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Laureen Kouassi-Olsson and her team are working to scale African luxury fashion and develop a new generation of creative entrepreneurs. 

By Innocent Ndlovu

Jul 29, 2021

In April 2021, investment company Birimian announced its plans to invest in African heritage and luxury brands across multiple sectors. Founded and led by Laureen Kouassi-Olsson, a French-Ivorian executive with more than 10 years experience in funding private companies and working for financial institutions in Europe and Africa, her company announced its plans to back luxury brands in the fashion apparel, accessories, cosmetics, and gourmet industries respectively.

The company, whose goal is to build sustainable and profitable regional and diasporic African-owned premium brands by providing financial support, strategic advice, as well as production and distribution assistance, has so far unveiled four fashion brands ranging from emerging to established as its partners. According to Vogue Business, the female-owned brands announced at the launch, artisanal accessories brands Loza Maléombho and Yeba, and women's ready-to-wear labels Christie Brown and Simone et Elise were chosen based on social media engagement and international sales, among other things. And though these brands are at different stages of growth and provide diverse product offerings, they all have the potential for exponential growth and undertake a contemporary approach to traditional African design. Furthermore, as digitally native vertical brands, they align with Birimian’s vision to capitalize on both social media presence and physical locations to grow their brands. Birimian insists that their investments will not culminate in stakes in these fashion brands, suggesting that the designers will maintain full independence and creative control.

But Birimian is more than just an investment company. In addition to offering financial support and strategic advice, their intention is to be an incubator that helps build and support sustainable African luxury and heritage brands, particularly those helmed by women. Birimian plans to achieve this through training programs, personalized assistance from industry experts, and various business-related and educational initiatives intended to empower designers with the necessary skills and knowledge to make them into “powerful entrepreneurs.” As part of their goal to connect African designers to the international ecosystem, their latest initiative, IFM-Birimian Accelerator x Africa is an incubator program in partnership with Paris-based fashion school Institut Français de la Mode and trade show organizer Who’s Next. With this program, the company's objective is to support 10 emerging brands every year by increasing their visibility through international platforms such as Paris Market Week.

The Brands

loza Maléombho

With clients that range from Beyoncé to Kelly Rowland, Loza Maléombho is a well-established name that has served as a beacon for African fashion designers playing on the global stage. Maléombho established her namesake label in New York City in 2009 and thereafter relocated to her mother’s native country of Côte d’Ivoire where she and her brand are currently based. Maléombho, who built her label around hand crafted platform leather sandals and deconstructed, armor-like clothing with strappy details, cut-outs and gold-plated ornaments, began talks with Birmian over four years ago.

In her deal with the company, the organization is set to oversee production and distribution as well as invest $150,000. “We are developing more accessories [such as] footwear, jewelry, belts, and bags,” Maléombho reveals. “The goal is to allow myself to expand in those areas. For the past two or three years it’s been hard to manage everything at the same time,” she admits. Now with the help of Birimian, Maléombho will get to focus on the creative aspects of her brand such as photography and storytelling. Maléombho is currently working on a new collection to be released in September and her new product lines which can be expected in 2022. 

Loza Maleombho. Photo: via @loza_maleombho

Loza Maleombho AW‘20. Photo: Courtesy of Loza Maleombho.

Loza Maleombho AW‘20. Photo: Courtesy of Loza Maleombho.

christie brown

Christie Brown is a Ghanaian ready-to-wear brand founded by Aisha Ayensu in 2008. The womenswear brand which launched under a made-to-order business model has become one of Ghana's top fashion labels with reported annual revenue of $600,000 and a production factory that employs about 50 workers. As a twelve-year-old brand with a significant international customer base that includes actress Uzo Aduba and Tina Knowles-Lawson, Birimian’s $500,000 financial investment will help the brand to expand its products from ready-to-wear to accessories and position it in new markets to make it more accessible to a wider global audience.

Ayensu attributes her success to intentional branding and building an engaged social media community. Her label uses Instagram and Facebook where they share new collections, campaigns, and other original content to connect with its consumers. Whatsapp, which offers instant communication and feedback as well as one-on-one interactions, is another effective tool that Ayensu utilizes to send out newsletters and catalogs to both her local and international community. The brand has built a loyal fan base of over 89,000 followers on Instagram and close to 37,000 on Facebook. Last year, their Instagram Live show, where the brand unveiled its SS’20 collection, drew over 30,000 viewers. 

Christie Brown SS‘20. Photo: Courtesy of Christie Brown

Christie Brown SS‘20. Photo: Courtesy of Christie Brown

Christie Brown SS‘20. Photo: Courtesy of Christie Brown

Yeba 

“As a Black [African] woman, I was afraid that people would not accept my art and my work,” says Yeba Olayé, founder and creative director of eponymous accessories brand Yeba. The Brussels-based designer and former management consultant launched her brand in 2016 after 11 years in strategy, consulting, and finance. Her brand of beautifully crafted leather accessories is handmade in Italy and rooted in the traditions and culture of her birth country, Benin. After struggling for three years to find an efficient manufacturer that could execute her vision, Olayé took a year off in 2019 before coming back to design in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This is when Birimian noticed her work and reached out, the designer told Industrie Africa.

“What I like about Birimian is that they are offering all the support, expertise, funding, and also creative [guidance],” she explains. “I don’t see Birimian as an investment firm. I see them as a fashion brand accelerator,” she continues. For Olayé, her strategy, for now at least, is to focus on strengthening the foundation of her brand and maintaining her slow approach to design. “What’s critical for me is that the brand stays sustainable and that we are doing things in a responsible and sustainable way,” she says. With Birimian’s partnership, she plans to increase the brand’s reach through PR and media campaigns and also benefit from training programs and advisory services for the next 12 months before considering any major expansions. Following Birimian’s involvement in her brand, the designer is working on a new collection with small manufacturers from Benin that she plans to reveal in summer. “You can expect new shapes and smaller leather pieces like wallets and card holders,” she says. This new collection is indicative of the artisanal craftsmanship and indigenous design that Birimian is promoting through their strategic investments.

Yeba Freedom Collection. Photo: via @yeba.official.

Yeba Freedom Collection. Photo: via @yeba.official.

Yeba Freedom Collection. Photo: via @yeba.official.

Simone et elise

Launched by design duo and friends Mariam-Simone Sibidé and Gina Kakou-Marceau in 2018, Simone et Elise is an Ivorian women’s RTW brand loved for its elegant, bold-colored dresses decorated with hand-painted artworks of mythical African queens and nature motifs. Sibidé and Marceau draw inspiration from former Ivorian first lady Marie Thérèse Houphouët-Boigny who is known for her sophisticated sense of style.

The details of Birimian’s deal with Simone et Elise are unclear but considering how young the label is, it’s most likely that the company will offer a range of various opportunities including business training, advisory assistance, operational support, and of course a cash investment. 

Mariam-Simone Sibidé and Gina Kakou-Marceau were unavailable to comment.  

Simone et Elise. Photo: via @simoneetelise

Simone et Elise. Photo: via @simoneetelise

Simone et Elise. Photo: via @simoneetelise

The future

With the transformative opportunities that Birmian proposes, there are numerous options for African fashion brands to consider. Established labels have the chance to grow into decades-old heritage brands that can exist with or without the founder. Historically, the lack of funds, logistical issues, and limited production capabilities among other challenges have hindered African fashion labels from transitioning into legacy brands. Birimian’s development and financial contribution will add a longer-term value to these brands while boosting the wider fashion sector with skills, capital, and job opportunities.