LONDON — African design talent will be given a step up into the international fashion spotlight thanks to Kisua, a new e-boutique and talent incubator.
“I think the world is looking at Africa right now,” Kisua founder and chief executive officer Samuel Mensah told WWD. “There’s a lot of focus on Africa in general, and we have a very rapidly growing middle class that can afford and seek out good-quality fashion; international fashion as well as African-inspired fashion. The talent has always been here, we just lacked a platform like this to show it to consumers.”
Mensah described Kisua as a commercial platform that collaborates with emerging and established African design talent to create ready-to-wear capsule collections (accessories and handbag offerings are planned for phase two), thus giving access to international markets. The brand surveyed consumers in the U.S. and the U.K. and found that the main factor preventing people from buying African fashion is lack of access and availability in “meaningful quantities at a reasonable price.”
Creative director and cofounder Danica Lepen, who has been working in South Africa in design, production and development for the last decade, said that the production process has not been without its challenges, and for the launch collection, just 30 percent has been produced in Africa, with the balance manufactured in Asia.
“It’s difficult to courier samples across the African continent. Some places don’t have roads,” explained Lepen, who trained as a fashion designer and had her own label before becoming creative director for South African retail chain Marion and Lindie. “We’ve almost had to do it virtually, so there’s been a lot of digital back and forth with designers and telephone conversations and fabric sourcing and style changing and pictures of samples. It really has been an interesting development process.
“We have many great factories in South Africa, but they are only cut, make and trim factories,” said Lepen. “The East is a one-stop shop, and you get full-service factories. So we have tested our product and model out in Asia and learned from the process. We’ve been working very closely with women’s production factories in South Africa so we can guide them and figure this process out together so we can develop better production facilities here in Africa.”
The goal is to eventually increase the proportion of garments made in Africa. “Some people may say, ‘Only 30 percent?’ but I think 30 percent is actually a great starting point,” said Mensah. “Our target is to double that in the next six months; we intend to have the majority of our production happening on the African continent.”
It was an African gifting custom that led Mensah, who was previously working in private equity, to see the potential for an e-commerce platform that capitalized on an African aesthetic. “Gifting fabrics is a part of our culture,” he explained. “People will generally give fabric to friends at engagements and weddings, but the problem is finding a tailor who can turn that fabric to a garment. It can be a very tedious exercise. You often find that people have lots of fabrics that don’t ever become clothes because it’s very difficult finding someone who can make a decent garment for you. We just don’t have the same depth in production facilities as you have in India and China.
“When I would travel for work, I would look for finished garments instead of just fabric. My friends would show their friends, and soon people were actually trying to place orders with me, so I started to wonder why somebody wasn’t making African garments for consumption in African and global markets.”
The company’s African roots are wide-reaching. Mensah raised capital from a selection of African investors, and most of Kisua’s team, from contributors and photographers to software developers, hail from the continent. London-based men’s wear designer Ozwald Boateng chairs the board of advisers.
The company funds all the designer collaborations so that the designers themselves take no financial risks.
The first collection of 70 pieces from 10 designers has a strong African flavor, with wax prints sourced in Ghana playing a starring role in the mix. Prices range from about $60 for a top and $90 to $120 for dresses to around $300 for a coat. Each designer collaboration features between five and eight pieces.
Determined to make the customer service experience seamless, Mensah explained that the collections will ship from warehouses based in the U.K. and the U.S., “locations closest to the customers so they don’t have to wait too long to get their product.”
An online and PR campaign was shot by Misha Taylor, who grew up between L.A. and South Africa, styled by Lepen and shot on location in Johannesburg . The models appear in shoes that are in development.
The site will go live at Kisua.com on Oct. 3. In addition to its e-commerce offering, the site will feature editorial pages covering African music, fashion and the arts, with both written and visual contributions from a network of African and international collaborators.