Home Fashion Fashion firms in Ethiopia aim for global sales

Fashion firms in Ethiopia aim for global sales

by Erica Farmer
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Ethiopian fashion

Meanwhile, Ethiopian fashion designer Fikirte Addis wraps a tape measure around the waist of a customer as she sketches outlines of flowing gowns on paper. Mrs. Fikirte worked for Yefikir Design, a fashion boutique in Addis Ababa, where she fit Rihana Aman’s wedding dress. She actually purchased the dress for her sister, who lives and works in London but will shortly return to her homeland with an English man she’s engaged to.

The dress will be ready for her sister to wear at the ceremony, which is an Ethiopian wedding ceremony. Ms. Rihana explains how she shares her sister’s figure and explains that they will wear the dress together. She chooses Yefikir because of its traditional aspect, Ms. Rihana says. Today, there are so many dresses with fabrics that are completely out of touch with the Ethiopian culture.

Ms. Fikirte, who is finding success in the fashion industry both in Ethiopia and abroad, draws on Ethiopia’s rich cultural heritage while introducing a modern twist to create successful designs. Fashion design is therefore one of the most profitable Ethiopian sectors, generating profit margins that range from 50% to more than 100% for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Rich heritage

Heritage traditions and low start-up costs have contributed to the success of Ethiopian brands such as Yefikir, which are seen as high-quality clothes at high prices by the local population. Fabrics made by Yefikir are woven by hand using centuries-old weaving techniques. Intricately woven or hand-embroidered multicolored patterns appear along skirt hems or around waists and along backs in the form of toilet and tile – multicolored strips.

Music Team, 27, embroidered one Yefikir dress over a period of ten days. Such meticulous work has led Yefikir to sell her dresses for as much as 15,300 birrs ($854; £530), which is a substantial sum in a country where many live on less than 50 birrs a day. Mahlet Afework, 25, is a fashion designer based in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Ethiopians display their ethnic pride through their clothing at special events such as weddings and festivals, which keep the country’s ethnic diversity alive. There are more than 84 languages and 200 dialects spoken in Ethiopia. She has been a successful designer of ready-to-wear garments that reflect the country’s ethnic melting pot with a funky twist. She displayed her work at the African Fashion Week New York in 2012 and won an Origin Africa Design Award.

Home-spun skills

Are used primarily by Ethiopia’s fashion designers, who grew up with traditional cotton materials, so they did not need to learn skills such as tailoring and embroidery. Ms. Mahlet, who is self-taught and credits Google Search as her primary tutor, adds that Ethiopian designers are unable to break out internationally due to the aforementioned lack of formal education in fashion design.

Additionally, about half of Ethiopia’s fashion design institutions offer courses with far shorter course duration than those found in the West and are in need of improving their skills to compete internationally. Selling internationally presents another challenge. Ms. Fikirte contends that Ethiopia lacks any foreign banks and that foreign customers are often reluctant to credit African accounts.

African Design Hub, a business based in the US that showcases African designs and aims to bridge markets, currently sells Yefikir’s products. “We saw the potential of African designs for the global market after living in East Africa for several years, but there was also a knowledge gap and limited market linkages between the industry and the global market,” says Elizabeth Brown, the brand’s co-founder.

International arena

The fashion scene in Ethiopia continues to attract international attention. Since 2010, Markus Lupfer, a British fashion designer who mentors young Ethiopian fashion designers, has been working with Ethiopian fashion designers to develop collections. He says Ethiopia has some marvelous and interesting workmanship.

There is not yet enough recognition of Ethiopian fashion designers. Local demand remains strong, and Mahlet has plans to open in-store Mafi fashion concessions in Addis Ababa-based boutiques this year; this is common practice outside Ethiopia, but new to Ethiopia – but designers agree that international demand is essential for significant growth. As each company in this year’s forecast plans to expand its online presence, Fikirte and Mahlet both envision the export of their designs to overseas boutiques and online stores.

Ms. Fikirte said Ethiopian fashion is changing the image of the country. In addition to displaying Ethiopia’s rich and diverse culture, this region provides some of the world’s best handwoven cotton fabrics.”

Quality Control

Ethiopia’s aspirations are also limited by the quality and pricing of cotton. Both of these factors blunt Ethiopia’s competitiveness and deter foreign investment. Only 130,000 of those 2.6 million hectares have been utilized so far, and owners of textile companies say the cotton produced is 10 times more expensive than the average international price, as well as substandard for export due to contamination and poor processing.

Cotton farmers have been trying to attract investors to the industry, but they have faced challenges due to ineffective land management and complex property rights. A $50 million factory in northern Ethiopia opened six months ago for Velocity Apparel Companies to produce clothing. According to Erica van Schaik, executive assistant to Velocity’s executive chairman, the company produces 1.5 million pieces of clothing a month but hopes to double that amount within two years.

In the meantime, van Schaik pointed out that domestic fabric quality issues mean Velocity must import its denim. Local material would reduce Velocity’s costs by as much as half and free up cash that could have gone into Ethiopian production. The Ethiopian Textile Development Institute announced it was sending its leadership to India for training in best practices after investors expressed concerns about the working conditions and safety of its employees.

Communication chief Banteyihun Gessesse said, “This is a very new industry in this country – we are taking our first steps and so everything may not go seamlessly.” Places like India have a vast amount of experience in this field.”

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