For African designers, local e-commerce platforms can provide a gateway to an international audience eager to shop their collections. After several setbacks, a new generation of players is stepping up to bring African fashion to a global customer.
Companies including Industrie Africa, Afrikrea, Kisua and The Folklore are attracting designers wanting to gain awareness among customers outside of Africa. These companies help facilitate cross-border shipping and handling as well as marketing, all resource-intensive hurdles that could otherwise act as barriers for African fashion designers who have a willing buyer outside of their native continent, but no way to reach them sustainably.
“Shortly after launching my business on Instagram, I had people from New Zealand, Accra, New York messaging me about purchasing,” says Vanessa Iloenyosi, founder and designer of Nigerian label Nyosi, which launched in 2017. “There was no way to get things to them effectively.” Iloenyosi then partnered with The Folklore after the company, which acts as an online curator for luxury African fashion customers in the US, reached out to her.
E-commerce marketplaces for African fashion tap into a growing demand for African designer goods all over the world. Currently, Africa’s e-commerce opportunity is estimated to be $19.8 billion by Statista. According to McKinsey, the continent’s local manufacturing industry is also expected to grow to $930 billion by 2025. This presents an opportunity for African e-tailers to promote Africa’s fashion industry globally. African designers are hoping that these partnerships, in addition to offering benefits like better shipping rates and distribution, will introduce a greater pool of customers to African fashion. Working with a team of buyers who understand the local market also makes for a better experience selling abroad. But some designers are wary of what globalising the African fashion market means for their businesses and are pushing for a local emphasis on e-commerce plays.
With programmes like the Africa free-trade policy, a growing middle class and internet use, initiatives to encourage artisanship and African sourcing such as the Designers Consociate and grassroots work to encourage government subsidies, designers and e-tailers on the continent are hopeful that African fashion will become more than a fad for Western customers or a luxury that only richer Africans home and in the diaspora can access.
Nigerian label Nyosi partnered with The Folklore, an online curator for luxury African fashion customers in the US.
Some see it as a long time coming, but earlier attempts to establish a go-to online marketplace for African fashion have stalled. Zuvaa, founded in 2014, lost trust with designers after marking down prices and refusing to pay the agreed commissioning rate, resulting in a 2017 petition that racked up 3,000 signatures. The company ended up shutting down in 2019 due to the lack of infrastructure and an operations team versed in the African e-commerce industry, according to founder Kelechi Anyadiegwu. Oxosi, a once-promising African e-commerce play positioned as “Africa’s answer to Moda Operandi” that worked with prominent brands including Maki Oh, Brother Vellies and Osei Duro and inked a deal with the costume department of HBO’s Insecure, abruptly shut down in 2017. Oxosi did not respond to requests for comment.
The perks of online partnerships
E-tailers like Afrikrea, which is based in Ivory Coast and launched in 2016, are able to address shipping costs for African designers through lucrative partnerships with DHL, a company invested in tapping into Africa’s growing e-commerce. Designers selling on Afrikrea can create storefronts and receive payments from customers anywhere in the world, an important benefit for sellers based in Africa who have had difficulties accepting online payments from platforms like Shopify in the past. Founder Moulaye Taboure recently raised $1 million in funding to further promote African designs and expand intracontinental distribution.
Amira Rasool, founder of The Folklore, uses a slightly different strategy. She and her team spend as much as four months on the continent sourcing products, coaching designers on how to price for a global market, helping to find stylists, product shooting, and negotiating shipping rates with third-party agencies. The designers then make the products and ship to the company’s warehouse in New Jersey, where it is then dispersed to customers.
African fashion e-commerce platforms also serve functions that go beyond shipping and distribution. Fashion education is a core component of Industrie Africa and critical in building up e-commerce on the continent, says founder and CEO Nisha Kanabar. Kanabar says she started the platform to shatter stereotypical interpretations of African design, which usually involve the Dutch Wax Print known as Ankara, and earn the market respect by amplifying Pan-African voices. The platform launched in 2018 as an encyclopedia of contemporary African design and centuries-old artisanship native to the continent, then segued into e-commerce, allowing customers to shop by filters such as sustainability and material type — important because it helps promote the work of African artisans in the textile industry. Most clientele is based in the UK and the US.
“African fashion consumers are already shopping online on Asos, Zara, Harrods. They just need to be taught [and] shown to ‘shop African’,” Kanabar says.
The drawbacks of scaling globally
While many African designers aim to get their collections in front of a global audience, that growth can strain small businesses as they try to meet customer expectations that don’t align with their operations. Fashion consumers have gotten accustomed to fast fashion practices that African designers cannot afford to bear, say Maxwell Boko and Mmuso Potsane, the South African design duo behind the label Mmuso Maxwell.
“See-now, buy-now is distorting people’s understanding of how fashion design works,” the design duo says. The designers argue that while international African e-commerce retailers are offering support for designers, an overreliance on Western imports undermines the industry. “People want to come to the party when people are already there. It’s sad that co-signs from “international media” is what assures people of the unique lens that African designers bring to fashion,” says Boko.
© Ulrich Knoblauch/Industrie Africa
Others in the industry are similarly wary of hinging too much of African designers’ success on how much they can resonate with a global customer. Zara Odu, a former buyer at Oxosi, says the platform came about as a way to represent that African fashion industry for Africa’s online shoppers. “Oxosi came at a time when designers were starting to get tired of pandering to international buyers and retailers,” she says. “They had spent so long waiting to belong in stores internationally; but Oxosi came with a ‘for us, buy us’ perspective accompanied with the most beautiful visuals and narrative. It was undeniably powerful, and everyone wanted to be a part of that.”
Even successful international partnerships introduce new pressures on designer businesses. For Iloenyosi, selling on The Folklore has been largely beneficial, but the cost of production led to a significant disparity between the cost of products on her Instagram page and the Folklore website leading to queries from some customers. The designer is launching her own e-commerce platform as an alternative for customers who are OK with waiting much longer for products.
Still, African designers are garnering notice from international retailers as the marketability of the sector becomes clearer, thanks in part to the African-specific e-commerce platforms. Browns, owned by international luxury marketplace Farfetch, recently joined forces with Homecoming — the multi-hyphenate platform whose aim is to support and bolster art and design in Africa — to showcase Africa’s fashion talent. The festival ended with Nigerian designer Orange Culture announcing an e-commerce partnership with Farfetch. Designers like Kenneth Ize, Thebe Magugu and Mowalola have also earned global recognition.
African e-commerce platforms and buyers who understand the limitations that designers on the continent face are, ultimately, a boon for the industry.
“Designers will only grow if they can continue to sell at a steady and sustainable pace. With growing interest in traditions that are central to Africans, which boost the manufacturing and textile sectors, African merchandising will grow, allowing for better products to be made and sold all over the world,” says Odu.
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