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Meet the Young Designers Transforming Africa’s Retail Scene, Part Two: Loza Meleombho

Earlier this year, our reporter, Zandile Blay, traveled through West Africa to meet some of the talented young designers who are changing Africa's ret
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Earlier this year, our reporter, Zandile Blay, traveled through West Africa to meet some of the talented young designers who are changing Africa's retail landscape with their chic African-inspired, Western-influenced wears. For the last installment in this series, she shared the story of Jewel by Lisa's Lisa Folawiyo. Next up: Loza Maleombho of Cote D'Ivoire.

It’s hard to stand out amongst seventy-seven accomplished designers, but that’s exactly what Loza Maleombho did at the Arise Magazine Fashion Week in Lagos last month. The young designer debuted a collection of structured vests and harem pants that elicited a collective gasp from the audience. Now, the former Yigael Azrouel and Jill Stuart intern is hoping that such reactions will translate into a strong business as she builds her first manufacturing headquarters in her native Cote D’Ivoire.

Zandile: Why bypass tried and true manufacturers in China and India when it came to setting up your own line? Loza: When starting out in the fashion industry and looking for production workshops in India or China, you are confronted with quotas. You do not necessarily have the quantity they require so even if they agree to produce your order, you are not prioritized. You're up against designers who have bigger orders, which may cause you to loose control over your rotation.

I decided to produce in Côte d'Ivoire in order to have control and flexibility over my production and because I realize we do have valuable resources to trade on an international level. I had also hoped to provide jobs and fair living wages to post-war Ivorian women, thus showcasing Côte d'Ivoire's artistry with positive and lasting social and economic changes.

What were some steps you took to setting up your manufacturing here? I started out by working with a professional pattern maker in New York City. Once all the patterns, samples and detailed technical sheets were ready, I made the trip to Côte D'Ivoire and gathered a team of 10 women freelancers for production.

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Does this mean you are committing to more of an African demographic than a Western one? I am currently targeting the Western demographic with high-end structured designs, however I also keep the African fashionista in mind when designing the garment. I think the African high-end customer is rapidly picking up the pace, especially in countries like Nigeria and Ghana.

To that point, your pieces are pretty bold, how have they been received on the continent? It's a long shot to sell a Kente jacket with satin lining in the heat of west Africa--add to that fitted body fitted and bold designs... Surprisingly, I've gotten positive responses and a frantic anticipation behind this Autumn/ Winter 2012-13 collection. I am curious to see the result later this year.

How does sourcing your fabrics and materials work for you now that your manufacturing is based in West Africa? It's great! I am only sourcing locally for now, working with artisans in the southern regions of Côte d'Ivoire who weave the Kente fabric by hand. The quality is irreproachable and the designs unique.

How does manufacturing help or hinder your ability to sell in cities like New York, Paris, London? I have control over the production, which means there are no limitation to the possibilities of making small orders, re-orders, special orders or even custom pieces. In addition, we have a geographic advantage. West Africa is a lot closer to New York and Paris than China or India. I believe in the future, this will work in our favor. The only constraints we come across right now are shipping costs to these places.

How big is your staff? Our manufacturing workshop is in Abidjan and is staffed by a team of 10 women and one master tailor for now. I am expecting to grow in size over the years. 30 women would be the ideal number. As you grow from the ground up, what one factor has had the most positive impact on your business? We are just now getting into retail. We were working on special orders and personal clients before. So it's a lot of planning and re-structuring. Social media has definitely been a huge part of our marketing: Facebook, Tumblr Twitter, they've all contributed to our visibility worldwide. Any plans to build a boutique in Cote D'Ivoire or abroad? I plan on a boutique in New York for sure in a few years. I would give it a few more year for Côte d'Ivoire.

Learn more about Loza Maleombho here.