The Fashionomics Series: ONCHEK.com

The Fashionomics Series: ONCHEK.com

“Focusing 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 East 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 mohair 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 – ONCHEK 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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