Founded by Nisha Kanabar and Georgia Bobley, Industrie Africa has completely innovated the African fashion industry by creating an online platform where users can search designers by their country of origin. Despite frequently being considered a singular unit, Africa has historically been quite fractured, with little communication between countries. Industrie Africa aims to illustrate that African countries have distinctive styles while also implementing an increased connectivity between distant designers. Their website caters to both customers and industry professionals, providing essential information about various designers. In this interview, Nisha and Georgia speak to us about their inspiration, the functionality of their platform, and their goals for the future of the company.
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Georgia Bobley
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Nisha Kanabar
Georgia, you studied at George Washington University, graduating with a BA and an MA in English Literature. When and why did you decide to enter the fashion industry? Have your studies in literature been useful in creating Industrie Africa? How?
I wouldn’t say it was as much a conscious decision – I didn’t wake up one morning and say “I want to work in fashion” – as it was the fact that Nisha came to me with this bare-bones idea and it made a lot of sense to me right away. Without a fashion background, I realized what I could add to Industrie Africa (which, at that point, was unnamed), how I would play in, and why I wanted to be a part of it. As we did more research, what really stood out to me was how each designer has a story that translates to their designs and, of course, that appealed to the English major in me.
I wanted to share these stories, preserve them, and really do justice to each brand in this way. Some use the political and social struggles of their countries as inspiration for their collections; others rely on traditional crafts and reinterpret them in contemporary ways. The stories and the history that shape who the designers are, in turn, shape their collections, and I don't think it's something I would've been as aware of and appreciative of without having studied that history.
Nisha, you attended the Parsons School of Design in New York City. Did your classes ever focus on African design, or did the lack of representation push you to create Industrie Africa?
While Parsons was an incredibly enriching experience for me in every way, there was nothing Africa-focused about my time there. In fact, I would have been hard-pressed to imagine a career in fashion at home if you’d asked me a decade ago – I was too new to the industry, too enamoured with being in the thick of it to fully understand the potential of my niche perspective. It was my tenure at Vogue India that gave me a taste of fashion in the emerging world and the ecosystems in place that help them grow. I was immediately taken by this dynamic, raw industry with a million moving parts and brimming with potential, and I wanted to be part of that growth for my home continent.
What inspired you to create this organization? What need did you see in the community?
It was Nisha’s move back to Tanzania in 2016 that was the driving force behind Industrie Africa. After nearly a decade abroad, her return home triggered questions about the disconnection in the continent’s fashion ecosystem: on one hand, there’s an overwhelming amount of information and talent, while on the other, there’s a palpable lack of clarity on how to approach it. From the perspective of an industry insider, a consumer and an African, the dots just didn’t connect. After a conversation with Georgia, we found ourselves (and many others) asking: where’s the starting point?
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 would a retail buyer in South Africa learn more about the scene in Senegal? How would a potential customer in Cote d’Ivoire get the scoop on what’s cool in Zimbabwe? Industrie Africa is the starting point that bridges that gap. It positions Africa as this connected, fashion frontier.
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Vogue has called you the “Wikipedia of young African fashion designers.” Do you view yourself similarly? In what way?
It’s certainly flattering to be compared to a platform as powerful and widespread as Wikipedia! We’re obviously not even close to that scale, but the underlying idea is in the same vein. We wanted this to be a resource that was seamless and useful for both industry insiders and consumers alike, and ensure that it filled the gaps as thoroughly as possible as it related to any purpose or inclination. For the buyer, we presented easy-to-navigate, downloadable collections; for the editor, there are full biographical details – plus contextual details such as previous press. For the fashion enthusiast or potential customer, we incorporate points of purchase.
A simple contact button adds a practical layer that allows for a point of follow-through. The biggest barriers we currently face when researching fashion on the continent is a fractured network of information. The intention was to solve this problem by creating a ‘one-stop-shop’ – designing our profiles in a way that one wouldn’t need to look anywhere else to get a bite-sized snapshot. So in that way, in being comprehensive, thorough, and incredibly current, and making sure we honour established and emerging designers alike, the comparison rings true.
Connectivity marks a cornerstone of your mission statement. Your website features designers from twenty-four nations across Africa and your website allows users to search for designers by country. In an interview with Vogue, you said, “The industry here is so fractured. People in Nigeria know little about what’s happening in Kenya or Mozambique, for example.” Why has Africa traditionally been so fractured? Have you seen evidence of an increased connectivity between countries?
While the world tends to perceive Africa as a single frontier, it’s paramount that we emphasize and celebrate each country independently – as you would do in any other market. Each country on the continent has an incredibly distinct identity, and each of its designers draws from that in some shape or form. Our filter experience was designed based on key navigational needs and it would be impossible not to recognize a designer’s provenance in today’s world.
Africa’s inherent disconnection stems from its diversity as a continent that is home to more than one billion people, from race and religion to culture and politics. Historically, these differences, exacerbated by lacking technology and poor infrastructure, have prevented these nations from the opportunity to interact together in ways that are sustainable and effective. Throw in practical difficulties – the cost and inconvenience of pan-African travel and the tribulations related to cross-border logistics – and you have fifty-four unique and autonomous ecosystems that are still learning how to engage with each other, and collaborate effectively.
African fashion has traditionally been marginalized in the international community. Where do you think Africa currently stands within this community? How do you think Industrie Africa will change or challenge that? Have you seen any changes since the conception of the digital showroom?
Africa is underrepresented in the global fashion industry in both voice and consistency. We see the platform as an important tool and the beginning of a much-needed conversation about the continent’s role in this narrative; one that focuses on African fashion as not its own entity, but rather part of a bigger dialogue that both maintains and celebrates regionalism without marginalizing it. The overwhelming response to Industrie Africa so far has shown us that we’re onto something – something meaningful.
“How would a retail buyer in South Africa learn more about the scene in Senegal? How would a potential customer in Cote d’Ivoire get the scoop on what’s cool in Zimbabwe? Industrie Africa is the starting point that bridges that gap.”
Nisha, you were born in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). How long did you live there before moving to New York? How did growing up there influence and inspire you to create Industrie Africa? What differences did you observe between fashion in Africa and the United States?
I lived in Tanzania for eighteen years before moving to the United States for university. It’s home, so of course growing up there has heavily shaped my approach and perspective first-hand. I’m personally invested in this market and repositioning its future. Fashion in the United States is an incredibly mature industry, one that works like clockwork. Our industry in Africa is still nascent, lacking the infrastructure and distribution networks to support the marketability and scale that fashion designers require, and real local and international demand to support the supply.
Of course, there’s a major shift in perception happening led by dominating markets such as Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya, and we’re starting to see some real momentum. In truth, African fashion has something incredibly exciting to offer: in tandem with global trends, designers put a strong focus on their own heritage and traditions. There’s a sense of patriotism that they carry with them, and that story translates into their designs.
In your opinion, what misconceptions do people have about African design? How do you aim to change their perceptions?
What we want people to see is that fashion from Africa is more than just a trend reduced to tribal or indigenous detailing – a Kente print or some Masaai beading. The contemporary design scene is a powerfully burgeoning industry and there’s an incredible amount of talent and diversity that people just don’t see. The site itself, and the fact that it showcases such a diverse array of designers whose work is all so different, is what’s going to change perceptions. We’re not here to make any sort of sweeping statements; the talent and visuals speak for themselves.
You focus on and highlight the importance of sustainability, boasting five pillars: responsible, ethical, artisanal, recycled, and charitable. About how many brands qualify as sustainable? Why is this important to you? Have you seen an increase in sustainability since you’ve instituted this initiative?
A little over half the brands currently on the platform qualify as sustainable, meaning that they meet at least two of the five pillars of sustainability we’ve outlined. The relationship between sustainable practices in Africa is different to fashion’s relationship with sustainability as a whole, largely because it’s very much a part of the DNA of many African-born brands; part of their inherent fabric. For many of the designers on the platform, sustainability is an integrated core value.
Whether it’s reinterpreting traditional crafts (Ghana’s AAKS), employing local artisans (Rwanda’s Haute Baso), or repurposing materials in response to social, political, and environmental issues (Egypt’s Reform Studio’s re-use of plastic bags), we’ve been extremely pleased to see how so many designers work to preserve the past and improve the future in their respective countries.  It’s too soon to tell whether there’s been an increase in sustainability, but this isn’t really our goal; rather, it’s important for us to recognize brands that put sustainability at the forefront of their mission, and make that information as clear and transparent as possible.
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Who are your current favourite designers featured on your website? Why? How do you decide who to spotlight?
We rotate spotlight designers on a periodic basis, based on different factors: strong images, new collections, and relevance. A few of our current favourites are:
I am I (Kenya): A jewellery designer with a rough, eclectic sensibility and a strikingly unusual sense of design. The founder, Ami Doshi Shah, is an Indian-Kenyan designer with a passion for nature. She sources all her materials and stones locally.
Lisa Folawiyo (Nigeria): An eponymous label led by Nigerian mainstay Lisa Folawiyo. Manipulating traditional West African fabrics with cutting-edge silhouettes, application, and tailoring, each one of her looks tells a unique story. Particular garments boast a handcrafted and unique history featuring hand-embellished details that reflect the brand’s focus on design integrity.
Aaks (Ghana): A brand that is quickly catching the eyes of many retailers, Aaks produces accessories that are handcrafted using traditional weaving techniques from the designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi’s own village. The result is bright raffia bags in chic, modern silhouettes.
Rich Mnisi (South Africa): A ready-to-wear menswear and womenswear designer whose signature minimal, gender-ambiguous aesthetic seeks to craft a contemporary picture of modern Africa. The designer recently also released his first collection of furniture, titled Nwa-Mulamula.
Sidai Designs (Tanzania): A socially enterprising brand in Arusha (Tanzania) led by two women, Eszter Rabin and Rebecca Olivia Moore. They reinterpret traditional Masaai beading techniques to create jewellery that is ultra-wearable, in contemporary designs and hues (employing Masaai women to produce them).
Okhtein (Egypt): Designers Aya and Mounaz Abdelraouf founded the handbag line with the intention of promoting and preserving Egyptian artistry and traditional practices. Winners in the accessory category of the 2016 DDFC/Vogue Arabia Fashion Prize, they infuse the unique heritage of their home city, Cairo, into each piece with details such as hardware, hand-embroidery, and metallic finishes.
In addition to integrating African designers into the fashion community, you’ve innovated trade shows into an online experience. Certainly, this increases the efficiency of the process, but do you feel that the online format loses anything from the ‘real life’ experience? How do you aim to correct that?
Interesting question. As a principle, the digital world does not by any means replace the tangible. It’s there to support, enhance and reposition our traditional experiences. Nothing can replace the elements of an in-person experience – feeling the fabric, observing the true hues of a garment, its texture and details – but short of that, we are a step closer to redefining this interaction to be as natural as possible.
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