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Retailing African Fashion Online: A movement towards a Global Fashion Culture?

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There has been a notable increase in the amount of online retail stores stocking African fashion. BN explores this developing market and its implications for the African Fashion Industry.

The growth of the African fashion industry has been immerse in these past years and what’s more exciting is its recognition in the global fashion industry with events like ARISE, African designers like Deola Sagoe showing on international runways and the industry embracing the spirit of our fabrics. But is this enough to claim global recognition? How accessible are African designer garments to the international public?

The beauty of online shopping is that it eliminates geographical constraints; changing the consumer and physical store relations to that of transparency and while international fashion brands capitalized on this phenomenon, “African designer brands were not yet covered, there was a gap in the market” as Sylvia Gruber the Managing Director of Africhic.com puts it.

In an online interview with Dolapo Shobanjo, the entrepreneur behind MyAsho.com, when I asked when she realised it was time for a store like My Asho; she writes: “I wanted to buy a dress (I think it was by Tiffany Amber) which I’d seen featured in an event shown on Ben TV in the UK. I realised it would be such a hassle to get the dress except I was in Nigeria, and even then, it would just be stressful because it wouldn’t be guaranteed that the dress would be at the Tiffany Amber Store. It was just long and my friend (who’s not Nigerian) was like, don’t these designers have websites? And at the time they didn’t. A lot has changed since then.’’

Yes, a lot has changed! These changes are evident with online African fashion retail stores like MyAsho and Africhic, thelookbookboutique and Ladyee Boutique which stock selected African designers like Chichialondon and Zebra respectively, the recently launched ASOS Africa and small designers like Marie-Christine Quenneville who retail their African inspired collections in online platforms like etsy.

MyAsho stocks various African designer brands from South African Thula Sindi to Ghanaian Christie Brown with the slogan; “Local Fashion Made Global’’. Africhic which describes itself as a “global portal into a new African world of design” is another leading online retail store that focuses on promoting and selling South African designer brands, with a future plan to extend this courtesy to “many more designers from Africa locally as well as globally’’. Although online retailing of African fashion gives the African Diaspora immediate access to their local designer brands, it is not essentially a response to consumer demand for African fashion but more of a way to create that demand and move African fashion beyond the “curators exhibitionism’’ in the global fashion industry. As Sylvia of Africhic explains; “From my overseas research African fashion still has a very ethnic connotation and tourists take maybe the odd springbok bag or other touristy accessories back home but are not exposed to or know about the real creativity and talent ’’.

So are these online African fashion retail stores necessary to push our fashion industry past the African borders? It’s a unanimous yes with Africhic, MyAsho and Wande of Ladyee boutique who says: “It opens the designers up to tons of other fashion lovers who wouldn’t have access to or knowledge of these African designers otherwise. I would say it’s very important and essential actually“.

The launch of ASOS Africa generated a lot of media attention. ASOS is UK’s second largest online fashion retailer and offers own-label and branded fashion goods. The ASOS Africa collection was sourced, designed and produced in collaboration with several small communities in Africa; providing employment for the locals. The collection is aimed at supporting trade in Africa, however can we say that this is a development that will draw attention to the African fashion industry? “Not necessarily. They’ve just used African fabrics and produced in Kenya. The African fashion industry is a lot more involved than fabrics and fair-trade factories. ASOS Africa, as of now, has only tapped into a fraction of the entire industry – production and textiles. To my knowledge, they didn’t use any African designers. But I’m sure, having seen the success of their ASOS Africa range, they might consider becoming more involved in the African fashion industry’’ says Dolapo of MyAsho, who also acknowledges that “ASOS has proven there is a market for these things”. How big and diverse is the market for African fashion?

Marie-Christine was born and currently lives in Montréal, Canada. She is the owner of a small fashion label called LesEnfantsSauvages and sells her collections on etsy. She primarily uses African fabrics which she loves for its “slight exuberance, bold print and bright colours’’. When asked about the response of consumers to her pieces she says; “I created the first dress with Holland wax print last spring, that I called the Éthiopique dress, in reference to the music, rather than the Country of origin. It is a simple everyday little summer dress that was a huge success at my level; people just loved it’’ and on the country she receives the most orders from; “well, my online sale website is American so they are top, and recently I receive a lot of orders from Australia’’.

This is a similar trend with Africhic. Sylvia mentions; “We just started off in December 09 and interestingly without advertising there is a high generic search from US, the UK as well as Canada directed to us. We are getting many orders already from US and UK. Due to being in SA and receiving lots of press there, we are still getting most orders from SA, but we intend to start advertising overseas and we expect the overseas orders to soon overcome the local ones.’’

These online retail stores undoubtedly expose African fashion to a larger audience and the response to their emergence has been positive, also from an ethical perspective. ASOS with its promotion of fair trade and the establishment of the SOKO workshop, and Africhic which insists that every item stocked “has to be made in Africa and the designers should also be interested in advancing local communities with their work – for example, Missibaba works closely with a township called Kayamandi training a group of ladies to bead the necklaces. Philippa Green trains a group of ladies in a township in Hout Bay to produce the stitched cuffs and embroidered cuffs line”.

The availability of African fashion in online retail stores proves to be more than an effort to profit from consumer culture. While international brands swiftly moved along with technological developments due to their well structured and fore-front fashion industries, African fashion in comparison is yet to realize its full potential. What these stores are likely to create is an avenue for African fashion to be explored, displaying our “wealth of talent” in Sylvia’s words. However, “I don’t feel it’s the only way forward. There are more avenues other than online sales, and I think people should be creative in looking for ways to promote the African fashion movement’’ says Dolapo of MyAsho.

With these new crop of sites retailing African fashion in various shapes and forms, we can only hope it instigates the need to explore other avenues and make concrete the international recognition African fashion most certainly deserves!

Shop these pieces from the featured online African fashion retail stores:

Chichialondon Fringe detail Khanga print and solid Tunic

Chichialondon Fringe detail Khanga print and solid Tunic

Purchase @ thelookboutique for £90

Roho dress from Lalesso

Roho dress from Lalesso

Purchase @ Africhic for $123

Christie Brown Print SP Dress

Christie Brown Print SP Dress

Purchase @ MyAsho for £185

Zebra Marrakech Shirt Dress

Zebra Marrakech Shirt Dress

Purchase @ Ladyee Boutique for $56

 Printed Playsuit

Printed Playsuit

Purchase @ ASOS Africa for $84.55

LesEnfantsSauvages Africanista summer dress

LesEnfantsSauvages Africanista summer dress

Purchase @ Etsy for $90

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