East Africa’s Fashion sector has potential to grow, and in so doing, contribute to Sustainable Development of the region. In particular, a thriving fashion sector creates decent work opportunities for women.
Having been at the forefront of identifying the potential of the Fashion sector to grow and contribute to Sustainable Development, SITA conceived of an incubator programme aimed at women fashion entrepreneurs in Kenya and Ethiopia. “Mitreeki” began supporting fashionpreneurs to develop key skills for growing their businesses in 2018. The most recent edition ran from July 2020 to February (2021), giving context-specific classes, mentoring, coaching and motivational speaking to 41 entrepreneurs.
The inclusive Mitreeki course is run by ITC experts on the East African Fashion Industry, who have identified the hallmark of a successful fashion brand: a cohesive collection.
To illustrate why a cohesive collection is so important, let’s take an analogy. A successful baker masters a set of recipes that correspond to his baking skills and make the most of the ingredients he has readily available. He produces an assortment of delicious cakes each day with ease and consistency. Whether it’s a birthday, Christmas, or Independence Day, he can adjust his recipes and decorate his cakes according to the theme: his customers become loyal customers, because they know where to go when they want a good cake whatever the season.
In the same vein, the Mitreeki course coaches each student to find their perfect ‘recipe’ based on their skills, resources and market, so that they can create a cohesive collection season after season to become a known brand and flourishing enterprise. Below is an example.
Fozia Endrias, Director and Founder, Fozia Endrias, is a Mitreeki alumni from 2019’s cohort. With a keen interest in sustainability, and with Mitreeki coaching, Fozia has tuned-in with consumers who share her values about sustainable fashion and built her brand’s identity in this niche. Fozia has good understanding of natural materials and traditional weaving – and dependable access to both. For each collection, she draws inspiration from different aspects of women’s liberation across the world. All the while, she uses the natural, heritage textures that emulate her brand identity to create designs with a modern cut that are subtle and easy-to-wear.
In a nutshell, Fozia’s has a trusty methodology for creating a cohesive collection that is based on her brand identity and an understanding of her strengths and constraints. Her story demonstrates the three key ingredients for success for emerging fashionpreneurs in East Africa. These are as follows.
Carving out a clear identity is the first building block. With a good sense of their brand, the Mitreeki students can build the confidence they need to take things in their own direction each time they develop a collection, which enables them to stand out as a new brand. Your brand identity also provides the parameters to theme each collection, which stimulates the creative process. Above all, if your designs are based on a clear sense of who you are, the commonality between each garment in a collection will naturally follow. Not only does this the way for cohesion within each collection, but knowing your brand identity also ensures that each collection will have some continuity with the last. Such continuity makes your brand story more compelling over time, which is essential for securing customer loyalty in the long-term.
Mitreeki coaches fashionpreneurs to hone in on their values and aesthetic to distil their brand ‘DNA’ into something that people can recognise: you can’t be everything to everybody, so over time, what works best is if you are something (meaningful) to some people. On choosing how to be distinctive, the creative leaders are advised to respond to the gaps in the market but also play to their strengths by being themselves: “no one is as good at being you as you are”, explains Hebret Lakew, ITC Fashion expert and Mitreeki teacher.
By aligning your brand identity with your authentic self – and with your strengths – you can trust your identity to be unique, as well as sustainable and consistent as time goes by. However, we all tend to undervalue our own qualities compared to others’; Mitreeki helps each fashionpreneur identify and value their strengths.
This is particularly important in the context of budding Fashion SMEs, as there is a practical side to knowing your strengths too. What materials are available to you? What are you good at? Who are your target market and their price point? These are just some of the logistical aspects that can make-or-break your collection, especially if you’re working to a deadline. During Mitreeki, each student maps their strengths and weaknesses, ready to devise a methodology that plays to them too.
For example, Solome Kiflu, another recent Mitreeki graduate from Ethiopia, recently produced a collection for African Mosaic Fashion Festival. Exhibiting a collection in the show has been excellent exposure for her fashion brand, and she credits her success to Mitreeki giving her a good understanding of her strengths: “I couldn’t have done this without the coaching and training that has enabled me to know who I am and translate that into a collection that both reflects that, and one which sells.” Solome’s Mosaic collection was inspired by Korean Streetwear. With Mitreeki coaching, she recognized her drawing skills and interpersonal skills as two particular strong suits. She uses both strengths to communicate her vision to her team and mobilise them to work collaboratively behind a clear goal; her interpersonal skills also helped her to consult with representatives of the Ethiopian target market to ensure the collection spoke to their sensibilities.
As well as coaching designers to identify their strong points, Mitreeki is ‘hands on’ helping women to develop new strengths too, and making sure each fashionpreneur exits the course with all the necessary skills.
3. Have a systematic methodology
Last but not least, the third building block to designing a cohesive collection is the methodology itself: what creative and operational process do you follow to turn your inspirations into designs and turn designs into products?
Knowing your brand identity and mapping your strengths and weaknesses are vital for designing a cohesive collection, but they are not enough on their own. “You need to keep things moving and in keeping with global market trends, whilst being true to your brand aesthetics and values. This is how you find the ‘sweet spot’ for retaining existing customers, while also attracting new ones from season to season,” explains Hebret Lakew, ITC Fashion expert. Fashionpreneurs need a structured methodology to master this balancing act – whilst factoring in logistics, costing, staffing, and marketing. Mitreeki teaches students a statutory process for finding inspiration from the world around them (for example, architecture and flowers), and translating it into a collection with distinct colours, shapes, silhouettes and textures that emulates brand values and identity, is viable to produce, and which meets the needs of the target market. The recent work of Eddy Muyishime, a talented Rwandan-born Mitreeki graduate from the 2020 cohort, provides a dazzling example of this. Eddy was intrigued by the way people “have to hide their true colours”, especially sex-workers in Nairobi, Kenya, where his fashion brand is based. Through Mitreeki, Eddy was celebrated in the “30 Under 30” of the Continent-wide Arise Fashion Week for which he produced an all-black collection with a twist: lustrous black couture with brightly coloured linings that flash colour when the models move. Hebret Lakew, ITC Fashion expert, explained: “Mitreeki students are taught a statutory process for designing a cohesive collection, which they follow during the programme itself to produce a collection and final look book.” The entrepreneurs develop their ideas together for peer-learning too. Once learnt, the structured methodology can be replicated season on season… and Mitreeki students are ready to respond to commissions if needed. The students are also taught a number of ‘tricks of the trade’ too; for example, colours are the first thing any buyer sees. “By the end of the programme, each Mitreeki student has a customized methodology of their own – ready to replicate it again in the real world after they graduate”, Ms Lakew continues. For example, with her ‘recipes’ down, Fozia has participated in Abubekr of Africa Fashion Week, featured in Vogue Italia and African Mosaique Fashion Festival
What does all this mean for Sustainable Development Goals?
As described, cohesive collections are crucial for brand recognition. A collection also provides the backdrop to each sale, because each product is perceived in the context of the garments and accessories surrounding it. Therefore, the more cohesive the collection, the more sales per shopper: if a customer can buy more than one item from the collection and come away with a complete look, they’re happy with, it will lock-in their brand loyalty for next time. This is just as important for designers selling to international merchandisers, too, since the retailer’s price per unit goes down if they can stock more of your items, and if they can depend on you for regular stock.
What’s more, since producing collections is the central component of being a Fashion House, having the process down to a tee gives fashionpreneurs more capacity to focus on other key elements of running their fashion business, so that their business can flourish. By targeting the East African Fashion space specifically, Mitreeki can be agile in responding to knowledge gaps, and hands-on in finding practical solutions to the challenges of starting a fashion business.
And what does all this mean for Sustainable Development? Flourishing, woman-led fashion businesses contribute to Sustainable Development through creating more skilled employment opportunities (SDG 8) – particularly for women – and by making women more economically-empowered (SDG 5). Each successful fashion business moves the East African Fashion Sector one step closer towards resilience, sustainable industrialisation and innovation (SDG 9) and sustainable patterns of production and consumption (SDG 12).