Three African fashion entrepreneurs detail their rise to prominence, talk about their latest projects and reveal the tricks of their trade.
Words Helen Jennings
African fashion continues to blossom, bringing real opportunities to become part of this exciting industry, both across the continent and its diaspora. Thanks to ever more fashion weeks, media outlets, retail environments and brands fuelling the scene, 2017 is the year to turn your own passion into a career. We speak to professionals in three fashion capitals to find out how each one started out, what they’re working on for the year ahead, and how to break into their world…
Designer, Cape Town
Celeste Arendse studied fashion at Cape Peninsula University Of Technology and worked for design duo KLûK CGDT before launching her label, SELFI, in 2009. Her understated womenswear is now sold across South Africa. In 2014, she won a young entrepreneurial award through the British Council’s Connect ZA. This led to she and business partner Lilian Schulze hosting the Merge ZA designer showroom during London Fashion Week this September.
How did you go about developing SELFI?
During the first year, I did a lot of product development and testing the market by supplying local boutiques. It was important for me to get the foundation right. After three years, I began showing at Fashion Weeks and now oversee a team of four. I focus on classic styles and making them more conceptual. Fabric is scarce in South Africa, so this has led me to design my own fabrics in order to have a competitive advantage.
What has been your proudest moment to date?
The Merge ZA Travelling Showroom. Our intention is to bring South African brands to fashion capitals around the world. By building awareness and accessing international consumers, our designers can flourish, create jobs and collaborate. It took a lot of courage, but the idea of doing something yourself rather than waiting for someone to offer it to you is a strength only you can provide yourself.
How do you feel about the growth of African fashion around the world?
I’m happy to have started my brand at a time when the industry itself was new. We’re now finding new ways of doing things so that the next generation can benefit. Going forward, I think more brands will come from Africa, more independent boutiques will open and more people will want to explore Africa’s creative output.
What does it take to succeed as a designer?
You should have the basic skills like pattern-making, drawing, Photoshop and Illustrator. But I think vision and understanding your chosen market is most important – your ideas are what people will buy. My advice is to trust yourself. Try and find your own narrative and do not emulate others. The future consumer will be buying into authentic stories.
PR and stylist, London
Arieta Mujay grew up between London and Lagos and cut her teeth as a visual merchandiser and by interning at magazines. She then moved into PR for brands including New Look, River Island and Boohoo. She’s had her own African fashion PR agency ACC, styled fashion weeks across the continent and continues to consult for African designers and influencers.
How do you combine styling and PR?
I started out styling and the two skills go hand-in-hand, but communications and building a strategy around fashion is my strength. What I really enjoy is creating a buzz and trying to sell ice to Eskimos.
You were head of PR at River Island when Rihanna launched her line with the brand?
I announced the campaign globally and ensured the strategy and goals were achieved. I also took 10 key press on tour with Rihanna to seven countries in seven days and ensured that the River Island collaboration was mentioned in every interview. It was an amazing experience, but I like to think that my hard work got me to that place.
Tell us about your involvement in African fashion events?
I was a stylist at the Arise Magazine Fashion Weeks in Johannesburg and Lagos. I’ve overseen backstage at Lagos Fashion & Design Week. And at Gaborone Fashion Week I was head of production with the help of Gatsh Fros, a cool collective from Botswana. For me, it’s about teaching, nurturing and then pushing real talent. I also do my best to ensure that we work hard and play hard. My thing is “I sell frocks, I don’t save lives.”
What were some of the highs of ACC?
I went with Orange Culture to Paris, when he was shortlisted for the LVMH Prize in 2014, curated an exhibition with Chichia London and Yinka Ilori at Now Gallery in London in 2015 and brokered a deal between Chichia London and ASOS Africa, which has been their most successful made-in-Africa collaboration to date.
What have you been working on since then?
I speak on panels on the future of African creative industries, such as the recent Africa Reframed arts organisation in Copenhagen. I am a consultant for the UN’s Ethical Fashion initiative, which encourages Africa’s rising generation of designers to forge sustainable relationships with artisans. And I also help African social-media influencers to connect with international brands.
What advice would you give to budding stylists and PRs?
Be polite, be humble. Study your craft and get work experience. The industry is big enough for everyone, but what will set you apart is your determination and focus. Education is key, because knowledge is power. Go online, research and start to hone your skills. Look to creatives like Asanda Sizani (South Africa), Veronica Odeka (Nigeria), Diana Opoti (Kenya), Gloria Wavamunno (Uganda) and Charlene Asare (Ghana). Find workshops and seminars and get involved with them.
Retail entrepreneur, New York
Having previously run a creative agency together, Kolade Adeyemo and Akin Adebowale established OXOSI in 2015. The e-commerce platform delivers luxury African fashion and lifestyle brands such as Maki Oh, Brother Vellies, Dent de Man, Post-Imperial and Osei-Duro to international consumers.
How did you hit on the idea of OXOSI?
We recognised that there was a growing number of high-profile African brands with a narrative of craftsmanship, dynamism and local enterprise occupying a segment of the luxury market. Yet they often lacked the contacts, technological prowess and marketing savvy to connect with the global market. Similarly, there was a void of retail channels that provided high-quality African design to the diaspora and Africa enthusiasts. So in 2015, we launched a three-component platform that consists of commerce, content and community. The site curates African brands and produces original editorial content. Next, community will build upon the subculture and be anchored by special partnerships with curators and makers.
What have been the biggest challenges so far?
We had to put in place the technology required to remove the barriers to international cross-border commerce. We devoted a lot of time to identifying the right advisers to support us in optimising critical areas such as digital media, merchandise planning, logistics and supply chain. And we went about securing the right financial stakeholders who were committed to our strategy.
What is your strategy and goals going forward?
Our ultimate aim is to offer impeccable service and an entertaining shopping experience. I think of us as a herd of gazelles as opposed to an 800-pound gorilla. We move with our brand partners, licensing partners, retail partners and celebrity partners. It’s one movement, at the same time, together. Our job is to keep it all coordinated. We’re also working on strengthening our editorial presence, audience engagement and social media. OXOSI is ultimately about building a lasting brand with a huge and important generation.
Read & Learn
These resources will help you brush up your fashion game….
Africa Fashion Guide
Consultant Jacqueline Shaw runs a website, workshops and conferences that act
as a gateway to the business of ethical African fashion and textiles.
An impressive debut magazine by Central Saint Martins graduates Ib Kamara, Devin N Morris and PC Williams, exploring issues of empowerment and representation within race.
New coffee-table book Africa Rising: Fashion, Design and Lifestyle From Africa, produced by publisher Gestalten and design platform Design Indaba, acts as a glossy introduction to Africa’s new generation of creative talent.
Coming Up Next
Stay tuned for these essential African fashion shows in 2017
Lagos Fashion & Design Week
Date: october 2017
Lagos is one of the most exciting emerging fashion cities in the world, and this annual event goes beyond runway shows featuring the likes of Maki Oh, Tiffany Amber, Nkwo and others to include business knowledge and masterclasses from Nigerian fashion labels and other African experts. Last year’s event took place in October /November; see the site for details and word on this year’s show.
Africa Fashion Guide Conference
Africa Fashion Guide (see boxout) is an informative and useful platform for anyone wanting to understand and get involved with the world of African fashion, and it holds an annual conference with keynote speakers, panel discussions and a trade expo, featuring experts from leading lights in the continent’s fashion industries. A great opportunity to support, network and learn. The 2016 event was held in London in September; see the site below for more info.
Africa Fashion Week Nigeria
AFWN’s focus is on empowering and encouraging people in Nigeria to crate a sustainable career and living through fashion, and the event showcases fashion itself (including a mall catwalk) while offering advice on job creation, skills training and other aspects of business at its conference. It was held in Lagos in July in 2016; see the site for more info on the 2017 event.
Africa Fashion Week London
Date: september 2017
Counterpart to AFWN, Africa Fashion Week London is Europe’s biggest catwalk event based on African and Africa-inspired textiles, and has showcased the work of over 300 designers to over 45,000 buyers, visitors and industry professionals since in began in 2011. Expect the latest African fashion, Awards and plenty of inspiration, both on the catwalk and out in the retail halls, too. 2016’s event took place in September; see the site for more news on the return of the event in 2017.africafashionweeklondon.com
Mercedes Benz Fashion Week
Date: august 2017
African Fashion International is dedicated to raising the global profile
of refined African Fashion brands, and is running shows such as those in Johannesburg and Cape Town to achieve its aims. As well as showcasing the hottest established African designers, it also has an AFI Fastrack competition and event to place emerging talent firmly in the international spotlight. Dates and details for this year’s events were about to be announced as we went to press; so head to the site for the info.
Africa Utopia 2017
Date: september 2017
The August/September 2016 Africa Utopia event at London’s Southbank Centre was a varied and rewarding affair with a carnival atmosphere, featuring music, food, talks and more. The event centred on a celebration of African arts and culture, with a strong fashion component which included business and creative workshops, talks and catwalk shows featuring works from all across Africa and the diaspora. Keep your eyes peeled for a repeat performance in 2017 and visit the site below for a flavour.