Are Creative Collaborations the Key to Growth for Rising African Brands?

Words by The Folklore Team

Brand collaborations and guest creative directors in the fashion industry are nothing new. Gucci and Balenciaga teamed up for the Hacker project, American fashion designer Heron Preston serves as a creative consultant for Calvin Klein and Rihanna created collections with athletic brand Puma.

The appeal of celebrity collaborations is obvious – they bring with them a massive fanbase that are almost guaranteed to turn into buying customers – while a famous brand pairing up with another famous brand brings increased publicity.

But recently established and popular brands are reaching further afield to find collaborators that are often underrepresented in the fashion industry: Africa. Rich Mnisi, an award-winning South African designer released a collection with Adidas in February of this year while AZ Factory, the fashion start-up founded by the late Alber Elbaz, has tapped 2019 LVMH Prize winner Thebe Magugu, also from South Africa, for a new project.

Are collaborations like these the next frontier for emerging brands?

One of the biggest challenges for fashion designers from Africa, despite success at home, is gaining entry into key markets such as Europe and the United States. The African fashion industry, which is worth an estimated $31 billion, has seen its luxury market has grown significantly in recent years, with designers from South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana leading the way.

Following the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, it appears that, in an effort to promote inclusivity and diversity, the fashion industry is finally taking luxury designers from Africa seriously, and actively playing a part in their growth and success beyond their homeland.

Adidas x Rich Mnisi

Thebe Magugu, the first African designer to win the LVMH Prize, launched his namesake label in 2017, with a womenswear collection but has since expanded to offer menswear, too. Based in Johannesburg, the designer is at the forefront of a cohort of emerging designers who are increasingly finding their way onto global e-commerce platforms such as NET-A-PORTER, Moda Operandi and SSENSE – Thebe Magugu is also part of MATCHESFASHION’s Innovators programme, an initiative designed to support up-and-coming talent.

Now, the designer has been selected as the first “amigo” to collaborate with AZ Factory and create a collection of “beautiful, playful, practical and solutions-driven fashion that works for everyone,” which he recently unveiled. Featuring bold prints, tactile fabrics and the designer’s interpretation of African dress, Magugu’s designs for AZ Factory will be available from June.

Gucci Vault, an experimental concept space by the luxury brand, offers exclusive capsule collections created by designers including London-based Priya Ahluwalia, who is of Nigerian and Indian descent, as well as Bianca Saunders and Wales Bonner, both of Caribbean heritage. “I think it’s really important that we invest in businesses and people of colour, because we’re not championed enough or treated fairly,” Ahluwalia has said.

Africa Fashion International Young Designer of the Year 2014 Rich Mnisi partnered with sportswear giant Adidas to create pieces that celebrate his Tsonga heritage. The collaboration allowed Mnisi to work in a category he hadn’t before – performance gear – and bring his colorful aesthetic to Adidas’ technical know-how in athletic wear for running, tennis and swimming.

These collaborations act as a gateway for young, talented designers into the international luxury market where they are underrepresented. But this a strategy that goes both ways and benefits all entities involved. Established luxury brands are able to share their prestigious cachet with emerging designers and expand their reach to different cultural communities and, hopefully, turn some of their members into consumers, while existing customers can discover new brands.

The advantages for African brands include working with experienced design teams, using different materials and developing new skills. “I think I’ve learned so much, and I made so many incredible new friends here,” Magugu told WWD about working with AZ Factory. These creative partnerships broaden the scope of “locally famous” emerging brands, bringing them onto the radar of new audiences.

While there is still a long way to go when it comes to representation of emerging designers in luxury markets in Europe and the US, there’s no doubt that providing wide-reaching exposure for African brands and contributing to the growth of talented brands can only be a step in the right direction.

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