When you visit a chic shopping area, for example the Meatpacking District in New York or the Champs Élysée in Paris, you will find the most famous luxury brands of the time, from Chanel to Tory Burch. The vast majority were founded by white designers, with a decidedly Western point of view.
Amira Rasool finds this a problem; she has a mission to help African designers take their place among their American and European counterparts. Four years ago, she launched The Folklore, a marketplace that brings together top African designers, such as Ahluwalia or Thebe Magugu. But on September 7, the company will expand beyond single item sales and will soon unveil a new platform called The Folklore Connect, which will make it easy for retailers to place bulk orders from these designers to get their clothes to new customers. .
Rasool grew up with a love for fashion and once had the ambition to become a fashion journalist. But when she entered Rutgers University, she became interested in African studies and entered the University of Cape Town to pursue a master’s degree in the field. Over time, it dawned on her that she could bring her two passions together. “I’ve studied iconic figures like James Baldwin and WEB Dubois, these radical figures who dedicate their life’s work to the social and economic future of black people,” she says. “I saw an opportunity to empower black people’s voices and circumstances by helping African designers increase the continent’s exports.”
She began exploring the burgeoning, vibrant fashion industry across Africa, identifying emerging labels such as Orange Culture and Andrea Iyamah from Nigeria and House of Gozdawa in South Africa. She brought them to The Folklore Marketplace, a website that allowed customers in the US and Europe to purchase these brands for a 30% commission. But she soon discovered that it was difficult to attract enough traffic to the site to make a big impact on behalf of these designers. To reach a wider audience, she needed to connect them with bigger retailers — from Nordstrom to cool boutiques — who would carry their collections. “They already had a large, established customer base,” says Rasool.
But this turned out to be a complex undertaking. For starters, the business infrastructure in Africa can often be challenging to navigate. Global payment systems like Stripe don’t work in many African countries, so designers can’t receive money in their local bank accounts. Then there are problems with the transmission. While DHL and FedEx operate across the continent, shipping packages abroad can be extremely expensive for individual designers; even in the US, brands and retailers get much better rates by shipping large quantities of goods.
Rasool spent two years building The Folklore Connect, which provides all the business services African designers need to partner with American and European retailers. Designers and brands can sign up to be part of Connect. If selected, they will have access to a range of tools, including a shipping system that allows them to receive up to 80% off shipping. Rasool says her team is selective about the brands they bring in; they are aimed at designers who have a strong point of view and create high quality products. Some of the brands she carries, such as Thebe Magugu and Adebayo Oke-Lawal, are already very famous in Africa and are becoming more and more known around the world. But with Connect, she also hopes to bring in lesser-known emerging designers.” We started with designers from Africa and the diaspora, but many of these infrastructure problems are occurring in other parts of the world, such as South American and Southeast Asia,” says Rasool. “So we are now opening up our platform to designers from these regions as well.”
In a way, Rasool is working to create the kind of luxury conglomerate we’ve seen in Europe and the US. The modern luxury industry was born in Europe a century ago when designers like Coco Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton bought expensive, fashionable clothes. Some luxury brands have grown stronger by consolidating. Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH), for example, owns 75 luxury brands, including Christian Dior and Givenchy. Kering owns Gucci, Balenciaga and 13 other brands. This allowed them to invest in the construction of new factories and the landing of prime real estate. The Folklore is far from reaching the scale of LVMH and Rasool is not interested in actually buying any of these companies. Still, Rasool believes there is a lesson to be learned from the big fashion conglomerates: there is power in bringing luxury brands together and sharing resources and logistics.
While Rasool is committed to helping African designers grow and bring prosperity to their communities, she also feels that the fashion world is missing something when brands have such a Eurocentric perspective. Many African designers use traditional patterns, color palettes and techniques in their work, creating an aesthetic that differs from Western brands. There’s a lot of beauty that American and European consumers don’t have access to right now. “These designers combine their heritage and aspects of their environment in their work,” she says. “A lot of it is fresh and new to Western people.”