just half of Kisua’s apparel production currently based in Africa — mostly in South Africa and Mauritius — Mensah concedes that the business should aim to be more deeply anchored in Africa. “Our goal in the medium term is to have 75 percent of our products ‘Made in Africa’, but due to capacity constraints on the continent, it’s sometimes necessary for us to produce and source offshore.”
But the way to add more sustainable value to the African fashion industry is not always by paying for factory labour. Referring to the fact that Kisua invests in the African creative economy by paying for African design, Mensah calculates that "80 percent of Kisua's value chain is already African.”
Sold in South Africa
Few African fashion retailers are as deeply rooted on the continent as Woolworths Holdings and even fewer have risen to become such a major international player. Last year saw the mid-market chain turn over 39.7 billion rand ($3.4 billion), representing sales from the group's 427 stores in its home market of South Africa, 567 in Australia and 65 Woolworths stores across 11 other African countries including Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia and Uganda.
From an African operational perspective, what that means is doing business in a dozen diverse national markets with as many different systems of regulation, taxation and trading conventions as well as a dozen different political frameworks for commercial and foreign investment law.
“If you do your homework and you’re well prepared, you can manage the risks in any market. Barriers to entry are not unique to our continent and, anyway, the opportunities in Africa far outweigh the challenges,” says Ian Moir, CEO of Woolworths Holdings, who has regained control of African franchises and set a two-year expansion plan of 73 more stores in South Africa and 18 across the rest of Africa.
“We have a responsibility to support the local design industry and the development of a culture of design here too,” he says, referring to Woolworths’ long term efforts to keep South Africa's fashion and design talent pool vibrant. Initiatives like 'Making the Difference Through Design' connects what is one of Africa’s most prestigious design festivals, Design Indaba, to an educational curriculum in 400 high schools across South Africa.
Crafted in Ethiopia
“When people think of innovation they think of a new technology or something. But in fact, what innovation really means is substantively improving the state of whatever came before. So there can be innovation in artisan crafting too,” says Ethiopian entrepreneur Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu. “Yesterday’s cobbler is today’s added value shoe artisan.”
Alemu has a never-ending supply of such mantras but they are anything but hollow. Her brand SoleRebels is a nod to Ethiopia’s early freedom fighters whose barabasso sandals became symbolic of the struggle against colonial occupation. Using the same recycled tyre soles as the traditional barabasso, Alemu modernised what was once a cottage industry, while updating designs and standardising quality.
In just over a decade, her handcrafted shoe brand has grown from a single shop in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to 18 standalone SoleRebels stores around the world, from Singapore to San Jose, California. Employing over 200 people and producing 100,000 colourful pairs per year that retail at $55-95, it is likely that SoleRebels’ annual turnover exceeds a million dollars (Alemu declines to disclose revenues).
It is quite an achievement for a 34-year-old from humble beginnings, who self-financed the firm she still wholly owns and had certified by the World Fair Trade Organization. “We pay three times the industry average for similar work and we’ve never missed a payroll,” she says. With labour costs 10 times cheaper than in China and a promising leather and tannery industry, Ethiopia has become a magnet for investment in footwear — western sourcing firms are eyeing up local suppliers, while Chinese manufacturers reinvest in their Ethiopian factories.
What set Alemu apart was that she focused on building a retail brand from the start, banking on higher margins for higher risks rather than wholesaling or manufacturing for others. To achieve a rapid international roll out, rather than going the conventional franchise route, Alemu chose to license her stores which is usually less lucrative but faster and more flexible, and prioritised accessible urban markets like Taipei and Barcelona over the prestige and expense of the fashion capitals.
Built in Nigeria
The fashion industry finally woke up to the excitement of Nigerian megacity Lagos a few years ago. Lagos Fashion and Design Week cemented the city’s standing as a hotbed of creativity, commerce and pure fashion hutzpah. Meanwhile, legions of wealthy globetrotting Nigerians have earned a reputation as insatiable connoisseurs of luxury and, more often than not, those with the biggest appetite come from Nigeria’s commercial capital.
But the one thing that Lagos lacked was a physical landmark to help stake the city’s claim as an African fashion capital contender. At long last, now it has one. The recent opening of the Alara design store gives Lagosians access to fashion-forward African designers like Maki Oh and also provides a much needed distribution channel — of an international standard — for luxury brands like Lanvin, Valentino, Marni and Margiela.
“Alara was conceived to show the world who we are today, to share how we live and to show Africans that we have a lot to be proud of — that we create and enjoy objects of exceptional quality and beauty,” says the store’s owner and founder Reni Folawiyo, who hired renowned architect David Adjaye to design the vast space of nearly 1000 square metres.
With its careful combination of refinement and grandeur and a clear aesthetic point of view, Alara has the potential to be a beacon for other fashion retailers and a centre of gravity for global luxury brands already beginning to cluster around a nascent fashion district in the city’s Victoria Island.
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details and apply to attend our invitation-only global gathering in December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, hosted at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the picturesque English countryside, one hour from London.
A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, which highlights ‘7 Issues Facing Fashion Now,’ from sustainability and the human cost of manufacturing clothing to untapped business opportunities in technology, Africa and the plus-size market.
Join the discussion on BoF Voices, a new platform where the global fashion community can come together to express and exchange ideas and opinions on the most important topics facing fashion today.