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How are independent African brands coping with Covid-19?

By Sharon Camara


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Fashion |REPORT

In mid-March 2020, the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear to the world. Authorities worldwide called for the closing of schools, restaurants and shops. This has also strongly affected the fashion industry, which has had to cancel fashion events around the world, postpone meetings and close showrooms. Although less influenced by the virus, Africa has closed public spaces and security measures are relatively respected.

As the vast majority of African designers are independent, they have also had to adjust to this new situation, working harder than ever to strengthen their ties with clients. The concept store Couleur Concept, based in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, invited its subscribers to encourage local creation: “Today, we want to take a moment to support our partner designers, but also all other designers who are struggling during this period. Behind those designers are dressmakers, families and lives, which are shattered by this situation. If we can, let’s support them! How? Like, share, buy one of their designs and wear it when things get better…”, said Couleur Concept’s Instagram account.

Couleur Concept’s communication manager has seen a decrease in activity due to the pandemic, which affects designers in regions where websites and e-commerce are not yet very developed. “These are not necessarily brands that sell internationally and have considerable budgets. So for them, it’s complicated to have to shut down for more than a month. There are craftsmen, designers and even families behind these brands,” she added in the post.

To make up for this shortfall, home delivery has become the solution for many brands. Ivorian designer Ibrahim Fernandez currently relies on this system to continue his sales: “I’m going to submit models to my Instagram account and Facebook page. Customers will be able to pre-order the outfits and have them delivered anywhere in the world by DHL.”

Social media for connecting with your community

Instagram, Facebook, Youtube and TikTok have shown their importance during this health crisis and have quickly become essential tools for brands. Social media allows them to stay in touch with their communities. “I continue to maintain my community on my social media. My followers are aware of what’s coming up and what new pieces will be available,” Fernandez told FashionUnited.

Zak Koné, who launched his brand Pelebe in Côte d'Ivoire in 2013, shares a similar attitude: “We are sharing tutorials online. The idea is to remain present in the minds of our consumers.” The designer believes that social media has also allowed him to see the support of his community. “What reassures me is that my followers are very responsive. It’s the customers who continue to ask us about their orders, about custom-made and ready-to-wear. We regularly receive messages via our social media,” he said.

Coping with financial pressure

Currently, according to figures published by Johns Hopkins University, there are just over 72,000 people in Africa who are infected with the coronavirus. The low number of cases compared to other continents may be the result of Africa’s anticipation, which has led to strong security measures, including store closures. Brand owners continue to bear the high costs: “These closures have consequences. Our first shop located at 2 Plateaux (district of Abidjan) was working very well and has allowed us to compensate for the loss of income. We can hold on like this for a few months, but the situation cannot last,” explained the communication manager of Couleur Concept. Sow Namissa Thera, founder of the Malian brand Ikalook, lives in a similar reality: “So far, Ikalook has a working capital that allows us to cope and keep going for a while. We receive a few orders from customers, which allows the team to keep working. I pray very much that the current situation won’t last for longer than two months.”

In Paris, for example, the fashion world is managed by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. It would be interesting to have this kind of organization here in Africa.

Zak Koné, founder of the brand Pelebe.

The government’s promises

Governments around the world have announced measures to overcome the crisis brought about by Covid-19. In Mali, the president of the republic, Ibrahim Boubacar Kéita, spoke about the subject last April. He announced the establishment of a private sector guarantee fund worth 20 billion CFA francs (just over 30 million euros). Among other things, the fund was created to financially support SMEs affected by the health crisis. However, the founder of Ikalook is not convinced by this governmental support. “Mali is a developing country with other priorities. Of course, we are one of the leading cotton producers in West Africa, but the fashion sector is still not highly valued,” she said. “Though the state is responsible for us, the most important thing to know is our value and what we can add to our country and ourselves.”

In Côte d'Ivoire, prime minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly has announced a three-month postponement of flat-rate tax payments for small traders and craftsmen, as well as a fund of 100 billion CFA francs (150 million euros) to support the informal sector and 250 billion CFA francs (376 million euros) to support the private sector. “I don’t really believe in it,” said designer Fernandez, who remains doubtful. “I sincerely prefer not to rely on these kinds of promises. I want to look for my own solutions, because usually these kinds of promises don’t come true.”

Pelebe’s Zak Koné sees a deeper underlying issue: “When I look at the fashion and clothing industry here in Côte d'Ivoire and compare it to the rest of the world, I find that there is still a lot to be done. In the west, in Asia or in America, the fashion industries help each other out. In fact, if the government wants to help us, it should think about training, not only during the crisis. We need to be trained to be independent businesses. As an SME, if I need help, it would not be financial assistance that I’d ask for, but rather real long-term support,” he said. “In Paris, for example, the fashion world is managed by the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. It would be interesting to have this kind of organization here that would be an intermediary between the SMEs in our field and the government. Beyond financial management, it could help us find contracts, calculate budgets and make investment decisions.”

Adapting to the situation and reinventing yourself

Since the beginning of the global crisis, many brands have started making masks to adapt to the needs of the population. “Even though the shop is closed, we have organized ourselves to produce masks, intended for companies and individuals. When we started, we delivered almost 500 masks in the first two weeks. It works quite well and prices start at 2500 CFA francs (3.76 euros) a piece. I’m also thinking about selling them to large distributors and pharmacies, but I don’t know if they have the right to sell masks that aren’t medical,” said Koné.

The Diarrablu brand sees this period as an opportunity to combine its two passions, fashion and art. “I put works of art on the Diarrablu website. Part of the proceeds are donated to support our solidarity projects.”

These exclusive works were created by the designer herself: “It began as a simple personal project to keep me busy during quarantine and gave me something to do outside of the virtual teaching of my mathematics classes. I started sharing them on Instagram in March and received a very positive response from my community, so I decided to share my sketches and their process with my clients. It has become a fun escape for all of us. After many requests, I decided to launch my first online art collection, entitled "Gént", which means "dream" in Wolof.”

After more than a month of quarantine, some shops have begun to reopen fully or partially. In Africa, as elsewhere, safety measures remain, including a handwashing system, the possibility of making an appointment to avoid heavy traffic and many other initiatives.

Photo Credit: Pelebe via Facebook, Couleur Concept via Instagram, Ibrahim Fernandez via Instagram, Ikalook via Instagram, Diarrablu

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.FR, translated and edited.

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