Meet the Young Designers Transforming Africa’s Retail Scene: Part One

Want a must-have item? If you are living in Africa, that means traveling. I’m not talking across town to a local mall--but across continents to cities like New York, London, or Paris. For decades, this has been the primary method of acquisitions for fashion-forward Africans who craved Western luxury or contemporary goods. Until recently. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, a new generation of young designers are quietly changing this reality.
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Want a must-have item? If you are living in Africa, that means traveling. I’m not talking across town to a local mall--but across continents to cities like New York, London, or Paris. For decades, this has been the primary method of acquisitions for fashion-forward Africans who craved Western luxury or contemporary goods. Until recently. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, a new generation of young designers are quietly changing this reality.
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Want a must-have item? If you are living in Africa, that means traveling.

I’m not talking across town to a local mall--but across continents to cities like New York, London, or Paris. For decades, this has been the primary method of acquisitions for fashion-forward Africans who craved Western luxury or contemporary goods. Until recently.

From Algeria to Zimbabwe, a new generation of young designers are quietly changing this reality. Their African-inspired, Western-influenced collections are locally sourced and sold, giving fashionistas access to pieces that look as good in Nairobi as they would in New York, in Lagos as they would in London, or Pretoria as they would in Paris. Their wares are sold on brand-new sites like 5th&Quansah.com (think Net-a-Porter for West Africa) and chic boutiques like Temple Muse in Nigeria. Yet, more often than not, these designers stock their pieces through their own boutiques.

Over the last month, I traveled West Africa to meet some of them face to face and tour their stores and manufacturing workshops. Besides talent, style and savvy, they were all bound by one powerful ambition: cash flow. These young designers are not just interested in showing and telling; they are interested in selling. Along the way, they are developing infrastructure, creating jobs and generating revenue in their respective countries. The cumulative weight of their self-funded efforts is staggering: transforming the fashion retail landscape on the continent.

In my travels, the designers behind the following brands truly embodied this movement: Jewel by Lisa (Nigeria), Christie Brown (Ghana), Koshio (Ghana) Loza Maleombho (Cote D’Ivoire) and David Tlale (South Africa). Each shared valuable insight on the highs and the hurdles of expanding in Africa and why they will never give up.

Click through for part one: the story behind one of West Africa's biggest and most successful designers, Lisa Folawiyo of Jewel by Lisa.

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NIGERIA: Jewel by Lisa by Lisa Folawiyo

The first thing that strikes you about Lisa Folawiyo is her elegance. From her gracious welcome to her warm conversation, there’s an ease and beauty about her which is apparent in her clothes. It’s part of why her brand, launched in 2005, has skyrocketed in record time. Today, her intricate, hand-beaded pieces, are a must-have for Nigeria’s elite both on the continent and across the world. I chatted with her about the growth of her business and her celeb-studded clientele.

Zandile: JBL is by far one of the most dominant brands in West africa. What factors have led to that success? Lisa: I think one of the keys to success as a designer is defining an aesthetic and sticking to it. When Jewel by Lisa started, we created embellished Ankara (now an ornate global print) by hand beading crystals, variations of beads, and sequins onto the fabric which has since changed the face of the fabric. Never before seen or done, we were able to carve a niche for ourselves and set the label apart from other existing labels. Today, our love for print and embellishments has evolved into the label creating its own afro-inspired prints, yet our aesthetic remain the same –Jewel by Lisa is all about prints, embellishments, and luxuriously modern-cool clothing. We will always explore the power and versatility of the Ankara print (or print in general) and come up with innovative, exciting, and modern ways to use it. Success for us is hard work, staying relevant, and making beautiful clothes – reinvented season after season.

Zandile: Your collections are available at several boutiques in Nigeria, including your own. How is this impacting profit? Lisa: Alongside our main studio/boutique and stockists, both in Nigeria and internationally, Jewel By Lisa is on its way to expanding other outlets and also increasing our number of stockists both locally and internationally. It has been quite profitable, people are increasingly more interested in paying a premium for quality goods, however more production in larger quantities will allow for more profits within the continent and globally.

Zandile: Are your clients exclusively in Nigeria and what attracts them to the brand? Lisa: Over the years we have been blessed, garnering quite a large number of clients in Nigeria and in many parts of Africa, but its great to also count clients from all over the world. We are inundated daily with emails and requests from all over about purchasing from the Label. As a growing international brand, it's great to know that our pieces find their place in wardrobes around the world. I believe that people are interested in unique, luxurious, one of a kind pieces – and I believe that's what attracts them to Jewel by Lisa.

Zandile: Considering the volume you must produce to serve your clients, wouldn't it be cheaper to produce in china? Lisa: Yes, we are currently seeking production internationally (but not in China) however to keep our work special, niche, and exclusive we have decided that we will continue to hand bead the garments in Nigeria in our local workshops. Hand beading is the crux of our work, and that is something that has spearheaded the brand.

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Zandile: What are the price points of your pieces? Lisa: The pieces range from $150 - $1,500. Our diffusion brand the J label, fits into the $150 - $350 price range while the main line, Jewel by Lisa ,falls between $350 to about $1,500.

Zandile: Those price points are pretty competitive with western brands; is there an audience to support/afford it on the continent? Lisa: Speaking within the context of Nigeria, in the recent past, Nigerians have become more supportive of home grown labels. A few years back, designers battled with clients and their refusal to pay premium prices for home grown labels, citing that they much preferred to spend their money on international labels. Although many still hold this school of thought, our shopping culture has since improved, and many Nigerians are now more than ever willing to pay a premium for locally made luxury goods. The population of Nigeria is about 250 million, and if the 1-5% are counted as affluent, that is still a huge number of individuals that are still able to afford luxury products within the country. That number can then be multiplied when thinking about the continent as a whole. I believe that if local designers can provide quality products that can be compared to international brands, then customers need to see the products for what they are and shop based on that. Many western brands have built a name for their brands and that name is what they will always have above local brands. Having said that, a few local brands have begun to build a name for themselves internationally.

Zandile: What’s your take on homegrown brands who want to expand outside of the Continent? Lisa: I believe that if brands within Africa can offer products that exhibit quality, craftsmanship, and uniqueness, then I believe they can expand outside of Africa. I think that the cut/construction, the attention to detail, however subtle, the finishing and the quality of fabric are critical when designing a garment. I also believe that brands within Africa need to position themselves as designers first, and step out of the “African designer” box, which I believe can be quite limiting in certain contexts.

Learn more about Lisa Folawiyo and Jewel by Lisa here and stay tuned for the stories behind four more designers changing African fashion.

Zandile Blay is former women's market editor at Paper Magazine and founder of Africa Style Daily. Follow her on Twitter @zandile.