COVID-19 and Africa’s $31 Billion Fashion Industry: Leading Designers Discuss the Future

Like any other sector, the fashion industry is not exempt from the devastating impact of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. And it is not difficult to see why: stores are closed, designers are unable to ship their products across borders, orders are being cancelled, planned showcases have been postponed indefinitely and the supply chain is broken. This has terrible consequences on fashion businesses all over the world. Garment factories in Bangladesh have recorded a loss of $1.5 billion due to mass cancellation of orders. Top European fashion houses shed $54 billion in market value. A report by the Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company expects that the revenue for the $2.5 trillion global fashion industry will contract by 30% this year, further predicting that a large number of fashion companies will go bankrupt in the next 12 to 18 months.

To discuss the possible long-term effects of the pandemic on the $31 billion Sub-Saharan fashion market, five leading ladies in the fashion industry held a panel session on YouTube. The session, titled #StayHome…In Style – The Future of Fashion in Africa, was live streamed via the Lagos Fashion Week channel. The panel featured Omoyemi Akerele (Founder, Lagos Fashion Week), Adama Ndiaye (Founder, Dakar Fashion Week), Lucilla Booyzen (CEO, South Africa Fashion Week), Gloria Wavamuno (Founder, Kampala Fashion Week) and Claudia Lumor (Founder, Glitz Africa Fashion Week, Ghana).

It was a stocktaking exercise, stepping back to evaluate how far the fashion scene has evolved in their respective countries as much as it was about planning for the post-Covid-19 future. Common themes were the challenges of thriving amidst economic setbacks and the need for the industry to in all countries to forge a stronger platform for common purpose. Wavamuno commenced discussion by talking about the slow process of developing the Ugandan industry through the Kampala Fashion Week. “We started out in a very young fashion industry 6 years ago. Everyone was just personally tailoring on their own. We came onto the scene to display the wonderful creativity and give people a sense of pride and inspiration. We wanted to give a platform to designers to showcase their work.”

Ndiaye spoke about the efforts to move the Senegalese fashion industry forward. Though admitting that “the business side is very limited because we are a small country”, she expressed optimism about the growth of the industry, even talking about plans to create an African Fashion Council.  She asked for support from her fellow fashion leaders in other parts other continent. “How can we improve our platform in Francophone Africa? We are not in competition but are forces to support each other. This is the time to share and be supportive of one another.”

Nigeria’s Omoyemi Akerele added that the world of African fashion must encourage the “cross pollination of ideas and cultures” and “bring together all parts of Africa including Francophone Africa. It is not only Anglophone Africa that exists”, a reference to the perceived domination of  the African fashion scene by large English-speaking countries like Nigeria.

The speakers agreed on the need to create fashion schools across the continent with uniform modernized and accessible curriculums which cater to the needs of Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone Africans alike.

The speakers were upbeat about managing the challenges of COVID-19, seeing the disruption as an opportunity to transform the industry in Africa. According to Boozyen, “Covid has brought us a blank canvass. It has given us the opportunity to build up again from the bottom. We had originally thought we reached the top because of the fashion weeks and other milestones. But now, Covid is making us rethink everything like fashion education and strategies for reaching out to buyers. But we need to help each other out.”

Complementing Boozyen’s sentiments, Akerele agreed that the only way to surmount through this challenge is to work in unison. “It’s important we come together at a time like this to tap into all our collective and individual strengths to be able to shape the future of fashion on the continent, The Me-Economy is over now. We can only survive by working together.”

She added that this new reality does not have to be so bleak if it is handled as a challenged to embrace new management and creative transitions, “Maybe the future of African fashion isn’t travelling (that is, Nigerians traveling to Uganda or Ghanaians going to South Africa for fashion week). Maybe the future of fashion in Africa is us holding fashion weeks in our respective countries and sending a joint press release as one voice.”

When discussing the practicality of working together with their varying schedules, Lumor suggested working with a uniform calendar to ensure that events did not clash. Wavamuno supported the idea, adding that working together will help facilitate even growth.  The most notable benefit of working together is the strategic advantage it would offer for attracting funding. The speakers agreed that presenting a united front would make it “easy to get more money from financiers”.

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