When you visit an elegant shopping district – such as the Meatpacking District in New York or the Champs Élysée in Paris – you’ll find the most famous luxury brands of our time, from Chanel to Tory Burch. The vast majority were founded by white designers, with a distinctly western point of view.
Amira Rasool believes this is a problem; she is on 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 curates top African designers, such as Ahluwalia or Thebe Magugu. But on Sept. 7, the company is expanding beyond selling individual items, and will soon unveil a new platform called The Folklore Connect that makes it easy for retailers to place bulk orders from these designers to get their clothes in front of new customers.
Rasool grew up loving fashion and once wanted to be a fashion journalist. But when she attended Rutgers University, she became interested in African studies, and went on to the University of Cape Town to earn a master’s degree in the field. Over time it occurred to her that she could bring her two passions together. “I studied iconic figures like James Baldwin and WEB Dubois, these radical figures who dedicated their life’s work to the social and economic future of black people,” she says. “I saw an opportunity to amplify the voice and conditions of black people by helping African designers increase exports from the continent.”
She began exploring the emerging, bustling fashion industry across Africa, identifying up-and-coming brands 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 shop these brands, for a 30% commission. But she quickly discovered that it was difficult to get enough traffic to the site to make a big impact on these designers’ behalf. To reach a larger audience, she needed to connect them with major retailers—from Nordstrom to cool boutiques—that would carry their collections. “They already had large, established customer bases,” says Rasool.
But this turned out to be a complex endeavour. First, 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 into their local bank accounts. Then there are problems with shipping. While DHL and FedEx operate across the continent, shipping packages overseas can be extremely expensive for individual designers; even in the US, brands and retailers get much better prices by shipping large quantities of goods.
Rasool has spent two years building The Folklore Connect, which provides all the business services African designers need to work with American and European retailers. Designers and brands can apply to become part of Connect. If selected, they will have access to a number of tools, including a shipping system that allows them to receive up to 80% off shipping costs. Rasool says her team is selective about which brands they bring in; they are focused on 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 well-known in Africa and are becoming increasingly well-known worldwide. But with Connect, she hopes to bring in lesser-known, up-and-coming designers as well.” We started with designers from Africa and the diaspora, but many of these infrastructure issues are true in other parts of the world, such as South America and Southeast Asia, says Rasool. “So we are now opening up our platform to designers from across these regions as well.”
In some ways, Rasool is working to create the kind of luxury conglomerate we’ve seen in Europe and the US. The modern luxury industry was born a century ago in Europe when designers such as Coco Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton began creating expensive, fashionable clothes. Some luxury brands have become more powerful 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 has allowed them to invest in building new factories and land prime real estate. Folklore is far from achieving LVMH’s scale, and Rasool is not interested in actually buying any of these companies. Nevertheless, Rasool believes that 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 wealth to their communities, she also feels that the fashion world misses out when brands have such a Eurocentric perspective. Many African designers incorporate traditional patterns, color palettes and techniques into their work, creating aesthetics that are different from Western brands. There’s a lot of beauty that American and European consumers don’t currently have access to. “These designers combine their heritage and aspects of their surroundings in their work,” she says. “A lot of it is fresh and new to Westerners.”