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

_______

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.

_________

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

Follow:
annettebena

The Fashionomics Series: Walls of Benin

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

Chi Atanga – Founder Walls of Benin.

________

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

 

Follow:
annettebena

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

 

Follow:
annettebena