Africans, by design, are drawn to beautifully crafted clothes and historically have traded garments in open-air markets long before colonialism. The past decade saw a significant boom in the number of modern brick and mortar department store chains being opened across Africa—where companies such as Persianas Group helped position the West African market as a viable hub for international investment. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced several traditional retailers to shift their business models towards digital services or shutter completely. With eased lockdown restrictions and a gradual, albeit a cautious, return to normalcy, consumers are itching to experience the world around them again, with most feeling apathetic from a locked-down period of click-to-checkout shopping.
For retailers looking to earn customers' trust (and foot traffic) in 2021, a Deloitte report suggests their marketing approach must be fully immersive and high in concept. Stores that operate with this ethos offer clients an opportunity to fall in love with an exciting new retail adventure. Built around the notion of niche ideas, fashion concept stores are intentional with every aspect of the shopping experience, reaching beyond clothes to include products and services that cater to select lifestyles. Across the continent, this business model isn't entirely new, with early pioneers like Cape Town's Merchants on Long and Lagos' Alara successfully blending culture with contemporary design. However, the new-age boutiques that emerged in their wake are juxtaposing global influences with indigenous themes and considering the need to have sustainable organizational practices. This change is reflected in the deliberate choice to support designers who are conscious of how their production methods affect the environment and empower local artisanal communities.
Inside Aby Concept, Abidjan. Photo: Courtesy of Aby Concept.
Nestled in Cocody's Ivoire Trade Center (ITC), which launched in September of this year, this chic Abidjan boutique is keen on spotlighting designers and creatives whose products contribute to the sustainable growth of the local economy. Their ethos is rooted in the idea of value-oriented luxury, where clothes are chosen based on their potential to become long-term components of individual wardrobes and not just excess. They firmly believe that African luxe is distinct for its nuances, especially in the unique mix of time-honored practices and heritage. This ideology informs their product range of high-quality clothes, accessories, furniture, and beauty from around the continent, carefully curated for the store. Lisa Folawiyo, Nebedai, Loza Maléombho, The Aga Concept, and Olooh are just some of the many brands offered within the space. On how the pieces are chosen, Alix Koffi, the Chief Creative Officer, explains: “Abidjan is old money, and 'she' is a quite demanding and conservative lady”. She continues, “The enthusiasm of newness vanishes in seconds, so you've got to keep the interest not only with new brands but also with brands in which one can build a long-lasting relationship. That is how Cécile Fakhoury, our Founder, and I make the selection.” The store's interior was designed by the forward-thinking architect Issa Diabaté, who the Aby team describes as "the ultimate Abidjaner," well known his work redefining the city's narrative with tour le Plateau, where most of Côte d'Ivoire's architectural treasures are. His deft use of space, understanding of storytelling through geometry, and broad color palette channel the city's energy while maintaining a global African attitude.
Inside Le Sandanga, Dakar. Photo: Courtesy of Le Sandanga.
The founders of Le Sandaga have an inside joke citing Ceci n'est pas un concept store, which translates to “This is not a concept store.” At first glance, a statement of that kind may seem strange, but looking further, eschewing the title of a concept store has given Le Sandaga the freedom to build upon multiple ideas at once, fully reveling in the richness of Senegalese culture. According to the founders, they are selling a perception and feeling, much like the unexpected experiences of an open market. A fitting description, seeing as the name is inspired by Marché Sandaga, a popular marketplace in Senegal. “It is essentially a mood store, the idea of a concept feels limiting….at the end of the day [the ethos] could either piss you off or make you smile, but never a feeling of indifference.” Operating out of Dakar, Le Sandaga's museum-like store design allows customers to take in the arresting displays of vibrant billowing kaftans, fine jewelry, and lush leather goods. The Dakar of the 80’s and 90’s heavily inspires the store and the product offerings pay homage to the founder’s grandfather’s closet. Think rare, limited edition posters of Air Afrique ads from the 80’s alongside scents evoking the classic smells of Dakar, like the Thiouraye. In addition, the store has a firm understanding of its consumers' wants by curating pieces suited to her life and culture. This birthed their in-house line L'Artisane, which empowers local artisans to create stunning pieces reflecting their ethos. These in-house pieces marry the old and new and are an extension of the store’s DNA.
Inside El Fenn, Marrakech. Photo: Courtesy of El Fenn.
Much like the rest of Africa, Morocco is steadily embracing the wave of modernity while keeping the wondrous elements of its culture front and center. This conscious blend of the past with the present informs the exquisitely designed El Fenn aesthetic. This Marrakech boutique hotel, launched in 2004, recently opened a retail space of the same name in early 2020, just one of the multiple service offerings that include an expansive fusion restaurant and art gallery featuring new and established Moroccan visual artists. The pieces sold in the store are displayed against a salon-style interior designed by Wilem Smit, with eccentric tapestry matching the opulent feel of the rest of the hotel. Think brightly colored accessories and handcrafted stationery placed against sumptuous vintage print flooring. These products, sourced from a talent pool of local artisans and international names, are all selected based on their level of meticulous craftsmanship. In addition, the buyers at El Fenn are committed to providing their customers with items deeply connected to Morocco and the continent. This is why, in January, the El Fenn establishment pledged a more significant commitment to supporting Morocco's local economy, community, and environment. This approach covered everything from locally sourced ingredients in the restaurant to the development of tree planting initiatives to offset flight carbon emissions to supporting the work of indigenous brands. As a result, you can find gorgeously woven homeware displayed alongside psychedelic print dresses and intricately detailed ceramics. Besides having a dreamy Instagram-worthy backdrop, El Fenn's appeal is in its unwavering support of innovation amongst the young artists they tap for the store.
Inside Untamed Empire, Accra. Photo: Courtesy of Untamed Empire.
The young team at Untamed Empire sees their concept to express the many facets of African creativity. The broader mission of Untamed Empire is to develop Ghana's creatives and make them global players. While offering business advisory and creative consultancy services to its artists and designers, Untamed also functions as a multi-brand concept store offering a wide range of lifestyle brands in their post-modernist-style cube space in Accra. Across multiple floors, the concept store houses fashion wear, accessories, and contemporary African art, thus creating an immersive experience for purveyors of wearable art. The method to their magic lies in the individual buying style they operate with, not confined to a singular vision to have their finger on the pulse of what's new and next in Ghana's creative circles.
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