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Africa’s fashion industry comes of age

Africa’s fashion industry comes of age

Africa only accounts for a small portion of the $1.5 trillion global fashion industry, with sub-Saharan Africa’s apparel and footwear market valued at $31bn according to Euromonitor. Although renewed creative ambition is vital to keeping African fashion on-trend, the challenges from weak supply chains, lack of international partners and substandard infrastructure need to be addressed promptly.

“Made in Africa” may not yet have the same cachet as “Made in Italy” or “Made in France” but designers like Nigeria’s Adebayo Oke-Lawal are working to improve “Brand Africa”. Oke-Lawal is the creative force behind menswear brand Orange Culture, which has been nominated for an LVMH Prize (an award for young fashion designers) and was presented at the most recent London Collections Men.

“I see the African fashion industry becoming a landmark for global media, major fashion buyers and other important fashion players,” says Oke-Lawal. “The fashion industry in Africa is proving itself to the world and showing that its voice is literally unstoppable, fresh and highly profitable. The world is taking notice.”

Maki Oh is another Nigerian brand achieving acclaim worldwide, with Beyoncé, Rihanna and Michelle Obama having all worn its clothing. It goes without saying that solid partnerships need to be built with international retailers, suppliers and consumers if brands ever hope to challenge the dominance of world-renowned labels like Dior and Prada.

However, even relatively established African designers can find it difficult to get the attention of key industry figures, highlighting the importance of creating opportunities for collaboration. Events like Fashion Week Nigeria and Africa Fashion Week are vital in not only promoting African designers but also in bringing together industry experts in one place to form new relationships and share ideas, which is all too rare to find on the continent.

“The Fashion Weeks across Africa, including Lagos Fashion and Design Week, have helped designers understand the importance of the fashion calendar and how to relate to international buyers and press,” says Oke-Lawal. “They are vital because they show that as an industry we are united and I feel that’s the easiest way for us to form a strong presence globally – as a united front. It also shows that we are structured and understand the importance of consistency.”

Oke-Lawal believes that far from being just an opportunity to showcase new designs, African Fashion Weeks have a significant business role too. “The experience exposes African designers to the reality of the fashion industry worldwide. It has helped us understand the importance of fashion, not only creatively, but also as a business,” adds Oke-Lawal.

East African manufacturing

High-profile European retailers are increasingly looking to East African countries, in particular Ethiopia, for garment manufacturing. Thanks in part to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives duty-free access to the US for selected sub-Saharan African countries, American companies are investigating East African factories.

A survey of chief procurement officers last year by management consultancy McKinsey found that 13% of respondents included Ethiopia in reply to the question “What will be the top three sourcing destinations over the next five years?” Not only is this the first time an African country has made the McKinsey list but Ethiopia also outranked Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Tunisia.

The renewed interest from apparel buyers is due to the rapidly growing working-age population in Africa and low wage costs. If Ethiopia is to take full advantage of the manufacturing opportunities on offer the country will need to work on the key challenges hampering growth, namely weak infrastructure and transportation networks, lengthy customs procedures and a lack of modern factories. Investment from China is driving development in Ethiopia, but African governments generally need to create more welcoming investment environments if this sector is to succeed.

E-commerce development

Africa’s role as both a consumer and producer of fashion is on the rise, with e-commerce giving Africans the opportunity to purchase from retailers that have no physical presence on the continent and allowing small fashion houses to showcase their collections to a global audience. African shopping websites like Jumia and Konga are democratising access to fashion and offering on-trend fashion at all price levels.

“These products are just beginning to gain their, well-deserved, visibility,” says Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder of soleRebels, Africa’s fastest growing footwear company. “We have always had incredible design and production talent here, but it was invisible. This is changing for a variety of reasons including the success of market pioneers who have convinced people to take a deeper look at the whole fashion market in Ethiopia and Africa.”

Alemu built up her company and turned it into an international brand, all the while highlighting the importance of exclusively manufacturing its products in Ethiopia. This philosophy exemplifies the modern African fashion industry’s outlook: sustainable, business orientated and employing traditional African production techniques and styles.

It may be some time before Lagos or Addis Ababa rival the Big Four fashion capitals of London, Milan, New York and Paris, but by leveraging Africa’s strong textile sector and innovative designs that skilfully combine tradition and wearability, entrepreneurial fashion houses can set their sights beyond the continent. So, how can Africa continue innovating in such a competitive international fashion industry?

“First and foremost a flow of high-quality ideas has to come from African designers, that are then creating incredible finished products, which excites people inside the continent and around the world. After all, fashion is about presenting something new, fresh and dynamic, and that’s what is driving this demand in Africa,” adds Alemu.

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Written by Finbarr Toesland

Finbarr Toesland is a London-based journalist specialising in business, technology and economic issues. He has previously been published in The Times, The Sunday Times, Financial Times’ publications, Huffington Post, Africa Report, The European and World Politics Review.

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