World renowned legacy fashion brands—Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Gucci, Hermès, among others—are known for their consistency, and an undeniably high-quality standard that makes their products a covetable symbol of status for customers worldwide. They are perceived as inimitable and irreplaceable, and boast strong identities, earning them a reputation for the kind of excellence that has come to epitomize luxury. For the most part, these brands are largely European or American. So where does Africa fit into the picture?
It’s true that in comparison to the West, Africa’s fashion sector is still relatively young. That said, the continent faces unique challenges. Gaining access to international markets requires access to resources that many of the continent’s brands simply don’t have, making it difficult to create an enduring legacy. This lack of resources of governmental support for young, or even established fashion brands in Africa, means most are preoccupied with simply surviving.
“Every designer wants to establish their brand and wants that brand to outlive them,” says Ghanaian fashion researcher and author of ‘Africa In Fashion’, Ken Kweku Nimo. “In Africa, where designers have to struggle and jump through a lot of hoops just to sustain their businesses, the longevity aspect is actually often on the back burner.”
From this perspective, it’s evident that African designers and brands are faced with daunting challenges from the outset and a lack of robust industry infrastructure on the continent only serves to exacerbate these. Brands need to be able to meet the demands of the market and in order to do this, they need access to capital and adequate manufacturing. This issue of infrastructure also negatively affects emerging designers who begin receiving international attention early on in their careers.
Portrait of Ken Kweku Nimo with his book, 'Africa In Fashion'. Photo: via @kwekunimo.
YOUNG AFRICAN BRANDS STRUGGLE TO KEEP UP WITH DEMAND
“Young brands that are thrust into the spotlight often may not even have solidified the fundamentals of their supply chain in the first place to actually meet the demand and the pressures that follow all the media attention,” Nimo explains.
“All of a sudden there’s an influx of orders that you can’t keep up with,” he continues. “Mind you, the delineation between industry and the design practice in Africa is blurred. So designers can create, but there is a lack of adequate infrastructure that can make these products available to the global market, or even to the local one. This leaves designers in a place where they cannot grow to meet these demands. So a lot of brands come in very strong but not many are able to sustain it.” It’s a sentiment that Ann McCreath, founder of Kenyan heritage brand KikoRomeo echoes.
THE CREATION OF LEGACY BRANDS IN PRACTICE
“When you get into the design business in Africa, you have to be pretty resilient because we haven't had access to markets until relatively recently and even so accessing those international, developed markets often comes at a cost,” McCreath says. “So unless you have sufficient resources and infrastructure behind you it’s difficult to approach new markets and also to sustain it so that you don’t just come today and vanish tomorrow.”
A lack of government support and funding is a major issue when it comes to brands achieving the necessary growth to near the possibility of beginning to plan for a legacy. According to Nimo, the lack of infrastructure hinders the chances of an African designer even getting investment — it carries too much risk. This continued need for more robust infrastructure creation prolongs repayment and the returns on investments are often volatile.
“This is where the government should have been proactive because if private individuals who are risk averse are not willing to invest in the fashion industry then it behooves the government, whose interest it is actually in to provide funding for this crucial sector,” he says. “What is exciting, however, is that we’re seeing the emergence of establishments like Birimian that are now stepping in and attempting to bridge these gaps. I believe that as these entities emerge, we’ll see more brands not only be able to sustain their operations in expanding into a global market but possibly become legacy brands.”
UNLOCKING AFRICA’S POTENTIAL
In April 2021, investment company Birimian announced its plans to invest in African brands across multiple sectors. Founded and led by Laureen Kouassi-Olsson, a French-Ivorian executive with more than 10 years of 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’s 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. This kind of support will no doubt empower more African brands to confidently traverse the challenges that impede them.
But despite the myriad of hurdles that African fashion brands have to contend with in their quest to achieve longevity within the industry and relevancy internationally, there are brands who have been already navigating these waters successfully. KikoRomeo is one such example. Founder McCreath has spent the last 25 years building the unisex label KikoRomeo into one of the most innovative fashion brands on the African continent, one that has built a proudly Made-in-Kenya reputation and diverse following.
“I don’t see the point in building a brand unless it can continue,” says McCreath of the establishment of KikoRomeo. “I deliberately, from the very beginning, built a brand that stood for certain values and marketed a certain thing, and to me these things were important, and not just in my lifetime. They were important for general society.” It’s also why she chose the name KikoRomeo instead of simply using her own name. She always anticipated that another designer would step up to the helm at a certain point. In this case, it’s her daughter, Iona McCreath, who now serves as the brand’s creative director.
Ann & Ion McCreath.. Photo: courtesy of Ann McCreath.
“Iona was an apprentice in the business from the day she was born. She was always around the business whether it was in modeling or making clothes or designing or marketing or selling or events. Her now being in this position shows how the brand is already transitioning into another generation and era. It’s bringing in a freshness but the heritage of the brand remains. But now it’s her interpretation.”
According to Nimo, there are also a host of other African designers that he believes have the potential to establish themselves as legacy brands. He cites South Africa’s Thebe Magugu and MaXhosa, Ghana’s AAKS and Christie Brown, and Nigeria’s Deola Sagoe as some examples, as well as iconic South African designer Marianne Fassler.
“I think Marianne Fassler has some of the strongest potential to become a legacy brand,” he says. “Her brand goes as far back as the 1970's and happens to be one of the foremost brands and voices that used her work to even protest the politics of apartheid. She’s already literally set up a museum that invites a lot of young talent to come in and experience the brand from almost when it was established. It’s filled with garments made as early as the ’70s and ’80s and when I spoke to her, she talked about being deliberate in making sure that she documented every aspect of her journey. This means that she’s providing a blueprint for the next generation for how they can embark on their own brand journeys, as well as a story that investors can leverage to reach new audiences and new markets.”
Brand legacies are not born overnight but are crafted over time. They are meaningful and evolve with the times, and their passion for perfection remains constant. In today’s economically uncertain times, African brands in particular must take a long-term view in order for their legacies to endure. “It’s tough to look into the crystal ball and predict the future in fashion,” Nimo says. “Young designers need to look to the ones I’ve mentioned and speak about in ‘Africa In Fashion’ as a blueprint and inspiration and consider all the ways they got to where they are. In this way, they’ll be shaping the right mindset in order to potentially become legacy brands themselves.”
Christie Brown SS'20. Photo: courtesy of Christie Brown.
AAKS SS'20. Photo: courtesy of AAKS.
Vintage Marianne Fassler at Kevin Mackintosh Solo Exhibition. Deepest Darkest Contemporary Gallery, 2020. Photo: via @mariannafasslerofficial.
4 STEPS TOWARDS LEGACY PLANNING
According to both Nimo and McCreath, there are several steps that are vital to any attempt at creating a brand that outlives its founder.
1. CHOOSE THE RIGHT BRAND NAME
“If you’re planning to eventually pass your brand on to someone else, ask yourself if you really want to use your own personal name,” McCreath says. “That’s the number one question and for me, that was very clear from the beginning. Choosing a name that doesn’t necessarily center you already means you have an intention for longevity.”
2. MAKE BECOMING INVESTMENT-READY A PRIORITY
“I think this is crucial,” says Nimo. “I know that a lot of brands register as sole proprietorships and are owned almost entirely by the designer. If the brand cannot transcend that structure and shift strategies to attract investment, there is little hope of it ever becoming a legacy brand.”
3. ESTABLISH FIRM BRAND VALUES
“Although Iona and I have a different perspective, we share the same values so you want to make sure that’s the case with whoever you may eventually bring in,” explains McCreath. “And that is certainly easier when it’s a family member but not impossible when it is someone external. Be very clear on what your brand values are so that when you recruit someone you’re already able to decipher whether you’re in sync or not.”
4. BE OPEN TO PARTNERSHIP
“Artists can be emotional and designers see their brands as being their babies, so it's difficult for them to imagine being separated from their brands and they can struggle to bring in other creative directors or partners,” states Nimo. “This is where they need to become adaptable and begin to understand their brands as businesses. And if they want their brands to become transgenerational, they may need someone to bring in investment and focus on expanding the reach of the brand. Designers need to look beyond themselves and be open to partnership. That is how they’re going to build a foundation for a strong brand that will eventually be in the position to outlive them.”
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