As a fashion designer I subscribe to fashion updates from BOF (Business of Fashion). BOF serves as an essential resource site for fashion creatives and entrepreneurs. Whilst sifting through my emails I bumped into this article Stop Waiting for the Perfect Moment to Invest in Africa penned by my dear friend Omoyemi Akerele.
First and foremost I must kick off this article by reiterating my stance that Yemi as I know her is perhaps the only individual busting her backside to propel Nigerian fashion sector to the next stage. However, I respectfully and unequivocally beg to differ with her when it comes to her manner of approach and understanding of how we can get to our desired destination. I`m not oblivious of the fact that whatever is left of my skinny… you know what… will be chewed for this article by a certain demographic who never take kindly to any sort of criticism whatsoever but I beg to be heard before being crucified.
Now, on what premise or premises do I disagree with Yemi`s take on the best way forward for African fashion? Well for starters, I will pick a few assertions from the article that caught my attention and endeavour to a proffer a superior argument. Please do understand that I deem this as a friendly conversation which I strongly encourage any fashion aficionado with the progress of African fashion in mind to participate in. We might entertain contradicting solutions to the problem but I sincerely hope we all want the same thing which is Africa`s advancement in the global fashion industry.I`m UK based but my love for Nigeria fashion industry can`t be questioned.The issue isn`t and has never been absence of potentials,the issue has been and still is our inability to adequately tap into the available potentials.
My rebuttal to this article was rendered inevitable by many points raised by Yemi but two took the biscuit. The safe and selfish path for me to tow with regards to this article would have been to just ignore the flaws in the article and move on but then the patriotic side of me wouldn`t allow that, hence here we are. The assertions in question are listed below:
(A) “No doubt, there may sometimes be an issue of disparity around price points or quality, but I believe that every label was given a chance at some point”. Now, anyone with the slightest inkling about the operational method of top end stores across the globe would appreciate the simple logic that these stores DON`T engage sentiments in their business dealings. Their overheads are so humongous that they can`t even be bothered to get themselves entangled in sentiments; quality and bottom-line is everything to these chaps at the top echelons of the fashion industry. The possibility that the CEO of a departmental store such as Saks 5th Avenue would lower their standards just to accommodate Africans is at best delusional; it will never happen not even in a million years. It is either that stocking your label will lead to cash hitting their tills or it is out of the store. It is that simple and straight forward. And any buyer that cultivates the unappreciated habit of stocking the wrong labels will be given the boot faster than he can say fashion and all buyers are well aware of this fact hence their major consideration before purchasing from designers is quality and saleability. It is common knowledge on the British fashion industry scene that every single square foot in Selfridges, Harrods, Harvey Nics, Liberty et al, is expected to generate certain level of funds or questions will be asked which could lead to someone’s job flying out the window or a concessionaire’s contract not been renewed .
Considering the fact that Yemi has conceded that quality of garments from African designers are sometimes not at the level it should be, I’m hard pressed to understand her view-point then. Like the saying goes “he who comes to equity must come with clean hands”. Quality is sacrosanct in top end fashion. Actually, even consumers of low end fashion expect and demand certain level of quality as well hence one can walk into London Topshop or Debenhams and expect to walk out with garments of good enough quality to be worn to social events.
This is not a fundamental human rights issue that we are dealing with here but business, so indulging sentiments is a non-starter. The stores are not charity organisations or governmental agencies; they are businesses that require positive turnover to stay afloat. To be honest, I was gobsmacked to read that Yemi was indeed circuitously requesting that quality be lowered specifically for the Africans. Scaling down quality for the benefit of African designers would erroneously suggest that African designers are unable to attain the standard acceptable to these stores. Let me categorically affirm that Africans can and must raise their standard to match what is obtainable at floor of these stores. This is very doable once we are in the appropriate headspace. It is time to grab things by the scruff of the neck and quit playing the victim. We victimise ourselves by not realising the power and potential we possess.
Nigerians are officially recognised as the fourth highest spenders at Selfridges, London. Now that is economic power to tap into if you ask me. Whatever happened to the quote “Be so good that they can`t ignore you”? Yes, they might be ignoring Africa now but as soon as Africa puts on its creative hat and applies itself to understanding and aligning the quality and designs of its goods to international requirements, these chaps will be forced to have a rethink.
Stella Jean was mentioned in this article. This might be a hard pill to swallow but Stella Jean has taken what was originally, okay, what we claim to be ours and made hers and we can’t do diddly squat about it. She owns it now! The Ankara fabrics were specifically designed by Vlisco, Hemlmond, The Netherlands for the consumption of the African market so even though Vlisco is manufactured in Holland, it is solely for export to Africa so it was fair for us to claim Ankara as ours but that was before Stella Jean popped onto the scene with those awesome and professionally designed and tailored pieces.
The quality of Stella Jean`s tailoring is second to none hence she has been embraced. Secondly, she recognised that Ankara (Holland wax) is so beautifully and elaborately designed that all a designer has to worry about is ensuring that his/her tailoring is top-notch as opposed to employing the use of excess embellishment to conceal poor tailoring. I have never encountered motifs or other sorts of embellishment on her pieces. Her selling points are her tailoring and wearable designs.
At this juncture, I dare say we shouldn`t beg for chances; we must go in and forcefully take the chances that we deserve by churning out awe inspiring pieces. If we want this, we have to snatch it because it wont be given on a platter of gold. This is achievable but we must believe in our ability. No more grovelling, please.
(B) “On the production side, I strongly believe that the global fashion industry is here to stay in Africa. North-African countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are already firmly positioned as production hubs, while Ethiopia, Kenya and Mauritius are increasingly sought after and Ghana is being tapped as Western Africa’s apparel manufacturing destination”. This one right here got me so emotional because no where did she bother to mention Nigeria here and rightly so. I have repeatedly mentioned to anyone who cares to listen including Yemi that you can’t have a fashion industry without a fashion manufacturing industry; they go hand in hand.
It is common sight to come across manufacturing factories from the aforementioned African countries at Premiere Vision, Paris, Milano Unica, Premium Berlin, Pitti Uomo et al aggressively seeking business from fashion brands but sadly, I have never come across one from Nigeria and the question begging to be answered is WHY? Before you answer that question, I need to remind you that we are supposedly the greatest economy in Africa with huge manpower.
The least required of Nigeria are CMT units (cut, make and trim units) that should be able to do short runs of about 200 pieces of 10 or 20 pieces per design or thereabout and then outsource larger volumes. I have researched and I’m yet to discover any quality CMT unit in Nigeria where a designer can take his patterns and fabrics and expect them to be interpreted into world standard garments and until we have that within our borders, all these efforts to generate press will be in futility. For those who have not embraced this fact yet, I say to you “In fashion, quality craftsmanship is life”.
During my 6 month stint as a student of a fashion business management course, I was taught by my mentor Mr David Jones, a man with about 50 years fashion experience under his belt, that generating press is like two-edged sword so you must ensure you have what is worth showcasing to the press before you let them encroach into your business. Why do I say this? Well, in as much as this article might convince a few connected individuals to give Nigeria a look-in, my conviction is that we should be careful of inviting them in till we are ready and have something to showcase. We must be living in cloud cuckoo land if we seriously believe that we are ready! Inviting the press before we are ready is tantamount to committing hara-kiri from my standpoint.
Even though my label is British registered, I will always engage in any constructive conversation that will improve the Nigerian and African fashion industry as it will be my pride to one day manufacture a garment in Nigeria which I can be very proud of.
I totally stand behind this article in its entirety as it presents questions as to what the African and particularly Nigerian Fashion industry has done to deserve what it is requesting or shall I say begging for. The obscene amount of funds we have wasted on and will continue to waste on shows in Nigeria would have put structures on ground to propel the present generation and the coming one to fashion Eldorado.
Somewhere in the article, it was opined that the big players in the global fashion industry are of the mindset that it might only be lucrative for the next generation but not this one to invest in the African fashion industry. Well, my take on that is that if we begin to nip wastage in the bud and use whatever is available to lay tangible structures NOW, our next generation will be the ones investing in American/European industries just like the Chinese and not the other way round. With adequate structures on ground, our next generation of designers and investors in fashion will rule the word but then we must rid ourselves of this mindset that we always need the world to survive.
When we experienced the outbreak of Ebola, we blamed America for not originating a vaccine for it meanwhile we have African scientists and Governments who should have seen this coming and worked on a vaccine. Remember this was a reality about 30 years ago in Zaire.
Prior to about a decade ago, no one worth his salt in the global fashion industry would spare a thought for China. China was then regarded as where knock-offs and other low end goods could be manufactured at very cheap rate. However fast forward to today and they have totally earned respect. They have Angelica Cheung, a very fashionable and savvy editor of Vogue China in the forefront of protagonists pushing for Chinese designers to be accepted on the global stage but this push is based on the structures they have laid hence they are making headway unlike the Africans. The Met Gala benefiting the Metropolitan Arts Museum in NYC was notably themed China: Through The Looking Glass – in recognition of China`s influence on Western fashion.
The bitter truth is that what we are seeking for is taken and NEVER given so we must go all out and exemplify the hunger in us to forcefully take it.
I do organise fashion workshops where I can assure you that participants will confirm that 65% of the energy and time I spend on this workshop is always geared towards encouraging attendees to improve on the quality of garments they churn out. I strongly frown at the notion that the world owes Africa anything or is going to simply offer Africa/Nigeria a place on the world stage to be sold to these attendees on whose mindsets I have spent countless hours working on.
It is worth revealing that London College of Fashion, Central Saint. Martins, FIT New York, Istituto Marangoni et al churn out thousands of fashion graduates each year that the European and American fashion industries are expected to absorb so Africa is expected to cater for its own likewise. I refuse to believe that the problem is money because I have witnessed money wasted very insanely on nonsensical shows that were not expected propel us from point A to point B right from the onset. We organise shows with no set goals in mind but just for show’s sake.
What I genuinely believe we have achieved over the years is simply the ability to show off and at that nothing tangible worth serving this generation of designers talk more of the next one.
Recognition will definitely arrive when we have gotten our act together. We did begin to solve the Boko Haram scourge the moment we brainstormed constructively with other African leaders instead of waiting for America, didn’t we?
In conclusion, I hereby request any serious minded African who is genuinely serious about investing or improving the state of the Nigerian Fashion Manufacturing Industry to contact me via email@example.com to go through my proposal on that subject. Fashion manufacturing is a very lucrative business but you must know how to unlock the money therein. I know where the money is!
I hereby pen off here.
P.S. I sincerely apologise for this epistle. I wish it was possible to be abridged.