How Africa's Luxury Brands are Redefining its Creative Heritage


Lanre Shonoiki | February 07, 2018

Luxury Connect Africa hosted eight of the continent's most prestigious brands with the aim to leverage innovation in the luxury industry, redefine African heritage and transform the economic and social landscape of Africa.

Wakanda: A Hint of Africa

This month, when Marvel’s Black Panther hits the big screen, you would meet the super-villain M’baku. However, only comic book nerds would know Man-Ape, M’baku’s alter ego, whose name Marvel has expediently excluded from the movie. Though this suggests that the world is waking up to Africa, the recent HnM faux pas highlights how slowly that consciousness is rising. In uncertainty about the continent, the world has settled for negative narrative and convenient misrepresentations of Africa’s heritage. That heritage is rich in technology, creativity and sustainability, as Marvel hopefully displays with the nation of Wakanda. Highlighting these positives has been difficult, given the fragmentation of subjects and geography that constitute Africa’s heritage.

Those fragments were pulled together on 22nd January 2018 at Luxury Connect Africa. Convened at Hotel le Bristol by Luxe Corp CEO Uche Pezard, the event featured panel discussions, a meticulously curated 3-day B2B trade exhibition and a tasteful mixer of industry stakeholders. Eight of Africa’s most prestigious brands exhibited their products and shared their extraordinary journeys, across the range of African luxury. Luxury Connect Africa leverages the luxury industry to transform the economic and social landscape of Africa, by facilitating the integration of international luxury companies to Africa and by transforming African Luxury Brands into successful global businesses.

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Africa’s Heritage: Beyond Print, Beyond Wildlife Safari

Consistent misattribution of Africa-born inspiration has contributed to the underappreciation of the continent’s role in global luxury. Globally visible brands skim the niches of Africa, ferrying her culture and identity westwards for commercialization. World-renowned Stylist Jenke-Ahmed Tailly, expressed these sentiments as he shared his experience with Africa-inspired fashion on the global scene. Le Jenke attributes the ease of intellectual sleight to weak share of voice by the custodians of African creativity.

Photo: Jenke Ahmed Tailly with Jessica Michault SVP Industry Relations at Launchmetrics

But Le Jenke is moving the needle towards a positive Africa, through projects like Gang of Africa, L’Officiel’s September 2016 issue. On his trips home to Ivory Coast, he shuns guided tours on high streets, instead delving into the street corners to experience African culture at its richest. He hopes to someday call in a personal favour that would bring Anna Wintour to Africa for an immersive cultural experience.

That culture drew New-York-born Aprelle Duany, first to Juba with her South Sudanese husband and further east to Nairobi, where she founded her eponymous line of hand-crafted leather bags. Beyond sourcing all her labour and raw materials locally, Aprelle Duany’s bags feature a distinct grip-efficient handle, sporting knit patterns that tell her story of reconnecting to her roots.

Other brands are expressing that culture in equally innovative ways. Mohair knitwear brand, Maxhosa by Laduma draws inspiration from the Xhosa rite of passage. A Maxhosa apparel symbolizes the first piece of clothing a Xhosa boy owns after his passage into manhood, when he must give away all his childhood clothes. Maxhosa’s designs are inspired by Xhosa beadwork patterns that typically grace the new man’s garment. Having established a following in South Africa, Maxhosa is taking its African story to the world through distributors in New York, Tokyo and London.

Photo: Sweaters from South African Knitwear Brand Maxhosa by Laduma

Navigating Demand: A Discerner’s Market

Even as Africa comes to the world, the global luxury industry remains gun-shy about Africa, citing weak demand and fragile market dynamics. While this may be true in the broader economy, the African luxury market faces slightly different dynamics. On the one hand, the small customer pool is under-satisfied in an undersaturated market, affording quick wins for bold businesses. Despite a general leaning towards lower price points, the African Luxury consumer cherishes a rich, intimate customer experience.

Luxury retailers, Viva Boutique from Ghana and Temple Muse from Nigeria underscored these points as they discussed their approach to an evolving customer base. Viva Boutique CEO, Sacha Okoh, who has served customers across generations highlights the rising trend of expressiveness among millennials and the attendant demand for unique statement pieces. In line, Temple Muse offers options of global luxury brands, in a cosey ambience for a memorable customer experience.

Customers in these expectedly similar markets show fundamentally different characteristics. While the Ghanaian luxury consumer craves discretion, the Nigerian consumer is more overt in her display of wealth. These nuances, influenced by history, highlight the importance of diversity even within the African context, contradicting the celebrity-endorsement approach that global brands have adopted in targeting African customers. Sacha attributes this contradiction to a growing disconnect between celebrity lifestyles and customer aspirations, stressing the need for authenticity in branding. Brands who understand this are winning in the African market.

Photo: Valerie Obaze, Adele Dejak and Aprelle Duany on a Panel with Alexey Timbul Bulokhov of Forbes

When in 2010, motherhood showed Valerie Obaze the magic of shea butter, she expected to sell her RandR line of beauty products outside Africa. Since then, she has peeled layer after layer of positive surprises as the markets in Ghana and Nigeria have absorbed all the supply from her expanding product line. On a round-table with Aprelle Duany and jeweler Adele Dejak, Valerie highlighted the passion of the West African consumer for authentic products with original stories. Hers draws inspiration from the hidden powers of Shea butter, a product of the Vitellaria paradoxa tree, an exclusive native of equatorial Africa. For Valerie, Aprelle and Adele, the Made-in-Africa brand is one they now wear with pride, leveraging their original stories and high-quality products.

Sustainability: It’s Not Business, It’s Personal

Of the $12.4 billion in diamonds mined in 2016, 57% came from African countries like Botswana, Angola and Namibia. Between departure from the mines and arrival in retail stores as polished jewelry, those diamonds multiply at least 500% in value. Africa holds the short end of this value chain, even in the trading of her native rough diamonds. Rough diamonds are traded in 31 World Federation of Diamond Bourses, only one of which is in Africa. Invariably, most of the value in this industry is captured outside the continent. Mining, the most African segment of that value chain, despite being labour and capital intensive, remains the most profitable with 23-26% operating margin. This reflects how little of the $7 billion made from mining African diamonds in 2016 was returned to the producing communities.

Vania Leles, Founder and CEO of Vanleles Diamonds, has seen the dark and shiny sides of that coin. Born in Guinea Bissau, Vania’s early modeling career took her around the world, where she saw the beauty of Africa adorning the rest of the world. This inspired her to build the first African fine Jewelry brand, in efforts to balance the value chain closer to the source. Face-to-face with Forbes’ Alexey Timbul Bulokhov, she chronicled her journey through the rough diamond exchange in Africa, to diamond bourses in Antwerp and to the fine jewelry districts in London. She stood out in those circles where women and people of colour are underrepresented.

Photo: Angolan Supermodel Maria Borges with Vania Leles, Founder/Creative Director of VanLeles Diamonds

Since founding VanLeles Diamonds in 2011, Vania has developed collections that capture the spirit of Africa, using responsibly sourced diamonds from Botswana, emeralds from Zambia and rubies from Mozambique. Despite her thriving business, Vania is far from fulfilled, she looks forward to the emergence of sister brands like hers. Together they will refocus the precious stones business back to the source, returning more value to the miners who dive into the earth in search of beauty.

On that search, one brand travelled back to the 14th century. Mmusa, a child of Fred Deegbe’s Heel the World Project is inspired by King Mansa Musa of Mali, whose wealth at its peak is estimated at 400 billion in today’s dollars. Mmusa’s affluent muse is a mere shell around its heart of gold. Its distinctly crafted leather goods are sustainably sourced end-to-end in Ghana. From the hand-carved wooden shoe box, to the wooden heels and the golden urchin that crests its Cleo shoes, Mmusa ensures a sustainable supply chain.

For African luxury brands owned by Africans, sustainability is more than a buzzword; it is a necessity. Even if they did not care about the lives affected by their production and sourcing activities, they realize that in a world pushing against globalization, Africa would always be home. Yet, they care. The proximity of their sourcing activities to their primary markets gives them first-hand exposure to the lives they improve with their responsibly run businesses. They understand their valued contribution to creating a consumer market in Africa’s creative population.

Photo: Mmusa's Habib shoes sitting on the handcrafted wooden shoe box

Adele fondly recalls banters with her collaborators, from Bunmi in Lagos, with whom she realized the Ami (symbol) collection, to her dedicated store associates at the Village market in Nairobi. Aprelle’s success in breaking into the clan of wet-blue suppliers in the Nairobi leather market resonates. After the New Yorker in her broke their resistance, it took the caring African in her to build long-term friendships that made her their preferred buyer. The bottoms-up approach by these African brands to sustainability captures the essence, the soul of sustainability.

Technology: Integral across the Value Chain

Fashion and lifestyle connoisseur Ogo Offodile fondly recalls her vision of the average Lagosian, juggling multiple phones and portable power banks. There is a nagging itch to stay connected, whether for business or pleasure. To keep operating costs down, most creative businesses run lean operations built around their mobile phones. For the younger population, social media is an essential information and networking resource. Naturally then, internet penetration in Nigeria hit 67% in 2017. This reinforces recent trends of Africa flipping its infrastructure deficits to leapfrog in industries like telecommunications and fintech.

Photo: Ogo Offodile in VanLeles' emerald earrings from the Legends of Africa Collection

Such nuanced trends are serving African luxury and fashion businesses well. On the last mile, technology bridges the gaps in strict product standards and verifiable marketing. Beyond the visibility social media gives to the brand’s original stories, it affords them differentiation through customer reviews, thus boosting customer conversion. A fair share of exhibitors at Luxury Connect Africa confessed to making a decent volume of sales through direct contact on social media. Social media attention also helps in planning and demand projection, as leveraged by high-fashion brand Tiffany Amber for minimizing lost sales and logistics costs at their pop-up events across Africa.

Further up the value chain, Maxhosa employs technology in its production process, feeding its intricate designs to sophisticated knitting machines through dedicated software. Aprelle Duany augments her Diploma in Accessory Design with a Bachelors in Information Systems to optimize product yields from her raw materials. She also employs 3D printing in prototyping new design concepts to facilitate translation to her craftsmen. Even higher up, Valerie Obaze was patient in her approach to RandR, conducting months of R&D; to design a production process that maximizes the quality and yields from her raw materials.

Now, Owning the Conversation

Global conversations about luxury in Africa are still being held without Africans close to the soul of the continent. Brand strategist Sissi Johnson and fashion stylist Ogo Offodile agree on the power of social media in tipping the scales. Against the tide of token-inclusion, they see more African brands and culture advocates sharing original stories on Instagram, weaving the canvas of the true African experience. In her lecturing engagement at the International Fashion Academy Paris, Sissi sees first-hand how social media has aided in global mobility of African creatives. She smiles at the memory of meeting on campus, students whose journeys with her started halfway across the world, through direct messages on Instagram.

As more African creatives rise in the luxury capitals of the world, they would weigh in on conversations about cultural attribution and social awareness. Ex Miss World and Luxury Connect Africa’s Ambassador, Agbani Darego plays her part and longs for balance in a world numerically dominated by people of color. She anticipates that revolutions like Fenty Beauty’s disruption of the beauty industry would drive efforts at sincere diversity. While acknowledging the progress made in the 17 years since she was crowned Miss World, she stressed the need for African brands to drive the discussion of African heritage.

In that conversation however, lies a tough balancing act. Should brands identify broadly as African or more specifically by their countries? Brand heads present explained the difficulty of the specific-identity approach, given the fluidity of their cultural contexts. Valerie who grew up in the United Kingdom is Ghanaian by ancestry and Nigerian by marriage. Aprelle a New Yorker traced her roots to Zimbabwe, married a South Sudanese and lived in Juba before relocating to Nairobi. Adele, a British-Nigerian runs her business in Nairobi and hops across the continent in search of inspiration.

African, it appears, is a brand they must all carry as much for the reinforcement of the African identity as for the essence of diversity across the continent’s 3,000 tribes. It is in their hands to Say, Show and Shape the image of the continent across the world.

All image credits: Alexis Hellot. 

Beauty | Innovation | Jewellery | Sustainability