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Global Gatekeepers

The gilded key to the world’s most dynamic emerging economies is a combination of on-the-ground intelligence and loyal contacts. Six in-demand emissaries in global fashion sat down with BoF to share a few home truths about the markets on their doorstep.
By
  • Robb Young

LONDON, United Kingdom — Two thousand years ago, Emperor Caesar Augustus erected a towering monument under Rome's Temple of Saturn called the Miliarium Aureum. This gold-covered marble monolith stood as testament to the fact that all roads in the vast expanse of the Roman Empire converged on one single point. From Africa Vetus to the tribes of Germania, all roads really did lead to Rome.

By contrast, today, the routes that lead from fashion’s capital cities to the industry’s fastest growing emerging markets can sometimes meander or stray off course. But more often than not, they drift toward a few key professionals who – whether by default or design – stand as powerful gatekeepers. Enterprising, ambitious and gifted with the gab of cross-border diplomacy, they are usually highly charismatic figures who have carved out a niche for themselves beyond the job title printed on their business cards. With impressive powers of persuasion and Rolodexes to match, gatekeepers like these are the go-to men and women who hold the keys to their markets.

MÔNICA MENDES, Brazil

Monica Mendes | Illustration by Clym Evernden for BoF

“I've been studying the national and international markets for thirty years. Yes, having Daslu as a case study when it was one of the biggest retail references in the world also helped. But I believe my reputation comes from the work ethic I apply day-to-day in what I do.”

Mônica Mendes' client list reads like a roll call of the world's most exclusive heritage and luxury brands. Hermès, Chanel and Prada were just three of many she absorbed as PR clients in the years since the Brazilian multi-brand leviathon Daslu, which Mendes previously represented, changed hands. For the past four years, she has also been a driving force behind Brazil's premiere designer platform, São Paulo Fashion Week, developing new marketing strategies for the event at a critical time in its evolution.

"I achieved this place in the market in part by showing the world what a completely innovative service offering and a completely different customer experience there is in Brazil at retailers like Daslu. More recently I started to highlight other unique Brazilian names for the international media like Isolda, a brand with prints created by hand in watercolours, and Helena Bordon, a Brazilian It-girl, who in less than a year and a half has become an international brand ambassador."

The success of this latest venture saw Mendes receive solicitations for representation from other fashion, style and lifestyle personalities, which in turn prompted her to open a talent division to nurture new local spokespersons. It is this component, she says, which is increasingly important for most marketing strategies in the Brazilian market today.

MIROSLAVA DUMA, Russia

Miroslava Duma | Illustration by Clym Evernden for BoF

“The right connections mean a lot in Russia. We realised that having these connections on different levels — from luxury retailers to governmental structures – can be of great benefit to us when trying to expand our own offering as a business. It’s an exaggeration to call us lobbyists but we are really good at connecting brands with potential partners.”

Miroslava “Mira” Duma has become something of a sensation since co-founding www.buro247.ru in 2011. Often painted by the Western media as a “czarina” or a street style magnet, insiders in Russia and the CIS will tell you that beneath the playful wardrobe and doll-like features is an exceptionally earnest and efficient operator.

This year, Duma managed to persuade the President's cabinet to include a panel of fashion industry leaders at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum – Russia’s answer to Davos. “Though we don't cover politics – or gossip for that matter – we take our job very seriously and have a responsibility to our readers to deliver quality non-stop news around the clock.”

Blanket strategies certainly no longer work for the Russian market, she says. “The key is to take thoughtful and well calculated steps [and] to do due diligence to find the right partners because reputation is everything. Designers should sacrifice time to get to know the audience, pay a visit to the country and show some respect to attract people.”

The current chill between Russia and the West has Duma very worried. “Russians hope the world will be multipolar again, so that every country's interests will be taken into account. In politics, people play rough but it’s something we have to deal with and bad publicity has ruined the image of our country abroad. [In my own modest way] I feel it’s my job and responsibility to try to change people’s minds.”

OMOYEMI AKERELE, Nigeria

Omoyemi Akerele | Illustration by Clym Evernden for BoF

“The strongest misconception about Nigeria is that it’s a homogenous market where in fact it’s a country with 36 different states, all with varying cultures, references, dialects and possibly style preferences. So what works for the Lagos consumer market might not necessarily work for the Abuja-based consumer and so on.”

Omoyemi Akerele is the main engine behind Nigeria's nascent but rapidly developing fashion industry. Three years ago, she founded Lagos Fashion & Design Week through her agency, Style House Files. Since then, Akerele has either struck deals or brokered introductions for her designers to several international platforms like the Vogue Fashion Dubai Experience, the LVMH Young Designer Prize, the BFC, AltaRoma and Pitti Immagine — not to mention countless global retailers. She also doubles as a fountain of sage advice for international brands hoping to cash in on this lucrative West African frontier market hub.

“In an environment with issues like fluctuating import regulations and double taxation, a task that seems as mundane as leasing property can be an arduous one if not properly handled. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of working with the right local partner or consultant to make operating in Nigeria less expensive. A willing investor has to really understand how to navigate the business terrain here — from the need to generate your own power to negotiating your way through the supply chain at Nigeria’s ports.”

When it comes to how quickly the Nigerian retail infrastructure will evolve before that critical mass of global fashion brands descends on the market, Akerele’s enthusiasm is clear but measured. “Although the Nigerian market’s allure is still relatively strong and there are talks of international fashion and beauty brands poised to launch within the next six months, there is no doubt that the current political situation is not very encouraging. The question on everyone’s lips is how can the nation continue to thrive in the absence of a stronger stance on eradicating terrorism?”

MELVIN CHUA, China 

Melvin Chua | Illustration by Clym Evernden for BoF

“Luxury is such a small proportion of people around the world that of course we have to do brand building. But right now, every dollar counts. I want everything we do to be measurable. So even when we’re using new media to promote an event we did, I’ll hire a photographer specifically to cost-check the value of the attendance we had.”

Known as one of the fastest talkers in the business, Melvin Chua's reputation as a razor- sharp live-wire precedes him. Every sentence seems to be sprinkled with the names of China's biggest celebrities and supermodels and the world's powerhouse fashion brands. And with good reason, since he is the publicity machine at Ink Pak Communications who plays cupid, pairing them up with each other.

“These days, I don’t see the point of so many large-scale statement events. I’m doing a lot more small, intimate, targeted ones. For small formats, then we do a wide media reach. And if we do big, we do them more linked to sales. So for a big event for Vuitton we’re about to do, we’ll do a big pop-up instead of a big party. I want to see amazing limited-edition products in the store. That’s what’s selling an event to the media in China now.”

As to whether Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong is the right point of entry to the vast Chinese market, Chua says that divvying up your staff between them is something that everyone must get used to, since no single city accommodates everything a corporate headquarters needs. “Don't over-analyze but do not go into it blindly when you choose where to set up.”

SUSAN SABET, Middle East

Susan Sabet | Illustration by Clym Evernden for BoF

“I honestly don’t remember all the introductions I’ve made. It’s not a core business for me but just something that comes naturally. Most recently? Well, I was just asked by a European collector of vintage fashion — he wants to retire — to help find a big buyer from our region.”

Although based in Cairo, Susan Sabet's orbit extends beyond Egypt into affluent homes, boutiques, spas, luxury hotels and private jet terminals across the Arab-speaking world. Positioning her magazine Pashion as the seasonal what-to-buy guide, Sabet has accumulated an enviable mailing list, which she now uses to help designer brands do trunk shows in Kuwait, Dubai and Riyadh.

“We reach hundreds of members of the extended Saudi and Qatari royal families through direct mail [and] we often partner up with brands for fashion events for our VIP Arab readers in Monaco and Europe in summer or in the Gulf throughout the year.”

In addition to more developed markets like Lebanon, her readers can be found in places harder for brands to penetrate, like Jordan and Oman, as well as in Egypt, of course, where readers turn out each year for a shopping festival she founded in Cairo a few years ago.

“Since the stability we’ve had after the June election, many high-end retailers have already felt a boost in sales. Egypt is the largest country in the Middle East and we really do have huge potential. Most people don’t realize it but Egypt has the second highest number of billionaires in the region. Only Saudi comes ahead of us.”

BANDANA TEWARI, India

Bandana Tewari | Illustration by Clym Evernden for BoF

“Doing business in India is very personal; it’s not cut and dry. It’s about being invited home, understanding the cultural context and the promise of long-term friendships sealed with great food and laughter. When international people come to India — even for business — they're very surprised by how personal and emotional the experience can be.”

As fashion features director for Vogue India, Bandana Tewari is not a straight-up dealmaker like other gatekeepers. But she certainly has the advantage of being an insider with an outsider's perspective.

“Even before I had a ‘real job’ in fashion, I was paying from my own pocket to travel to different fashion weeks all over the world, where I gained valuable insight [which] I then applied vis-à-vis the Indian market. Our era is about the cross-pollination of ideas and I love it when I can be part of projects that require different ideas, cultures and sensibilities.”

This year alone, Tewari helped lead a project that connects Swedish creatives with age-old Indian textile craftsmen and is working to bring Indian fashion to Harvey Nichols in Saudi Arabia, all while planning something for next year’s India Design Forum.

“Understanding how India functions as a cultural entity is paramount to retail success. Brands endear themselves to us by adapting to our ‘festival shopping cycles’ of Diwali, Holi, Raksha Bandhan — which all celebrate the act of buying and gifting. It’s also time to understand that the consumerist drive is now coming from ‘Middle India,’ second tier cities like Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Ludhiana and Jaipur, where the differences between consumers is poles apart.”

Editor's Note: This article was revised on 14 October, 2014. An earlier version of this article misstated that Nigeria is divided into 37 states. The country is divided into 36 states and Abuja, the federal capital territory, which does not have official statehood status.

This article originally appeared in the second annual #BoF500 print edition, 'Polymaths & Multitaskers.' For a full list of stockists or to order copies for delivery anywhere in the world visit shop.businessoffashion.com.

Cover of the BoF 500 ‘Polymaths & Multitaskers’ Special Print Edition

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