because it’s a growing industry,” Yusuf kola kuddus, Creative Director and CEO of kola kuddus Couture.

Exorbitant advert campaigns, high-end consumers, ludicrous model endorsements, exotic fabrics and million-dollar outfits; the global fashion industry is lavished with luxury. So much so that one could easily assume that its front row architects – fashion designers – are made of a similar fabric, wealth. A brief scan of the top markets worldwide further reaffirm this assertion with names such as Giorgio Armani ($9.6 billion), Ralph Lauren ($7.3 billion), Pierre Cardin ($723 million) and Vivienne Westwood ($185 million) boasting six digit returns and globally recognized brands. But down in Africa, where an emerging fashion industry is picking up steam, a unique set is driving the continent’s clothing sector; the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

“In the fashion industry I will say we have a ratio of 90 percent of SMES in the fashion industry and you have more of the big players in the fabric merchant,” confirmed Yusuf kola kuddus, the creative director and CEO of Nigerian kola kuddus couture. Yusuf is also the Lagos coordinator of Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN), an association that handles the affairs of designers to make them more commercially valuable and competitive in the Nigerian fashion industry. CEO of emerging Lagos-based fashion house Hollerose, Ose Okpamen, adds that even the big names in Nigerian fashion are still considered SMEs when placed on par with other corporate sectors.

Nigeria's Deola Sagoe is just part of selected few who rake in healthy revenue turnover across Africa.
Nigeria’s Deola Sagoe is just part of selected few who rake in significant annual revenue turnover across Africa.

A significant segment of the African manufacturing and retail sphere is controlled by SMEs, but what has limited the industry’s progress?

Hollerose Chief concedes the lack of maturity is largely to blame. “I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that the industry is still very young. Until very recently, most Nigerians did not understand the concept of designers or a fashion company, the perception is still designers being seen as tailors that can replicate a design they like,” she explains.

This, as re-emphasized by Kola, is a vivid mirror of the continent’s overall economic state, which though is enjoying one of its best periods of growth, remains a step away from significant development. “Yes the Nigerian and African Fashion industry is dominated by SMEs more because it’s a growing industry,” the couture designer adds.

Africa is growing at an impressive 6.0 percent; one of the best rates experienced by any region globally. The continent is poised to become fastest growing region in the next decade following predictions by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), yet it remains the continent with the most disturbing social issues. Three of Africa’s top economies Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa have poverty rates at 42 percent, 33 percent and 30 percent respectively, while stable power supply remains far-fetched. All of these hinder the growth of an economic environment that could spur investments inflow and business growth. These challenges have in no small way stifled the rise of fashion brands.

Credit: World Bank
Credit: World Bank

A pitiable educational system has also hampered the sector’s progress. Nigeria and South Africa are both considered the continent’s largest and most developed economies but a peak into the literacy statistics of both countries tells a contrasting tale. Though South Africa has a high literacy rate of 93 percent, its table topping economic rival Nigeria only managed an average 61.3 percent, well below the global average of 84.1 percent, statistics from UNICEF revealed. On evidence of the progress made by internationally learned local designers, education is just as important as the talent.

Just ask Ally Rehmtullah, a designer from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, who studied graphics and arts in the US, but was further encouraged to take some fashion courses during his studies. Since returning home in 2007 he has established a label that seems to be outpacing Africa’s unprecedented annual growth, ranking amongst the most successful designers not only in his home country, but across East Africa. “After that (a proper education) there was no going back,” he said reassuringly.

Nigeria’s Folake Folarin-Coker, the brain behind the popular contemporary brand Tiffany Amber, also toured Europe’s academic sites, receiving multiple degrees from countries such as Switzerland and Scotland. Though those certification were acquired in fields far from fashion, the exposure and training received prepared for a strategic launch and a key ingredient of her success today. Tiffany Amber is the only African-based designer to have shown twice at the New York Fashion Week. This mirrors the fortunes of few, but for the larger bunch a proper education remains a luxury. “East Africa is known for one of the best universities in the region, but none of these universities offers a fashion program,” laments Ally, who was quoted by Africa Strictly Business. “They do not see a need for it. And if the government doesn’t see a need for the fashion industry locally, it becomes difficult for us to convince the international market of our existence,” he continues.  However there are thin rays of hope as educational centers have started offering fashion-focused courses.

But African designers are still short on a sizable local demand and international presence. This, the Tanzanian designer, feels still hampers growth. “We see our fabric, our textiles and our prints being showcased in the international market by Western designers and we can’t say anything.

“For example, in 2007 I launched a line using the Maasai fabric. In 2009 Louis Vuitton launched a similar line for men using the Maasai fabrics and probably made thousands of dollars out of that collection. This is not fair on us, but due to lack of international exposure we can’t do anything about that.”

This could be the why Stephen Manzini, founder of Soweto Fashion Week, says African designers in diaspora are enjoying faster growth and patronage than those on the continent. “African designs are more in demand outside of Africa; they are more on a fast track than those in Africa.” President and founder of Africa Fashion Week New York (AFWNY), Adiat Disu, echo similar sentiments. “You’re seeing the promotion of Africa fashion outside of Africa begin to heighten interest and fascinate individuals vis a vis Africa and its propensity to produce quality brands, and for its potential from an interactive marketing standpoint.” Disu’s platform, which will for the first join forces with the New York Fashion Week this month, has been actively seeking to change this poor trend and has already showcased over 1,500 designers during a short period since its 2010 launch.

Michelle Obama wearing Nigerian Duro Olowu
Michelle Obama wearing Nigerian Duro Olowu

However, things are changing gradually and people especially in the urban cities like Lagos, Cape town and Nairobi are responding positively to design companies, Ose notes.

Encouraging signs are gradually been sighted. Deola Sagoe, one of the first local designers to grace the New York Fashion Week with her clothes, predicts that Africa’s fashion industry would be worth $15 billion by 2020, less than a decade from now. This is no small feat for a continent contending with a host of stifling challenges.

With a blossoming 1 billion potential customers, a rising middle class – the fastest growing of any region globally – of 313 million people and 30 percent of its total population according to African Development Bank (AFDB), and an wetter appetite for quality products, fashion brands are poised to return big figures in the not-so-distant future, catapulting most beyond the blockade of an SME ceiling.

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