Despite the popular outcry about the sustainable states of fashion markets across the globe, there really is not much information on what the sustainable fashion market is worth in Africa. As it turns out, the entire African fashion market is worth about US$31 billion, I hadn’t known any of this when I started my menswear brand back in 2014.
I was still an undergrad law student, and even though I appreciated fashion more than most of my peers, my dream of kick-starting something just seemed too profound at the time. All that changed the day a close friend fell in love with a simple leather satchel I had picked up from a local thrift shop. I jokingly offered to make her one and quoted a price somewhat dismissively. To my surprise, she accepted the offer on the spot. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was how my menswear label Le Bon Vivant was born.
At the onset I operated on a very small scale, only making items when customers ordered and paid for them in advance. While the orders slowly picked up, I educated myself on as many facets of men’s fashion as my studies could permit because my enduring goal was to enter the Nigerian mass market. I wanted to make my products in numbers because this would ensure that my cost of production would be reduced; a happy development that would result in lower sale prices and thus make my items affordable for the average student.
Even back then, I knew that this line of thinking was a tad radical. Here’s the thing I suspected then but have confirmed over the years: no Nigerian fashion brand has ever attained a mass market status. As a matter of fact, the biggest and most successful brands seem to make it a point to sell their items only to an exclusive clientele. They target just a fraction of the Nigerian class; advertise aggressively to the chosen few and boom… they are in business. Even in cases where this strategic marketing isn’t deliberate, with the brand’s high prices, only the select few (who can afford the products) would remain.
To clarify, I wanted my brand to be different for two main reasons; reason number one was that as far as the numbers go, Nigeria has a very small upper class, a sizeable middle class and a very large lower class. “Successful” Nigerian brands sold only to the rich few. Their margins are good, but the target market is tiny. The way I saw it, a target-rich environment in my chosen niche lay in marketing to the much larger middle and lower class markets.
Read more: Affordability and Ethical Fashion: Why Price Still Matters
So, while Big Brand A can find 10 affluent people willing to pay 20 thousand naira each (roughly US$55) for a shirt, I can find 100 people from the middle class willing to pay 10 thousand naira (US$28) each for it. Considering that a further 1,000 people from the ‘lower’ class may be willing to pay the same amount – or a little less – for the same product, I definitely had the ‘right’ numbers needed for my brand to thrive.
The other reason I wanted a differentiated fashion brand was that I truly wanted a label that students could simultaneously aspire to and afford. For years as a student, I had looked at prized goods on the pages of foreign magazines and wondered when I could afford such luxurious items. And so as soon as I started making similar wears and accessories to the ones I had obsessed over, I wanted other students to be able to afford that way of life too.
Right around this time, my biggest challenge was accessing capital and funding. I was a law student, speeding towards a career notorious for its long hours and considerably low wages. I fully entered the Nigerian labour market in 2015 and two years after, I saved enough to finally start making products in large batches. I transitioned to full-time entrepreneurship and even though I was still not earning much, I was finally poised to just go for it.
Then, as fate would have it, I began writing for EWP and that my friends, was how I became introduced to the concept of ethical fashion. Within just a few months, I started seeing fashion differently. Now even though I had been operating quite the ethical brand without realizing it, I had also been running a very small operation. To take the plunge and expand my business, while heeding the ethical values that I had been made aware of, I would have to operate my business differently. By my calculations, the cost of that would put my products beyond the reach of the average Nigerian and this had literally been the core of my brand ideology.
I am not vegan, I eat meat. I carry leather satchels; and I’ll probably wear fur jackets if the Nigerian weather permits. But still, I could no longer deny the fundamental shift in my perception of fashion. I could no longer claim ignorance or carry on as just another “normal” fashion brand, and so in 2018; I took a break from work to re-evaluate my brand ethos.
Since my return, I have tried to remodel my supply chain because I’d like for it to be as ethical as it can be. I have begun to expand to include local cooperative societies and I have forged a few partnerships with credible distributors of pre-loved wears in West Africa. But all in all, despite this, I still struggle to balance my brand’s need for profits with my expanded fashion ideologies. It still appears, on some days, that if I am to maintain a high standard of ethical production, I would be making almost no profit selling to the average Nigerian.
Related Post: Made in Africa: The Stylish African Ethical Fashion Brands Making Waves in the Industry
I could make good returns if I sold my products in foreign markets, to customers who have both the interest in ethically made items and the money to buy them. But then, what becomes of that average Nigerian student for whom my business may never have kicked off in the first place? And just how do I stop my business from targeting only the rich and privileged like every other big Nigerian brand (and let’s face it, most ethical and sustainable brands) I’ve read about?
Frankly, I have not figured out an answer to my conundrum, but all I can do is improve on my ideals and get better. Travelling across Nigeria in the past few years, and speaking to the Akwete women, who have been in fashion for millennia has taught me one vital lesson. I have learnt that whatever is created or done with genuine passion endures; whatever isn’t will just come and float away with time.
And this right here is the philosophy I am now determined to embody, moving forward in all that I do.
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Feature image via Oxfam.