LAGOS, Nigeria — Most people find change to be a challenge and I guess that’s natural in an industry where the African continent has long been out of bounds. Whether they cite corruption, geopolitical tensions or other reasons for not factoring Africa into the equation, fashion insiders do have some understandable reservations. But to relegate expansion into Africa as a project for the next generation — as some luxury brand dynasties have publicly said they intend to do — is simply not acceptable.
Although the African continent was once seen as a dumping ground for the industry's cast offs, the gradual strengthening of some of Africa’s economies has paved the way for the continent to become a potentially viable market for high fashion. At the same time, it has also highlighted some of the hurdles preventing Africa from securing a highly coveted spot within fashion's global system. The conversation about Africa is seemingly endless but the global fashion industry must break through its barriers of conformity, fear and uncertainty, it in order to tap into a market that is becoming more lucrative by the day. The real question is whether international players can afford not to be part of the equation.
So far, the most popular strategy to penetrate the market has been via multi-brand retail. By creating a highly curated environment through which to introduce international brands to their customers, luxury retailers have been able to convince some of the biggest brands on the scene to test the market through this approach. Brands like Céline, Armani, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Nicholas Kirkwood, Alexander Wang and Valentino, to name a few, have become accessible through African stores like Alara in Lagos, Luminance in Johannesburg and Little Red in Nairobi. But even though the buying power of affluent Africans has continued to grow, such stores are still scarce.
E-commerce is another way into Africa, but there has not been enough of a push from fashion brands to communicate that they now ship to African countries, so it is too early to measure its impact. Luxury department stores including Browns, Matches and Selfridges as well as pure-play e-tailers like Net-A-Porter, Amazon, MyTheresa and Yoox currently deliver to some African countries — as do high street brands River Island and Asos. The problem is that such businesses often have major hesitations about actively marketing to African consumers or investing in campaigns to reach them.
Furthermore, little or no progress has been made on the part of fashion's power players to invest in relatively unknown brands — and by invest, I simply mean be willing to place up-and-coming African brands side-by-side with global fashion brands on the shop floor. No doubt, there may sometimes be an issue of disparity around price points or quality, but I believe that every label was given a chance at some point.
What, I wonder, makes the industry interpret an Italian designer with Haitian roots like Stella Jean as an ‘African brand’ to be supported enthusiastically at retail, while home-grown African brands like Lanre Da Silva Ajayi or Lisa Folawiyo are not? Perhaps it should begin within a conscious decision to include African designers, not merely for the sake of inclusion, but based on the belief that their aesthetic signature can be converted into profitability, if given the necessary investment.
On the production side, I strongly believe that the global fashion industry is here to stay in Africa. North-African countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are already firmly positioned as production hubs, while Ethiopia, Kenya and Mauritius are increasingly sought after and Ghana is being tapped as Western Africa's apparel manufacturing destination.
Nevertheless, a lot of investment is required to scale up production and public-private sector partnerships should be negotiated to create a symbiotic relationship that benefits investors and stakeholders. But this means that quality control and competitive production costs must converge with wealth and job creation, as well as technology, in order to build sustainable communities out of garment and textile traditions that have been passed down from one generation to the next.
Africa’s markets are now substantial enough for international companies to turn some of the continent’s potential into real prospects. I say this with great conviction, despite the seemingly high level of risk and hassle. Operating here does come with a lot of baggage; you only need to turn on the news to be reminded of that. But there will never be a perfect time for the global fashion industry to push the African agenda forward.
As one very wise verse foretells, "He who observes the wind and waits for all conditions to be favourable will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap." In other words, those who continue to wait for a time when Africa comes with no challenges will be waiting forever, empty-handed.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
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