SME Heroes: Growing A Fashion Label In Nigeria

You’ve probably heard the saying, looking good is good business. But what you may not know is that the business of fashion is an exhilarating, energy sapping, yet enormously satisfying enterprise. The global industry giants such as Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada, can attest not only to a painstaking humble beginning, but the overwhelming pressure of their current top-tier status, having threaded through challenges and profit valleys as startups.

In Africa, with particular reference to Nigeria, the continent’s largest economy, creative entrepreneurs  face similar challenges, even worse sometimes, given the marginal attention paid by policy makers to ensure rookie fashion entrepreneurs are furnished with resources and technical guidance, which fast-tracks growth and sustained success. Ventures Africa caught up with Ose Okpamen, the Creative Director of Hollerose, a contemporary fashion brand based in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub. She highlights the challenges facing startups in Nigeria’s budding fashion industry and the potential opportunities it offers as regards economic diversification and growth:

On what defines Hollerose…

Hollerose is a high end ready-to-wear fashion brand in Lagos Nigeria and it was launched in June 2012. So far we have launched two collections. The first one was launched late 2012 and was inspired by the classic European fashion era while, the second one was launched in April of 2013 and was inspired by a punk theme. Our aim is to be a global luxury brand of choice from Africa. 

 On decision to establish a fashion label…

Growing up…I always wanted to do something for a living that I enjoyed, I remember making statements like ‘I don’t understand what algebra had to do with making money, why can’t I just do what I love?’ and after critically analysing myself, I realised fashion was the one thing that gave me joy. I was lucky though, my mum had a fashion house at the time and I would go there after school and learn a lot about fabrics, measuring, cutting, different types of machines and their functions etc.

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On ideal Hollerose customer…

The ideal Hollerose customer is an upper class woman, who has an effortless sense of style and is not willing to be overwhelmed by trends but still seeks to have a unique touch to her wardrobe.

On differentiating  the Hollerose brand…

Technically, I love the classic European era of fashion, the 30’s through to the 70’s. There is a lot of rich fashion in these eras that have been reworked over time; however, I prefer to re-interpret these designs using my unique love for lines, angles, geometric shapes, odd prints and a subtle sense of an African touch like local embroideries etc.

When it comes to the business proper, our aim is to get the brand into major chain stores in the US and Europe, because this would improve the perception of the brand both locally and internationally and create more revenue for the brand as well.

In terms of publicity, based on limited budget as is common with a lot of start-ups, we have decided to the less-is-more approach, ensuring that only PR campaigns worth spending on are implemented by the brand. Social media has really helped in this regard as we are able to reach a lot more people without having to spend any money. It also helps us to get feedback from our target audience on what they like and if we are doing the right thing.

On market response…

It’s been good but it could be better, there are challenges in the Nigerian fashion industry especially with customer trust but the market is gradually opening up.

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On perception of Nigerian customers to local brands…

There are several reasons why customers seem to prefer foreign brands to local brands; one is a high price resistance on the part of the consumer. Most buyers have a perception that the Nigerian designer is out to make ridiculous profit which in most cases just isn’t true. To make good clothes a lot goes into it. The cost of production including fabric, tailors, diesel for generator etc. is there, as well as promotional costs such as photography sessions, advertising etc. these numbers all add up to the cost of the garment including profit.

Secondly, the average Nigerian is very brand conscious for reasons best attributed to snob appeal. They would rather buy a well-established or foreign brand than a start-up brand even if the quality is good, therefore as a newbie in the industry, your brand has to be welcomed and accepted by those the public generally accept as cool before you can win them over.

There is also the issue of perception; the average Nigerian still can’t imagine you (the designer) as a budding Stella McCartney or H&M if that’s your preferred direction with fashion. You are still viewed as a ‘glorified tailor’ or at best an asoebi designer. Also, the retail aspect of fashion in Nigeria is still quite poor, there are not many who are willing to stock local brands and those that do stock, charge high floor spaces and commissions.

It is tough but little by little, people start recognising your work and it gets easier.

On expectations before starting up…

I entered the industry with my passion to be a designer and very little information (laughing), all those challenges I talked about before where new to me. At first I didn’t understand, I had a ‘school’ mentality, you know if you don’t do well in school you failed.

Reading stories of successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Jean Paul Gaultier etc. who say they failed but never gave up, encouraged me to keep trying. Hollerose is by far not where I want it to be but it certainly is not where it used to be. We have recorded progress especially in the quality of our products and general outlook of the brand and as a designer I have matured in a lot of ways. This growth has also been reflected in an increase in customer response.

On highlights of Hollerose’s journey…

We are launching a bridal line very soon and I’m very excited for that. I have really enjoyed the process so far; learning about couture techniques, appliques, embellishing etc. and it’s odd because I never thought I would do bridal. I made my friend’s wedding dress last year and realised it was a lot of fun; so hopefully, we would get some positive reviews from the public.

On challenges the industry posses for young designers…

I didn’t go to fashion school because though my parents have been incredibly supportive, they were not willing to pay for fashion school after I had obtained an M.Sc. in Oil and Gas Management. I learnt everything I know today about fashion (sketching, building a collection, knowledge of fabric and various designs they can be used for, colours etc.) on my own and I am still learning. I read a lot of fashion books both for the technical and for the business of fashion, Harvard business review, people’s thesis from fashion school, YouTube etc. the internet is so helpful it gives me a lot of opportunities to learn from those who have achieved international success in this business.

On government and industry support for fashion startups…

I don’t think a lot of policies have been put in place to help the start-up entrepreneur and this is not just limited to fashion in Nigeria. There are statistics that show that four out of every five start-ups in Nigeria fail.

On policies to ensure increased chances of survival and success for startups in the fashion industry…

I think policy makers haven’t been able to see the potential of the fashion industry to help curb the issue of unemployment and contributing to the national GDP. I think policies like specialised financing just like it is being done for the agricultural sector would go a long way.

There should be policies that encourage big quality fabric merchants abroad to come set up businesses here in Nigeria, people always frown at this and say we are not helping our local textile industries but I disagree. We are well aware that there is a global acceptance of the Ankara print right now, but it doesn’t have to be done only on cotton. If we have merchants here that sold luxury fabrics like worsted wool, silks, crepes etc. the Ankara print can also be done on these fabrics. Also, not every African designer’s aesthetics falls into print. I made a dress for my last collection using duchess satin and georgette, we did a local African ‘Tinko’ embroidery on the bodice and a model wore it on the red carpet. However, it’s almost impossible to find that fabric in the market now because the merchant has finished selling his stock. But major wholesalers abroad have variety of these fabrics in large quantities which help manufacturing.

Mentorship and funding such as grants for start-ups would also help, because a lot of people get discouraged at the beginning when things don’t go as they expected, especially for first time start-ups they need guidance and support to make it through the ‘death valley’ phase of the business curve. Also, policies such as anti-dumping can be implemented to prevent influx of used or substandard clothes into the Nigerian market etc. and will provide a competitive platform for local designers.

Source: http://venturesafrica.com/sme-heroes-growing-a-fashion-label-in-nigeria/

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