Meet Nisha Kanabar, who’s leading the way for African fashion through Industrie Africa, an online platform she co-founded in 2018. After serving its initial purpose of becoming the go-to reference for industry professionals and people eager to know more about African fashion designers and brands, Nisha decided to take a step further and turned the site into an e-commerce that is currently catering to an international audience.
Nisha, we first interviewed you back in 2018 when you were launching the platform. You said “Industrie Africa was conceived from a need to craft an infrastructure that navigates this vast and diverse African fashion space and the immense talent that drives it.” How has this concept evolved after almost two years?
Industrie Africa initially launched as a platform that offered the fashion world an opportunity to access the African fashion industry in a new, intuitive way. Since launch, it’s always been about addressing misconceptions and shattering stereotypical notions of African design, which historically has either fit into a very specific Western mold or speaks to what is objectified by tourists. There’s a world of elevated, conscious African design that just needs to be propelled forward in the right way: with a curated language, a global infrastructure and powerful storytelling tools.
In just two years, we have been witness to a seismic shift in the perception and engagement of contemporary African fashion – there’s a certain pride for our creative industries that has evolved, a certain respect that we’ve developed for our own work, that’s contributed to this.
At the beginning, your platform was a go-to reference platform for both customers and industry professionals because it gathered all the information about many different Africa-based designers and brands. Back in May, you launched your new site, which has become an e-commerce. What prompted the change?
Through the platform and our community, we listened and learned: who were we speaking to? What problems did we want to solve? What did they, and our designer community, really desire from this experience? Connecting those dots, we saw an overwhelming demand for consumer product from our audience. Introducing a shoppable element into the conversation was an inevitable next step.
We are more than a retail destination – and our mission is largely the same. We are cultivating a 360-degree hub of contemporary African fashion; a place of commerce, content and community celebrating the industry and its pioneers. It’s about redefining the dialogue around mainstream fashion regionally, and evolving existing one-dimensional perceptions one consumer or stakeholder at a time.
You launched the new site amidst a global pandemic. However, how has the audience reacted so far?
Given the circumstances, my expectations were extremely low, as were our projections. It came to a point where I couldn’t push our launch back any further and it became a leap of faith – it would be telling: was there a strong enough market for this next chapter, even amidst all that was happening?
It’s only been a month, but the response has been incredible. We’ve seen sales from all over the world, unique buying patterns, the positive response to Imprint (our editorial platform), and the power of combining editorial and e-commerce via a vehicle that transforms how you consume African fashion on a daily basis. Given how new our concept is in this space, this launch, like our initial platform, was a bit of an experiment. It’s been rewarding seeing designers getting personal notes from our customers thanking them for a product that they love! It validates the demand we calculated for regional product.
Would you say you’re being successful in your new chapter?
Success is a long road ahead and one that we can only really celebrate as an industry collectively as we begin to see our regional voices make a lasting impact on mainstream fashion.
Given the global conversation about systemic racism, started in the United States with the murder of George Floyd, I think your project can be now perceived as even more necessary and urgent than ever. Do you think recent events will somehow help Industrie Africa and the visibilisation of African and Black talent?
We all have a responsibility to be having these conversations about racial equality and representation. As a non-Black African who cherishes my multicultural, integrated Tanzanian upbringing, I am increasingly aware of my role, and that of all other non-Black Africans, in fighting against the current systemic injustices against Black lives globally.
Industrie Africa, as an agent of change, has a distinct commitment to ensuring African designers and other emerging African voices are being elevated beyond regional markets. Diversity is not a trend. Neither is representation. As we’re seeing powerful global entities held accountable, it’s important that we keep having these conversations, and being aware of our choices as creators, catalysts and consumers.
In our first interview, you highlighted the importance to separate each African market because, even though it’s conceived as a single unit for many Westerners, the reality is that the continent is one of the most diverse in the world. However, there is also an emerging Pan-African movement trying to create a sort of collective consciousness. How do you balance this differentiation vs unification?
It was never about separation in the first place; it’s about celebration of the nuances that make each country unique, abolishing this idea of broad strokes when it comes to Africa. We have never been a monolith, and historically, there’s been a disconnect in the way we collaborate as a continent (think 54 unique cultures, ideas, governments, and ecosystems, and add high barriers to trade, high costs of intra-Africa travel, and no incentives for cross-border business). This is changing thanks to globalization, digital acceleration, and a shifting mindset of Pan-Africanism. There is strength in our collective voice as a continent, but equal representation of countries in the East, West, South and North is also important as we are all extremely different.
In addition to the e-commerce, you also have Imprint, which you define as a “forward-thinking editorial platform” that gives “unprecedented insight and exposure to the pre-eminent voices in African fashion and culture, with thought-provoking features, style edits, and original interviews from industry catalysts.” Why do you feel this is necessary? How do you curate the content, and what are some of the most important topics you want to talk about?
Industrie Africa’s goal is to bring forth an educated, unified voice that belongs to the industry, coming from within – our stories and narrative as told by its designers and wider community. That is what Imprint represents. It was important for me to cultivate a voice that is authentically and inherently African, speaking from a lens that’s not only global but also elevates a standard for African fashion content that is smart, pointed and unambiguous.
Our advisory board, comprising of some of the industry’s most trusted African fashion advocates and changemakers, is also a testament to that. Through an integrated experience of product discovery and editorial, we’re able to weave context through the shopping experience. We represent this new wave of conscious consumption, one that is both tailored to the environment today and the continent.
The fashion industry has a rooted problem with racism. Many brands are now trying to make amends – or just trying to look good to the public with performative actions but not really changing anything within the company – by featuring more Black models on their campaigns and social media feeds. But the issue is always the same: there are fewer (or no) opportunities for Black talent in leadership positions. How do you feel examples like Industrie Africa can pave the way for others?
Our values are inherent to our business model; they’re our reason for being, and drive both our mission and purpose. That’s how you create meaning in your work. It’s important that these companies do more, be more – take a good look at their value system and use it to guide their leadership from the top down. How can we all learn from each other if we don’t celebrate and engage our differences, and how can we propel healthy dialogue and encourage equity if the Black community and other people of colour don’t have a seat at the table on a global scale?
In addition to supporting African talent, you’re also focusing on sustainability. Could you tell us a bit about some of the actions you’re taking to make Industry Africa a greener company?
Sustainability is more than being green. We believe it’s important to be forward-thinking in our approach, and that means promoting knowledge, transparency, and conscious consumption. We give customers the tools to be more conscious and connected to their purchases through our recognition framework. Offering a community-first approach, it’s about contributing to creating an economic infrastructure for designers that is built for longevity. We’re also natively digital as a company.
And looking into the future, even though 2020 has proven how uncertain everything can be, what are your dreams, expectations and fears/concerns?
As spaces of appropriation boldly transform into opportunities for collaboration, increased respect for African design is increasingly noticeable. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that we’ve also witnessed a palpable internal shift in the direction of creative and intellectual Pan-Africanism. I am confident that the African fashion industry, through increased manufacturing, through intra-Africa infrastructure, and through regional collaboration will unlock a greater sense of self-reliance. The future is promising – as is our burgeoning industry. Stay tuned.
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