LAGOS, Nigeria — As Lagos Fashion and Design Week closed last week, a mood of vigilance hung like smoke in the air of the plush Federal Palace Hotel, which hosted the event. With Nigeria officially cleared of the Ebola virus just three weeks ago, the psychological impact of the outbreak — which resulted in 20 registered cases and eight deaths in the country — was bound to linger, as the disease continued to ravage neighbouring West African nations Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
But the truth is, fear that the virus would take hold in this country of over 170 million people prompted a remarkably efficient and coordinated reaction from public health organisations. That said, there is no doubt that many retailers suffered the short-term effects of reduced footfall (some stores saw a 40 percent drop in traffic between July and September, according to a report by the World Bank). What’s more, the climate of caution has only been heightened by the on-going activities of Islamist militant group Boko Haram. But it seems unlikely that either the Ebola outbreak or the unstable security situation will have a chilling effect on the growth of the country’s fashion market.
At Lagos Fashion and Design Week, attendance figures — over 300 members of the fashion press turned up — were unaffected. “We’re going strong, we’re evolving, but we also need to realise that it’s been a difficult year for the country,” said Omoyemi Akerele, founder and artistic director of Style House Files, the organising body behind the annual four-day fashion showcase, who took the opportunity to refocus on domestic players. “With continued security concerns over Boko Haram activity and now Ebola, attention must be given to doing what’s right for Nigeria,” continued Akerele, who took the opportunity to shine a spotlight on local designers and, through Fashion Focus, an initiative launched in collaboration with the British Council, is supporting the development of fifteen domestic labels. “We need designers to be ready to scale commercially. We’re looking to work with those at the middle-stage of brand growth, rather than at the beginning.”
Maki Oh and Lisa Folawiyo, two of the more established labels showing at Lagos Fashion and Design Week, presented highly wearable, saleable collections. “But there are a number of challenges to up-and-coming local brands, of which the biggest is delivering consistent quality when producing inside Nigeria,” said Ayo Amusan of Persianas Group, the retail development firm behind The Palms, Nigeria’s leading shopping mall chain. Indeed, poor infrastructure, lack of expertise and the absence of trademark protection are more likely to inhibit the growth of Nigeria’s domestic labels than concerns relating to Ebola or Boko Haram.
In recent years, Nigeria — now Africa’s largest economy with a GDP of over $500 billion — has performed remarkably well, buoyed by the thriving oil and gas, telecoms and banking sectors. A rising middle class now has buying power of almost $30 billion per year. “It is for this reason that international brands are studying the market and are actively investing in it,” said Amusan, who has brought Hugo Boss, Lacoste and Puma to the country. “The key is for these brands to strategically engage in a joint venture with a local partner who understands the dynamics of the market and can protect their brand.”
To be sure, security woes may slow the movement of larger retailers into Nigeria’s smaller cities, particularly those in or close to areas of instability, but this is likely to be an issue only in the short- to medium-term. Meanwhile, the impact of Ebola on retail development seems to have been negligible. “Certainly, on an international level, the outbreak didn’t hamper on-going negotiations with foreign brands,” Amusan added. “They remain convinced of the opportunities within the market.”
Interestingly, after Nigeria’s first Ebola case was reported in July of this year and fear of the disease spread amongst the local population, the country saw a boom in online shopping, as consumers took steps to avoid crowded markets and other public areas. E-commerce leaders Jumia and Konga — which accept cash-on-delivery to combat local mistrust of online payment — both reported increased apparel sales.
A full 90 percent of Nigeria’s retail market remains informal, dominated by local traders and small market stalls, though things are changing swiftly. Developers like Persianas Group are building major shopping complexes, where domestic brands and retailers increasingly sit comfortably alongside international players. But the focus isn’t solely on large-scale malls. In Lagos, anticipation is building for the launch of Reni Folawiyo’s Alara, a David Adjaye-designed concept store with a highly curated mix of international luxury brands and hard-to-find pieces from West African designers that is set to open in March 2015 on the city’s exclusive Victoria Island.
It’s no secret that wealthy Nigerians shop voraciously when travelling abroad, notably in London (Nigerians are the fourth-largest generator of tax-free sales for overseas residents in the UK, ahead of the US and behind only China, Russia and the Middle East). But it remains to be seen whether this demonstrated demand will translate into domestic sales as the local retail scene continues to evolve. “We can already get things delivered from Europe or the United States by ASOS, Matches Fashion or Bergdorf Goodman, so what is necessary here is a conscious change,” argued Akerele. “We need to communicate to consumers that the reason you’re buying domestically is not just because you want the latest clothes and trends, but also because you want to support Nigerian businesses and designers. So let’s make it about Africa.”