The Fashionomics Series: Onchek.com

“Focussing on Made in Africa is so empowering because there is just so much opportunity.”

Chekwas Okafor – Founder, Onchek.com

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The African Luxury series continues this week with an interview with Chekwas Okafor Founder of Onchek.com, an online retailer for African luxury fashion.

‘Made in Africa’

Not only does the e-commerce platform exclusively stock luxury brands founded by African designers but it is restricted to made on the continent products only. “Onchek is an online retailer for African luxury fashion although I’m hesitant with using the ‘Made in Africa’ label in fear of sounding homogenous, but we do stock luxury brands and designers from across the continent who are in the luxury space and who make their products locally.” This is a model that Chekwas initially battled with, “I did think: what about all the amazing brands and designers of African heritage in the luxury space who are producing elsewhere? But it was clear to me that if I really wanted to play a role on the continent then it had to be on the continent.

www.onchek.com

This rationale was clear to Chekwas even before he focussed his attention on African luxury fashion. “I was born in Aba in South West Nigeria but moved to the States when I was 19 for college. I have a Biology degree and have worked in the manufacturing space most of my career but the whole time I knew that I wanted to do something different. Not just because I wanted to be my own boss or anything like that but because I always wanted to create opportunities back home but I didn’t really know what that looked like.”

It was only after a friend introduced him to some suits made in Nigeria back in 2014 that an interest in African luxury and fashion in general, was triggered “At the time I didn’t really know anything about fashion, Lagos fashion week or anything like that. I wasn’t all too interested as I just never connected my ambition to create jobs and opportunities back home to the industry.” It was later on that year that Chekwas finally made this connection, “I started to really look into the industry and that year I went to Africa fashion week in New York. I realised the way I could do this was through e-commerce and if I only stocked brands that were made locally,” through this Onchek.com was born. Despite the obvious challenges of having a stringent Made in Africa criteria, Chekwas remains optimistic and sees the Onchek platform as a vehicle for change “I think about it as an opportunity – if I really want to work with these amazing designers then I can focus on making it easier for them to produce on the continent by increasing their visibility in a highly competitive market and making African luxury fashion more accessible to the world.”

I don’t think if you asked African designers who produce elsewhere, they would say that they do not have a desire to produce on the continent it’s just that there are a lot of infrastructural barriers. The way I see it, someone has to do it.

TAIBOBACAR

Partnerships

With no fashion experience, Chekwas endeavoured to gain knowledge of the industry, “I began studying the fashion industry in general, Nigerian fashion, African fashion, ethical fashion etc. I came from a totally opposite industry and knew nothing so I had a lot to learn. I also learned about e-commerce and taught myself how to code. Overall, It took me about 2 years to do the groundwork before launching officially.

Chekwas then began to reach out to luxury, locally made brands to feature on the platform which at first, proved difficult, “When we started it was brutal – most were not interested and understandably so. They’ve spent years building their brands.” Eventually, though, a couple of designers agreed to stock their collections on the Onchek platform and things began to kick off “I won them over by buying their products and doing a shoot so I could show them my vision. Once I did, a couple of brands decided to give me a chance. It’s a natural process – you’ve got to show what you’ve got for people to have trust in you. And I think we have started to build that trust.” After 2 and half years Chekwas quit his full-time job to work on Onchek.com, having been working on the platform on the side. Onchek.com has now been in operation for a year and a half, stocking 18 Made in Africa luxury brands with plans to expand its partnerships.

FEMI

The power of content

As the Founder and CEO, Chekwas oversees a team of 3 core team members as well as periodic contractors, “within our core team I have a social media manager and a content creator. I believe these roles are extremely important to our brand and mission simply because I believe in the power of content as a driver of education and take education very seriously. African luxury is still relatively new. People want to know what it means and understand why they’re paying x dollars for an item. So we are taking a big stand on educating people about the brands: how they’re made, where they’re made etc. Customer satisfaction is our top priority and I believe creating an educative experience is part of that.

African Luxury

What is luxury? To Chekwas, all the African made brands featured on the Onchek platform effortlessly encompass luxury. “take for instance Maxhosa by South African designer Laduma. The craftsmanship is well done and consists of weaving wolf/ mull hair material into his fabric. We survey all our customers and have 100% satisfaction for quality. The collection is unique as Laduma seeks to merge his xhosa culture into his pieces which makes for really distinctive clothing that creates this sense of belonging that luxury brands have. For example, when I’m wearing my Maxhosa socks and I see someone else in them too we look at eachother like ohh! – literally, there’s this sense of belonging and emotional attachment to the brand and it’s something that’s not easy to create.

MAXHOSA BY LADUMA

Chekwas believes this sense of belonging goes further as there is a growing market of sophisticated African consumers that are emerging “African luxury is becoming more intrinsic, it’s becoming a consideration of what does it mean to me? Even if it’s not something as obvious as Laduma –  if I wear a Sawa shoe for instance even if its plain black it means something to me: Its made locally and its empowering people because these designers don’t just see themselves as designers but as people who are creating jobs and that’s super exciting.”

So I think these black consumers identify themselves as the type who don’t just buy into anything they’re more sophisticated. They use their money to vote” This is something that Chekwas closely identifies with himself “Personally, for a few years now I haven’t shopped anything that is not African brands because it doesn’t mean anything to me. And I think for a lot of African consumers its empowering.

 

MAXHOSA BY LADUMA x LAURENCEAIRLINE x TAIBOBACAR

African designers in the spotlight

Already competing in a highly competitive market, African designers face a myriad of challenges that mean they struggle to access markets and the media spotlight they deserve, “It’s just so hard for them. They’re dealing with infrastructural challenges and trying as far as possible to make their products locally and paying 2 or 3 times the price because they’re not buying in large bulks.” In Chekwas’ opinion part of the solution lies in mobilising support for the fashion and creative industries on the continent “There just needs to be a lot more players – Oncheck is playing its part but we need more. As Africans, we have to see fashion and the creative space as something that’s tangible and worth investing in. We need more players, organised bodies and funding.

Chekwas, however, remains excited about prospects on the continent “I get excited about how raw it (Africa) still is – there is opportunity everywhere. Every aspect of business from sourcing to manufacturing to agriculture there is so much opportunity in every tier of fashion – from the farm to the rack: Manufacturing that we see as a huge problem is equally a huge opportunity, e-commerce is a major opportunity that I think we will double down on in the next couple years – the reason why they’re opportunities is precisely because they’re challenges.”

SIMON AND MARY

 

One persistent challenge though goes beyond the physical infrastructural barriers but is one of mindset, “the idea that African clothing or products made on the continent are of lesser quality is a challenge. But I believe that can be overcome with good marketing and it is something that is slowly eroding right now. As I mentioned there are sophisticated buyers right now who are already buying African brands and who are enlightened to its worth and value beyond the price tag.”

It is part of the Onchek mission to begin to reverse this mindset “We are trying to make it a little more mass market where people don’t look to the east or west for products. We’ve spent years saying our products are terrible which sometimes they are – but it’s going to take time to reverse that and that’s okay as it is just the process.”

FEMI

Chekwas advises any budding African designers to,”focus on the made in Africa ethos no matter how challenging it gets. Make products locally and weave our culture into our fashion. Every creative space is needed because we’ve lost so much of who we are. We need our brands to start this conversation about who we really are, where we’ve come from and what we have been.”

Chekwas also urges entrepreneurs to “Start where you are with what you have. When I started it wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be but at least I started – the value of starting is important.

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Onchek.com is a one-stop shop for African luxury fashion and it is just getting started! What are your thoughts on the platform? Comment below

 

Chekwas Okafor

Shop: www.onchek.com

Contact: hello@onchek.com

IG: @_onchek

Twitter: @_onchek

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The Fashionomics Series: Walls of Benin

Craft is something that we do and have been doing for centuries.”

Chi Atanga – Founder Walls of Benin.

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For the first instalment of this African Luxury series, I spoke with Chi Atanga: Fashion and Textiles entrepreneur and Founder of African luxury loungewear brand Walls of Benin.

Setting the stage

Whilst currently based in the UK with a Portuguese subsidiary, Walls of Benin is set to launch its African production in Kenya. Getting to this point has been no easy feat for Manchester born and Cameroonian Chi. “I started with a vision, knowing nothing about fashion, manufacturing, dealing with suppliers or anything like that especially in the context of foreign languages across Europe and Africa.” The process has been a challenging one as Chi recalls, “In the beginning, I was doing more paperwork and raising finance than the creative, especially getting around the challenges of dealing with both British and Portuguese entities. And I kind of feel I’m still there. So day to day I do everything – I’m the CEO and the janitor literally!

African Excellence

If you are not familiar with the story of the Great Walls of Benin, its introduction by way of this African luxury brand is apt, “the story of the Walls of Benin is one of great geological feat. It was the greatest manmade construction ever – bigger than the Great Wall of China and built by citizens of the Benin Empire (So we are talking pre-colonial Africa.) When Europeans arrived they were surprised that something so great could be produced by Africans.” And this is where the brand name and ethos emerges – it is a reference to African sovereignty and greatness.The brand is a representation of this in two ways: Firstly we want to put out great African images and aesthetics like through the models we use, and secondly we want African made products to stand on their own and be in the likes of Selfridges and Harrods.”

The brand itself, however, is just the beginning for Chi’s vision of African excellence as with a strong passion for manufacturing, Chi sees the company going further than the loungewear collection, “The vision is bigger than the brand. Walls of Benin is like the cornerstone or starting point for a big vision. I feel really lucky that I’ve found an industry that I have a passion for and see myself going very far in but I do see things evolving.  I am fascinated by the input-output process as capitalism in its purest form and I think the factory is a great representation of that. I’m from Manchester the home of the industrial revolution and there’s still that legacy. So that’s what I think has partly influenced my interest in manufacturing. Factories took China from poverty in the 70s to where it is now and it could do the same for Africa.” Starting with Walls of Benin, Chi sees the company growing to distribute other African luxury brands, “almost like the African Farfetch.”

Moving up the value chain

Walls of Benin will create an EU Africa fashion value chain with a difference – where Portuguese silk and Tencel will be imported into Africa – Kenya – specifically, where it will be manufactured to produce the value-added product: Luxury Loungewear. Although this in itself is revolutionary, Chi warns against being overly idealistic and acknowledges that transforming the value chain is a strategic aim that will take time, “people ask me, why don’t you produce everything in Africa if you truly want to create a ‘Made in Africa brand’? Well, firstly we plan to manufacture in Kenya not Africa as a whole. Kenya and parts of Eastern Africa like Mauritius and Madagascar are good locations for manufacturing and have been manufacturing since the 70s to a high standard. On the textile side of things, the standard isn’t as high. For instance, Kenya currently only has around 45 functioning factories and 12 working textile mills. There remain lots of issues such as old and inefficient machinery. What I’ve observed in Portugal, however, is that even in the oldest factories are using the latest machinery. Its a very complicated challenge and I’ve seen a lot of brands struggle because of the idealistic part of this which is very easy to fall by.

He continues, “Saying that,  there is obviously some idealism that you need – you need to have a vision. For me producing on the continent was absolutely necessary and integral to the brand but I also realised that we want to get all the materials that we need even if that meant getting it from elsewhere. Ultimately, the brand needs to stand on its own – it needs to be good. So the value chain I’ve built is a reflection of these ideals coming together.

 

 

 

Luxury

What is luxury?  To Chi, Luxury fashion naturally has a place on the continent “Craft is something that we (Africans) do and have been doing for centuries. There are lots of individual tailors working in silos,  everyone has their own tailor. Imagine having that natural generational talent for garment making in a factory and making one product really well?– that’s naturally luxury.”

I think that luxury is a perspective. For example, China is not synonymous with luxury but there are luxury brands that produce there and work with manufacturers who have the perspective that they need to take their time with the craft. And I don’t think that’s a very hard sell in Africa.”

Kickstarting production

Walls of Benin will launch a Kickstarter campaign to gear up manufacturing in Kenya. Chi, however, has already started work on the continent in terms of finding partners and navigating through the business and legal aspects of setting up, “It’s a challenge. At least once a day I’m shouting on the phone in the office to our partners solving the whatever issue of the day. For instance, at the moment, we are figuring out where we stand with tax and import duties…” Encouragingly though, Chi has the support of experts, “ the way I’ve overcome these challenges has been by working with Partners like DHL – getting advice from industry experts has been crucial”.

Chi remains excited about his prospects on the continent “The first time I went to Africa as an adult – I went to Ghana and I was just blown away. It was just so much fun and there was so much going on. I saw so much opportunity. I remember going to Ghana Fashion Week and networking with a range of people including students, other returnees – and not just Ghanaians but other fellow Africans too.  I saw similar things in Kenya. It is such an exciting space to be in.”

Growing up my father would always tell me about the problems on the continent but would always phrase them as opportunities. And going out there for myself I have seen that. So what I am doing now feels like fate. I always wanted to do two things: make a lot of money and do good – particularly vis a vis Africa and Walls of Benin has given me the opportunity to do that and that is very exciting.

Success leaves clues

I asked Chi what advice he would give to other budding African entrepreneurs trying to make their mark on the luxury market, “Success leaves clues and success in one area leaves clues in another. What I mean by that is observe and learn from other successful people in your field whatever it is.  You have to educate yourself – the trick is to get the information as you go along and to seek and speak to people to connect the dots.” This is advice Chi has learned to live by and something that has positively impacted his business journey, “For example, for the Kickstarter  I am launching when I was researching and I came across a fashion Kickstarter that raised 9million. So I’m thinking where’s the trick? I did some more research and found out who the man behind PR was. I decided to get in touch and it just so happens that he was flying out to Atlanta (where I was located at the time for a programme and where my parents currently live), the next day. We had dinner and maintained a relationship, now he’ll be working on the campaign.”

The Walls of Benin Kickstarter to launch African production will begin next week – stay posted for details!

I’m looking forward to the next phase in the Walls of Benin journey – it’s amazing to see a luxury brand waving the flag for African production and excellence.

What are your thoughts? Chi would love to hear from you, comment below!

Shop: www.wallsofbenin.com

Contact: Chi@wallsofbenin.com

IG: @wallsofbenin_official

Twitter: @wallsofbenin

 

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The Fashionomics Series: African Luxury

Photo cred: Ed Singleton

It’s been a great season for African Luxury. Hot off the back of Arise Fashion Week (ft Naomi Campbell and Ozwald Boateng) – Lagos, Nigeria is buzzing with African luxury excellence. The Fashion showcase exhibited African designers ranging from evening wear to tailoring and more – showcasing the diversity and quality of the African luxury industry and African fashion in general.

 

Ozwald Boateng

Naomi Campbell in Kluk CGDT

Laurence Airline

Photo cred: The Guardian 

 

African creative figures are also making their mark in luxury spaces. Edward Enninful is already shaking the table at British Vogue and most recently Virgil Abloh’s appointment as Louis Vuitton’s first black artistic director for menswear has signalled a new time in luxury fashion. Not to mention the impact of Wakanda… although fictional the celebration of African stylistic heritage that has emerged out of Black Panther is not. Including the luxury African designers whose brands have graced the Black Panther red carpets and featured as on-screen costumes.

It seems the stage is being set for African luxury – but can Africa ’s designers compete in the luxury market? Whilst African creatives seem to be occupying luxury spaces, could African made brands do the same?

Changing fortunes

The continent remains locked in a basic pattern of trade: ship raw materials out and bring manufactured goods in. This severely limits the value retained. For example, the global fashion industry is worth an estimated $1.5tr and the continent clearly sees very little of this.

“While Africa remains the number one source of raw materials for the tech and luxury industries, its own brands have struggled for access to markets and media spotlight.” 

 

Andrea Iyamah

However, intensive manufacturing need not be only way Africa could begin to move up the value chain. Investing in African made Luxury brands and designers is an investment in craftsmanship and quality outputs as well as the preservation of traditional heritage.

Luxury brands are helping to revive traditional craftsmanship. For example in Nigeria where the influx of imports led to the decline of traditional practices and the country’s textile industry, designers like Amaka Osakwe of  Maki Oh (worn by Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga) are using traditional fabrics such as Adire, an indigo-dyed cotton fabric worn by the Yoruba people of south-west Nigeria for their pieces. This not only encourages highly skilled labour but also preserves the unique heritage of its origin. ‘Luxury’ is often identified from craftsmanship, quality and uniqueness – Africa has all the makings to create a strong and sustainable luxury market.

Africa is on the move. Africa is in acceleration. Africa is birthing a modern luxury economy through its rich creative heritage and dynamic peoples and markets.” Uche Pézard of Luxury Connect Africa.

Andrea Iyamah

Last year, I explored the imprint of the African diaspora on Africa’s fashion industry. In this ‘African Luxury’ Series I will be exploring the luxury market and its potential to support development by providing solutions to unemployment and economic diversification. I will be interviewing founders and designers of African luxury brands at different stages of their journey.

Stay tuned for these interviews which I will be posting weekly. Make sure you’re subscribed and following me on social media so you’ll be the first to know when these interviews are posted!   

 

What are your thoughts on the potential of Africa’s luxury industry? Comment below x

 

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The Fashionomics Series: Kuba Wraps UK

KUBA UK is a line of authentic African head wraps & accessories handmade in London, founded by Georgina Owusu-Ansah a secondary school Business and Finance teacher. Born to Ghanaian parents, Georgina has always been in touch with her African culture, “I had the typical British Ghanaian upbringing: hall parties, Ghanaian food, cutting off a bit of African cloth to go with my outfits – It’s always been apart of me.

Solving a problem

It was Georgina’s love for African prints and material that sparked the idea of an African head wrap line, “early last summer, I was online searching for some new head wraps and I just couldn’t find a brand that was locally made but still authentically African. Although I love international brands I didn’t want to wait for ages and pay loads for shipping.” Georgina realised that there was a gap in the market for something locally made and immediately got the ball rolling with her brand and business idea.

“The teacher in me thought: how can I solve this problem? and I literally birthed Kuba within a few days. On Sunday I had thought of the line and by Wednesday I had a logo.”

KUBA” was derived from the name of a Central African royal tribe known for their exquisite patterns and stunning fabrics – this matched Georgina’s vision.

At the moment Georgina takes full control of the business and does everything from sourcing products to promotion. But she has recently hired an intern who works part-time for whom she delegates appropriate roles.

 

Kuba Fall Collection

Learning curves

At only 6 months old, Kuba is still a new business. The brand is evolving and will continually do so. “There is still so much to discover in terms of who we are and we’re always learning”. For instance, when she first began making head wraps, Georgina realised that there was the issue with the material potentially drying hair and later added a satin lining. That way, she says “customers could maintain their hair on the inside whilst getting the beauty of African print on the outside”.

The brand

Georgina has a clear and grounded vision for the Kuba brand. “Kuba is a brand that is AUTHENTIC in its origin and this is with everything we endeavour to do: from our designs to our team and our goals. We want to share the beautiful aspects of African culture that is often missed out. We want to show the beautiful and multi-faceted side to our culture in the face of the negative media representations, of backhanded conversations and negative narratives and give people a sneak peek into authentic African beauty through print.”

The promotion of African culture goes beyond the prints, however, as each piece is given a name that is representative of her culture. “I wanted to show the beauty of Ghanaian names as well as educate people about my culture. For instance, one piece is named after my mother ‘Serwaah Bonsu’. In addition, traditionally all prints are given names but after purchasing a print named ‘The Kings Chair’ Georgina renamed her head wrap ‘Nana’, a name for a woman of superiority in Ghanaian culture “it was my way of reflecting my target market whilst retaining my Ghanaian culture.”

And Georgina has an even broader vision for the brand. As a London-based company, the wraps are made locally but the aim is to eventually outsource labour into parts of West Africa to support the local economy and help to equip local people in building infrastructures such as schools and health facilities. “To me, it’s all about giving the people in our supply chain their due – it’s not about handouts. When you are providing something so valuable to your culture and have nurtured that you should be able to get your due.

The journey to begin outsourcing labour (in Ghana initially) is one that has already begun. “At the moment we are looking into sourcing some suppliers in Ghana through some relationships we have built.” Relationships are what Georgina believes is key to building a robust and efficient supply chain, “you need to be able to trust your supply chain, build relationships with people and create a community from the beginning.” This is a journey that Georgina acknowledges will not be an easy one as she recalls being advised by fellow Africans that she should source her material from elsewhere such as Europe. “I was honestly shocked by this and didn’t realise that this was normal practice. Initially, I thought if that’s what everyone does then I’ll do the same but, for something that’s so precious and valuable to our culture to be sourced elsewhere with the potential to be watered down and profits redirected just did not settle with me.” From this Georgina began to do her research and discovered so many authentic places she could outsource from. “I focussed on Ghana – being my heritage this was naturally my go to”.

Being born in the UK however, Georgina feels strongly about her dual identity. “Ghana is my heritage but London is my home”. As an educator, in the long term, Georgina hopes to use Kuba to support education projects here too as she feels passionate about informal education.


Plans for the future

In the short term, the plan is to release more products in the Kuba line and expand beyond head wraps throughout the year. In the long term, Georgina hopes Kuba can gain the capital to widen its reach, secure its African partnerships and continue to sell products that people can love and enjoy, “as well as Kuba there have been so many diaspora brands recently that are showcasing the quality of African culture and heritage and we want to continue to do so and support others doing the same”.

So what advice does Georgina give to the diaspora in launching a successful brand and business?

Kuba is still a really new business. I’m constantly learning every day but one thing I’ve learned so far about this journey is that if you are a new brand don’t compete! Don’t come in with a competitive mindset or the idea that you must slay your competition. This doesn’t take away from basic business principles. It pays to build with others.

Also handwork is key. Its been the definition of the last 8 months so be prepared to work your socks off to make sure anything you do is done well. We’ve only got a handful of products and are continually striving to have good quality.”

And finally, “No man is an island. I credit a lot of my success to my family and friends who have jumped along for the ride and who are there to listen to me ramble on about my crazy ideas. I’ve learnt that it’s okay to allow your business to evolve with the help of others and that’s beautiful”.

 Georgina Owusu-Ansah

As a new business witch such big plans, it will be exciting to see Kuba’s journey, I’m particularly looking forward to it!

Follow the journey:

Shop: www.kubauk.com

Instagram: @Kubawraps

Twitter: @Kubawraps

Facebook: @Kubawraps

Georgina would love to hear from you, comment below!

This post is part of a series of interviews with founders and designers within the diaspora using their brands to promote African culture and development.

 

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The Fashionomics Series: MIA LDN

MIA (Made in Africa) LDN  is a clothing project, showcasing handmade formal wear from some of Africa’s finest tailors. The line was founded by 24-year-old trainee solicitor and Nigerian born, ‘Andre the Designer’ whose frustrations with men’s trousers led him to create his own bespoke design, “I spent some time in South Africa, whilst I was out there I was in need of a suit. One of the things I found quite annoying about men’s trousers was that there always seemed to be a trade-off between waist fit and thigh room. I was frustrated with always having to ‘go up’ a waist size, the lack of shape and the quite often, lazy designs.” As a result, Andre approached a South African tailor and asked him to design a trouser that was high waisted and slightly cropped and which, importantly allowed for the extra thigh room and style he desired. “The design was both stylish and practical – I could wear them as part of my suit or as part of a casual outfit.” It was here that Andre had designed the first pair of MIA’s flagship trousers as motivated to share his design with the world he pitched the idea to his tailor. “I suggested we take the design back to London and see what happened, and so we made our first batch and returned to the UK”.

Andre was inspired to think bigger though, as he now echoes the words of his first collaborative partner his South African tailor – GallanT, “Your vision must be bigger than you”. This inspired the collaborative approach of MIA which now encapsulates the brand as a whole.

 

Collaborating 

It is the goal of MIA to collaborate with at least one African tailor in every African country. Collaboration being the key aspect of the MIA brand, “we take a collaborative approach as our aim is not to ‘colonise’ the creative talent of our chosen tailors and designers but to showcase their skill and designs.” There are two sides to the MIA experience: Firstly, the Retail side which uses the MIA flagship trouser but with each tailor adding their own unique touches to make it their own. “For instance, Gallant Tshepo adds both the middle trouser button, as well as 2 extra buttons at the hip, before extending a waistband from the middle to the hip to attach to those two buttons.” MIA has also recently on-boarded a Zambian tailor, Rency Malaika and hope to move to Nigeria next.

These collaborations allow MIA to capture the designs and prints that represent each tailor’s culture and industry best. The other side of the MIA experience is the Bespoke Tailoring side, “If the customer seeks a tailored design then along with our tailor partner we pitch our ideas to the client and collaborate with them to create their bespoke design”.  

 MIA LDN Flagship Trouser

With this model, the aim is clear, “to dispel preconceptions about African fashion by showing the world that Africa can compete on the formal wear front and on its own terms.”

By working directly and collaboratively with highly skilled African tailors, MIA is able to provide an authentic product and service. “We are essentially cutting out the middleman. As members of the diaspora, we are given regular reminders that we are not British in the traditional sense. One of the best things we can do is to channel the reactionary energy from such reminders towards embracing the fact that, whilst being British in our own way, we are in a unique position where we are intimately connected with our heritage and are able to go directly to the source. This makes the experience more authentic – truly made in Africa.”

When locating African tailors to collaborate with, recommendations are MIA’s starting point. “The tailors we look for and collaborate with are very much up and coming and just need that extra push and platform to help them to further develop.” GallanT and Rency Malaika are both young designers aged 22 and 23, “they are at a stage where what they are creating now may be different to what they create in the future so one thing we look for is a willingness to learn, that raw drive and creative flair so that we can play our role in helping to expose them to a wider platform whilst they work on their own brands”. 

As well as creating an empowering platform, MIA’s motivation for collaborating has a practical element: “there is not really a one-stop shop for tailors in Africa. Our goal is to work with highly skilled tailors and discover some of the best in each country. That way we get to a point where people can go to our website and filter through countries and tailors to order easily.

 GallanT Collection – Zambia

Doing business in Africa 

For their Zambian collaboration, MIA visited Zambia for their cover shoot. Speaking on the practicalities of doing business in Africa, Andre notes “in this current age with instant communication and the many forms of online messaging it makes communication a lot easier. Not more than 10 years ago such technology wasn’t quite as widespread amongst much of the continent.” However, Andre acknowledges some differences when building partnerships in Africa “Understanding the difference in culture is important and patience is a big thing. It’s important to acknowledge the differences in lifestyles and working styles whilst acknowledging that my partners are entrepreneurs in their own right with their own brands and businesses e.g. acknowledging that they are not in front of a computer all day or always switched on which is the norm in the west. It’s all about bridging the gap and finding that middle ground.”

Whilst in Zambia, Andre and his team didn’t just focus on their shoot but used the trip as an opportunity for networking, “we networked not only with our tailors and the individuals we needed to but also with others in Zambia’s creative industries like bloggers, photographers and other models in order to build a rapport and learn more about the market and industry – we feel strongly about collaboration in all aspects.

MIA 3
MIA2

MIA LDN Zambia shoot

Teamwork 

Although Andre is the founder of MIA he works with and oversees a dedicated team. “I have a team which includes our head creative director and stylist, Jade who runs most of our shoots; social media manager Charnelle – a former intern of ours; Nsikan, who, amongst other things, helps with fashion merchandising; and Mark, who assists with business development.” Having a supportive, capable, and engaged team has taken a lot of pressure off of Andre who balances his day job as a trainee solicitor with MIA, “I’m grateful. It’s hard work but it gives me a great creative outlet.

Collaboration runs beyond African partnerships though as MIA aims to partner with other startups, “in anything we do we try and give a platform to as many creatives and small businesses as possible. For example, we work with a marketing consultant and a Black-British owned accountancy firm and have also built a growing network of photographers and bloggers. We prefer to collaborate as it allows others to build their own personal brands.”

 

Future plans 

In the short term, MIA is focusing on having a successful Spring/Summer 2017 launch whilst the long-term goal remains “to be in collaboration with tailors in every African country and to become a one-stop shop for both retail and tailored services.” Andre also speaks of future plans for an app in addition to their website being an online portal for African tailors.  “By us doing the groundwork now in building relationships within the fashion and creative industries throughout the continent, we may even get to a point at which other brands and businesses come to us for introductions and recommendations to allow them to meet their own collaborative needs.”

So what advice does Andre give to others in the diaspora about launching a successful brand and business?

We at MIA have still got a long way to go, but I’d advise anyone searching for inspiration to think of a problem or anything that irritates you and create an innovative solution for it.” Andre points out that this is something the diaspora could particularly capitalise on, “as minorities there are loads of things or spaces that don’t particularly ‘fit’ for us. Finding solutions to these gaps in the market is a great start”.

Secondly, “definitely have a plan (I spent a lot of time planning) but if you have an idea it does get to a point where you should just go for it.” Andre was initially going to put off launching MIA to do an entrepreneurism course at Cambridge, “but I’m sure we’ve probably made more progress than we would have had I done the course – you learn and progress as you go along.”

 Thirdly, “get comfortable with networking and understand its importance. You are building contacts and potential opportunities every day” but, Andre warns “don’t expect every connection you make to materialise into an opportunity. A lot of opportunities come about unexpectedly – through a casual chat or a brief mention – so just keep connecting and see what happens.

And finally “don’t sell yourself short. People will say your dream is too big but if you can’t see the end goal and can only visualise it this is a motivation in itself”.

 

With many more collaborations to come and huge plans for the brand and platform, MIA LDN’s journey will be an exciting one to follow!

Shop: www.mialdn.com

Twitter: @mialdnapparel

Instagram: @mialdnapparel

Facebook: @mialdnapparel

Youtube: mialdnapparel

Contact: info@mialdn.com

Andre and the MIA LDN team would love to hear from you. Comment below!

This post is part of a series of interviews with founders and designers within the diaspora using their brands to promote African culture and development.

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