Ethnik: Nigerian fashion brand vying for a $2.5trn global market

African fashion is finally emerging on the global scene; the combined apparel and footwear market in Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be worth US $31 billion, this is according to a data modeled by Euro Monitor. The fashion industry globally generates up to $2.5 trillion every year. Despite the global economic slowdown, the industry is projected to double to $5 trillion annually over the next 10 years.

The potential of the African fashion industry is immense; it can provide countries on the continent an opportunity to earn valuable foreign exchange, provide much needed jobs and address poverty.

Already, African designers have started grabbing the world’s attention with innovative designs that depicts their rich cultural heritage. The world has welcomed African designs with open arms and African designers have not disappointed; with creatives like Tunde Owolabi, inspired by his Yoruba culture, creating a brand that is aesthetically appealing to a fashion-forward global consumer base.

Owolabi is an artist, photographer and designer. He tells The Nerve Africa about his brand Ethnik by Tunde Owolabi and how he came about using aso oke fabric to make ‘everything’, from fashion accessories to home accessories, sneakers, boots and sandals. Aso oke is a hand loomed cloth woven by the Yoruba people of western Nigeria.

About the Ethnik label

Ethnik is a fashion accessory/lifestyle brand that is inspired by culture. We design and weave Aso oke, a traditional Yoruba fabric and make fashion accessories like shoes and bags from them.

The idea for the brand came after a successful art exhibition in 2014 on the study of aso oke, titled “The Woven Beauty” The exhibition explored aso oke as a fabric, how it is made, the different types, how they are made. It also explored their importance and why. Having learned about these and the many dangers facing the production of the fabric, I was inspired to create products that will help sustain the production of the aso oke fabric.

Ethnik by Tunde owolabi

Inspiration behind designs

Culture, People, way of life, traditions; the world is an inspiration. As an artist, I am a lover of culture. I believe in the preservation of culture and traditions. They were created for a reason and we should try to preserve them for generations to come.

African fashion as part of the global fashion industry

The global fashion industry will double in the next 10 years. This is good news for Africa. There can be a rapid growth, and more potentials can be discovered and nurtured.

I will like to see this growth have a direct impact in infrastructural provision that will create an enabling environment for smooth and quality production, without having to depend on the west. If this happens, most of our raw materials will be put to good use and sold locally to African designers. This will also help to provide more people with jobs, and automatically bring down the cost of production, which Ethnik stands to gain from. That way we can have more export power and better economic gains.

Fashion can solve Africa’s unemployment challenges

However, some things have to be put in place. Firstly, we need to believe in what we have, and then refine them to international standard. We also have to create an environment that is conducive for people to work and earn a good living. If we able to do these, we will be able to solve some of Africa’s unemployment problems.

Ethnik by Tunde owolabi

We also need to deal with the issue of complacence in people. African jobs are taken out because some of the skilled people are complacent and do not apply themselves, while some just don’t care. They want fast and easy money and that causes them to leave their primary job of a skilled craftsman to go into other trades with fast but short-term gains.

Ethnik has been able to keep some artisans in their job and we are hoping to do more through training and mentoring programs but that we can achieve when the business grows and we can afford to create that environment.

Potential for innovation in the African fashion industry

There are plenty of innovative potentials. Designers are exploring with the use of materials and technology. That goes to show there are exciting times ahead for African fashion industry. We at Ethnik by Tunde Owolabi have started experimenting with new techniques of weaving, using  the same old looms and creating new patterns for our fabrics.

People like Laduma has taken inspiration from his Xhosa culture and interpreted them into modern day knitwear fashion that has been embraced by the world.

Fashion value chain

In Nigeria, we don’t have a complete fashion value chain. In South Africa, I know it is better; and that’s why manufacturing there hasn’t been much of a challenge. There is a huge challenge with developing the value chain in Nigeria because we rely too much on export. If the local cotton farmer is being empowered and encouraged to grow cotton for local consumption, he definitely will, knowing there are people readily available to buy them. Same goes for skilled workers who are ready to work. Sadly, African economies aren’t built to manufacture, they are built to consume but some of those are changing, and we hope to see that change become more imminent in years to come. Then we wont have to rely on China.

Ethnik by Tunde owolabi

Ethnik by Tunde Owolabi is 100 percent African

We do everything here in Africa. From our fabric weaving to the actual production of our accessories. It is challenging especially with our plans to scale up. Some of our materials like the soles, lining etc are imported even though we buy them locally. We see that becoming an issue with time, and we might have to go directly to the manufacturers to have specific designs produced for us. That is the only way we can set ourselves apart, and also way to grow. We believe our designs are unique, and for us to grow, we need to find a way into the international market and to play in that space, we need to be different and unique.

Challenges facing the fashion industry in Africa

The challenges are the usual suspects: inadequate infrastructures, problems with manufacturing and access to raw materials.

Artisans, Artisans, Artisans.

Power and energy

They say labour is cheap in Africa, but it is actually not true. People are expensive, the genuine ones. There is lack of loyalty and there is hardly good hands who are ready to pour their heart into what they do. Whenever you feel like you have found one, the next minute they are gone. Not because they aren’t well paid but because they feel they can either do better on their own or they aren’t satisfied with the pay and are looking again for the easy way out.

African vs foreign

Africans believe foreign goods are better than locally made ones but we are changing that notion and it is getting easier by the day. Some of us who have traveled a bit know what we look out for when shopping abroad and as designers, we look for that same amount of quality in what we produce so that we can break that notion of locally made goods aren’t as good as that which is imported. The only other problem is they might be a little more expensive because of the extra cost of production we incur here. Cost of raw material, lack of power supply etc. but we are working hard on producing quality products at affordable prices, and we are equally working to rival what is being imported, so that we can also export our goods for a share of the international market.

African designers are being celebrated abroad, and they are gradually penetrating the luxury and high street market. I am sure with time it will get even better.