COVID-19 And The African Fashion Industry: How Can African Designers Utilise Technology To Their Advantage?
The era of digitalisation and social media has enabled many African creative businesses to gain global visibility and reach a wider, more diverse audience and customer base. The COVID-19 crisis has increased global online presence amidst social distancing measures. As a result, individuals have turned to digital platforms for necessities as well as work and entertainment purposes. In order to benefit from this pivotal moment, businesses must adapt and find innovative ways of connecting with their target audience and capture new customers digitally. With the rise of technology and social media use within Africa, customer goods businesses operating in the region have turned to social media to reach the rest of the world and this has transpired in the way the online shopping experience is designed in Africa. Many clothing brands and boutiques are social media based (Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp) and their customers reach out to them via DM. The affiliated monetary transaction is then completed via mobile payment or cash. This allows them to avoid the rent and maintenance costs associated with a physical store. However, the brick-and-mortar model remains aspirational for many.
Consumer behaviour has been permanently changed by digitalisation and the COVID-19 crisis has been identified as an accelerator of this phenomenon.
According to the African Development Bank Group, sub-Saharan Africa represents just under one percent of global fashion exports (2018). A global customer base, gives African designers, particularly high end African designers, an opportunity to capture a larger set of customers with a purchasing power in line with their price points. The use of digital tools could help African fashion brands, in their pursuit of global success. Being able to create unique experiences for their customers, in store and online is what will set them apart.
Opportunities arising from digitalisation: Innovation
Fashion tech is on the rise and creative industries are heavily investing in digital tools. Below are a few:
Virtual fashion shows: Given the global pandemic the world is currently facing, fashion weeks all over the world have been cancelled. Some brands, such as Gucci, have gone as far as dissociating themselves from the traditional fashion calendar. This has left many designers wondering how to present their new collections and receive the same level of exposure and business opportunities that they would have obtained from a traditional fashion show.
Anifa Mvuemba, a young NYC-based designer from Congo, has achieved that. Her brand, Hanifa has hosted the very first live 3D virtual show via Instagram live, presenting their latest collection, Pink Label Congo. The designer used 3D garment movement technology as well as invisible 3D models with curvy shapes, keeping black women at the centre of her brand. Prior to that, the brand had used curvy virtual models for editorial photos.
Anifa had been entertaining the idea of a virtual show for years but the global pandemic led her to fulfil her vision as her NYFW show got cancelled. Her virtual show went viral and her collection sold out within days.
Virtual fashion shows constitute a great opportunity for African fashion brands. Even without the use of 3D models and 3D garment technology, virtual fashion shows with human models, broadcasted on social media platforms such as Instagram are a good alternative. Christie Brown Ghana, have recently hosted a virtual fashion show via Instagram live, through which they presented their Spring 2020 collection. The show was pre-recorded and featured the same (human) model sporting different pieces of the collection.
Virtual models and set design: Virtual models such as Shudu and 3D design tools present an opportunity to create virtual sets and to design photoshoots and fashion shows taking place outside the realm of reality. The implementation of gaming technology in fashion via augmented reality or virtual reality is a good way of achieving this. Not only would this solve the issue of restricted location scouting capabilities, but it would also provide an opportunity to create innovative, striking visuals. These visuals would, in turn, efficiently grab the attention of prospective customers and boost engagement with the existing ones.
Garment Innovation: Globally, digital garments are progressively becoming more and more popular, with Asia leading the trend. However, in the case of the African continent, traditional methods of weaving, dyeing and designing clothing are prominent. This could be seen as an advantage as it draws on the cultural wealth of the continent, however, production would be a lot more efficient and more precisely targeted with the use of technology.
For instance, Diarrablu, a Senegalese sustainable fashion label, uses algorithmic design to create refreshing and innovative prints. These prints are all inspired by African narratives which preserves the cultural element but they are achieved with the help of technology. They are digitally generated, then hand painted by artisans. The incorporation of technology in the clothing production cycle allows for quantity control and ultimately, the reduction of excess inventories.
Digital textile printing is another method used to create exciting, innovative prints and designs while minimising waste.
Investment in AI & Data Analytics: One of the greatest challenges encountered by many designers based on the African continent is lack of funding. Raising funds to finance operations has often been a difficult task for Africa-based fashion businesses. Furthermore, governments do not allocate significant amounts to the arts as they are dealing with critical issues that they treat as priorities. This limits the level of R&D activity that these companies can undertake. Nevertheless, through self-funding, companies can invest in UX/UI design to stimulate customer spending and traffic on their websites. They can also collect their customers’ data to optimise their experience and make strategic business decisions.
In South Africa, a fashiontech conference titled ‘Fashiontech Africa’ takes place every year. The conference includes a Hackathon and during the 2018 session, the following projects were introduced.
According to Ventureburn, Mohammed Hassen, Red Apple 3D’s CEO led a 3D team that created ‘Living Sole’, an app that allows buyers to scan their foot, and uses the 3D data collected to create customised shoes. Arnaud Kim, Kimard Studio’s CEO ran an augmented reality (AR) team that built a virtual changing room with a virtual stylist in order to collect data regarding the buyer’s tastes. The app makes recommendations and assists buyers in the selection of their outfits based on their past preferences. Alt 360’s CEO, Brian Bikitsha led the virtual reality (VR) team that developed an app which allows buyers to buy items such as socks and underwear without worrying about hygiene or leaving their homes.
These are all innovative initiatives that could revolutionise the shopping experience in Africa.
Processes: While the rest of the world has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, on the African continent, governments have taken strict measures which have resulted in minimising the damage caused by the virus. This has put the continent in a position where it can continue to somewhat function whilst the rest of the world is at a standstill.
Nonetheless, different creative industries have adapted to these changes to the best of their abilities. In a recent online even hosted by Lagos Fashion Week, titled ‘The Digitization of everything’, a few players in the African fashion industry have discussed the way digitalisation has altered their business models and processes amid the COVID-19 crisis. For instance, Elizabeth Elohor of Beth Models, mentioned that her agency is currently casting models through an online scouting app. Models send pictures, videos and their measurements through this app, a video call is then arranged to determine whether they would be a good fit. This saves all parties time and significantly reduces their carbon footprint as the need for travel is eliminated. Stephen Tayo, a fashion photographer has been using Facetime photoshoots as an alternative, he has also used google maps for location scouting purposes.
Davidson Obennedo, a NYC-based, Nigerian model, stated that agents and brands are working around the current social distancing measures by asking for specific features and amenities in models’ apartments and houses. This allows brands to easily achieve their vision for photoshoots. Zara, for example, has sent items and equipment to models for them to create visuals from home with directions.
These are innovative tools and methods that could benefit African brands. Fashion pieces can be sent to models, influencers and artists based anywhere in the world, facilitating global collaboration.
E-Commerce: In order to be competitive on the global fashion market, African designers have to make sure that their merchandise is accessible to as many customers as possible. To achieve this, some brands, such as Tongoro Studio, have invested in an aesthetically pleasing website that allows customers from any country in the world to purchase items which are then shipped via DHL and delivered within 15 days. This brand has heavily invested in digital tools and their website is proof of this. The UX/UI design is elaborated, featuring striking visuals from their latest campaign. The brand also uses virtual models to exhibit their jewellery.
Some other brands choose to partner up with fashion e-commerce platforms such ours: Jendaya and the likes of Afrikrea, Moonlook and The Folklore, which carry a variety of fashion, art and home decoration pieces from African creatives and have a broader reach. These are all useful digital tools for African designers seeking to penetrate diverse markets across the world.
Downsides and limitations:
Although, the implementation of the latest technology and digital tools in business processes could lead to great opportunities for African designers, there are a few obstacles that African designers may face.
First of all, it can be costly to use AI, VR and AR for fashion purposes. In a conversation with Francesca Assandé of Mulia’s Swim, she revealed that it can be challenging to find people capable of realising one’s vision in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), the city in which she is based. In the event of her being able to find collaborators that provide the quality of work she is after, prices can be quite high. Not all fashion businesses, can afford to pay the prices set. This is particularly relevant for brands that are only just starting but are seeking to rapidly gain global exposure and establish themselves within the industry.
There are also limitations related to internet speed and capabilities. Some countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Kenya, have relatively strong telecommunications infrastructure. Other countries on the other hand, are lagging behind, which can make the creation and use of digital products and tools a bit more of a difficult task. Furthermore, many countries in the SSA region suffer from chronic electricity outage issues. This forces many businesses to invest in generators and inverters. The issues stated above, can constitute a great barrier for African creative businesses, seeking to invest in digital tools and products. However, African designers have always thrived despite the tough business conditions they operate in, providing us with exciting and innovative designs and concepts.
We can therefore expect to see a lot innovation in the African Fashion space within the next few years.