Cameroonian designer Alexander Akande, 29, sole founder and investor of Alexander II Akande, was in town for the the just-concluded Nairobi Fashion Week. He reflects on what it takes to grow his brand, writes Cynthia Mukanzi
When did you get into fashion?
I started designing at 16. My brand, Alexander II Akande, took off in 2012. My designs are unisex. We focus on exquisite pieces that accentuate what you already have in your wardrobe. From jackets, tunics or Kimonos; outfits that give your style an extra kick.
Did you study fashion design?
No, but I have done internships in the world of fashion. I studied business. I wanted to learn to manage my brand.
Where did you pick your fashion influences?
I grew up in nine different countries and so my influence is global. My pieces tell an intercultural story. I don’t focus on Africa. I want my brand to have an African twist and be global.
I want anyone from any country to look at it and not be intimidated or be confused about how they can wear it. My personal slogan is ‘African-born, world raised’.
Looking at where you’ve come from, do you see growth in yourself as designer?
Sure. The more time I spend designing, the more focused I become and know exactly what I want to do. I used to work in the UK, but moved back home two years ago. I studied in England and worked there until 2015.
I did a bit of everything in fashion and design. And in the space between 2015 and now, I narrowed it down to focus on each individual piece being unique and exquisite-made. I’ve changed the way I sort my fabrics making the brand an ethical one.
Why do you think some fashion brands fail on the ethical nobility and try to sell to everyone?
I think it is because many are not focused on the design element. Fashion right now is sadly not about style. If you focus on style, you make timeless pieces and in order to do that, you have to pay attention to detail.
You need an inspired motivated team. Some luxury brands are expensive because it takes more time to do what they make since they invest in mass production and that inevitably becomes expensive.
We are not about mass production, which some of the time means using forced labour. I’m more focused on making each individual piece outstanding. The focus should be on individual pieces instead of mass production.
Does that mean you have a cap on the number of pieces you create?
Exactly. Every single design we create is limited to 10 pieces per colour. We do not want to mass produce and since we use dead stock fabrics, we cannot do overproduction. We want our clients to have unique pieces and not wear the same outfit as 50 others. Local designers have always complained about lack of buyers and support.
Do you face a similar problem?
It’s all down to how you market your brand. We market ourselves as exclusive pieces and we don’t have a problem with people buying. You don’t come to us expecting to get something with say Sh2,000. If you’ve already bought an outfit elsewhere at such a price, you want something that would make your look pop and that is what we offer.
You can buy a shirt or jeans from a vintage market then get a jacket from my collection. And because of that, we don’t have problems on the pricing since we focus more on style. We want to make timeless pieces that you can wear five years from now and still look amazing.
So would you say your designs are expensive?
No. Some people think luxury is about price, but it is the state of mind. It is the attention you pay to details on an outfit. What we do is try to make our stuff limited and not pricey with an average of them going for about Sh5,000 to Sh20,000. The African fashion industry has greatly suffered with influx of the second-hand clothes market.
What do you think can be done to tame the damage?
We need to know our value. Rwanda increased taxes on second hand-clothes and I think all African countries should follow suit. In addition, we should subsidise the local fashion industry because if you only increase the taxes on the second-hand clothes, you’ll be punishing lower income people who can’t afford new ones. So if subsidies are given to designers, then clothes will be affordable to all.
How is the fashion industry in Cameroon?
It is growing. A lot of people know what they are doing and have experience. However, the business aspect of fashion is not as strong. It is not understood properly. A lot of brands are struggling because they do not know how to operate.
Ever since I moved back, I’ve offered internships, workshops and organised talks to help designers get that business side right. Once we get it right, a lot of goodwill come out of it. There is a lot of potential in Africa.
We have to encourage people, governments should step in to help in any way they can, individual investors need to see the business opportunity in fashion and realise that they can make money from it. All these would enable the industry to bloom.
Was Nairobi Fashion Week (NFW) your first show in Kenya?
It was, in fact, my first show in East Africa. This year, I showcased in Miami and Africa Fashion Week in Lagos. I was also invited to the World Fashion Expo in Paris, unfortunately, I had to cancel. In a few days, I will be hitting the Angola International Fashion, closing the year with four international shows.
Will you work with any of the designers you met at NFW?
Yeah. I’m planning on a few collaborations with designers who showcased such as Roar Clothing as well as two South African and Lesotho designers, respectively. I’ll be doing a pop up show in each country and vice versa. We want to help grow each other’s market.
Are you ready to export your brand?
Yes. We’ve been invited by a number stores to showcase and at the moment, we are still trying to get the production side in check before we go. We were invited by a store in New York, London and Bermuda, but we want to get it right first. We don’t want to commit and not be able to supply.
Shortcomings in your field?
The major difficulty has been shipping from Africa to the world. It is expensive and tedious. Sometimes the shipping cost is the same as the price of the outfit and this makes it difficult to reach some of our international clients.
In regards to production, there are many factories coming up in Africa and doing great work. I want to keep our production small in order to maintain that handmade element to it.