From the Magazine: Welcome to the African High Street

by Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo

oroma-photo-by-brian-nordstrom

With Le Petit Marche, Soko Stingo and L’Espace, the fashion industry is pushing the envelope.

 “One of the toughest challenges for anybody wishing to go into fashion in Nigeria is getting the word out, and LPM is a multi-brand platform that aims to do that at a very very low cost.”

It was only three years ago, during an interview with the stellar name of Nigeria fashion Deola Sagoe, upon her observation, it hit me that, despite the rise of fashion as a viable industry garnering global attention, there is no high street culture in African metropolises.

One cannot hit the streets, whether dressed to the nines sporting 6-inch Choos or dressed down in boy jeans and a pair of Chucks, for a spot of retail and relaxation, hopping from a high-end boutique one minute to an affordable franchise the next.

However, what cities like Lagos and Accra now have on offer is an ultimately unique shopping experience– Africa’s answer to the high street: monthly markets and pop up boutiques.

Here and now

“In a country like Nigeria where a high street does not exist, monthly markets like Le Petit Marche successfully fulfill that need,” says Yoanna ‘Pepper’ Okwesa, the fashion editor of FAB Magazine and the name behind Lagos’s first vintage boutique ‘Retrospective’ launched in Surulere in August, after months of showcasing regularly at Le Petit Marche.

“Le Petit Marche and similar enterprises which have been cropping up over the last two years help raise awareness about particularly new fashion brands as well as providing a space for small retailers and upcoming brands who would otherwise find it a challenge to showcase their work and a ready-made audience where industry professionals can meet vendors,” Okwesa explains. “And of course, for up and coming brands like Retrospective, it also provides the vendors the opportunity to test their market and their products before a fully-fledged launch.”

Dimeji Alara, Nigerian stylist with a decade’s worth of experience and the editor-in-chief of Mania magazine expresses similar opinions on the value of such enterprises. “It’s a very good avenue for people to get together to buy and sell,” Alara says. “It’s also where you discover new talents. This gives the opportunity for the buyers to meet the designers one-on-one as opposed to buying from a shop.”

Creating a retail solution and a creative platform for emerging Nigerian fashion designers and entrepreneurs by introducing and exposing them to the buying public was most certainly the idea behind the enterprise, which was launched two years ago by Isoken Ogienwonyi and Wonuola Odunsi and has since become a retail juggernaut with dozens of other similar enterprises following suit.

“One of the toughest challenges for anybody wishing to go into fashion in Nigeria is getting the word out, and LPM is a multi-brand platform that aims to do that at a very very low cost. We help designers to get their work out there and build their brand, with names such as Grey and Ejiro Amos Tafiri who have been with us from the start,” Ogienwonyi says. “It’s a no brainer with Le Petit Marche; to create a retail space in VI or Ikoyi, you’re looking at 1.5 million naira you have to pay upfront, as well as all these other costs added whereas with LPM we provide that space at a monthly cost and create a fun environment where people can eat, drink, chill and have a lifestyle experience with minimal cost to the vendors participating.”

No petit matter

Creative people in the fashion and style business acknowledge the challenges involved in setting up a permanent base in Lagos and the viable alternative provided by Le Petit Marche, they have yet to be convinced by how else other challenges can be addressed by such retail enterprises.

“Financially, I am not sure about how profits on the day measure against the fees paid by other vendors,” Okwesa observes.“Having said that, with regards to Retrospective, I have never been disappointed by my sales at LPM – even when I might be having a bad day. Even with a permanent base, if I am having a weak month in terms of sales, I would consider showcasing at Le Petit Marche for this reason.

“However, in a country like Nigeria, where location and environment matters, while I appreciate LPM bringing you an elite clientele, it also means we are limited to certain crowds and people in other social circles feel cut off.”

Always one to hit the nail on the head, Carmen Sutherland of House of Foreigner, another Nigerian brand introduced to the market with Le Petit Marche, is candid. “LPM is too Victoria Island-centric” while adding that for some brands it may not be the right route into their demographics as “fashion is not the centre-piece.”

While Sutherlandand her business partner as well as sister Selina rate brand exposure and potential traffic a vendor is likely to get through monthly markets, they are not necessarily as convinced of the sales potential when a fashion retailer might run the risk of getting lost in the “hodgepodge of different businesses.”

Selina points out the need for Le Petit Marche and similar enterprises to invest in more intensive PR to target certain type of consumers rather than young elite who “go there for the blogs,” and a “model which caters specifically to fashion.”

Space to grow 

A follow-up enterprise L’Espace from the ladies that brought us LPM, a permanent multi-brand concept store tailored to the needs of the Nigerian public as an addition to the monthly markets may just be the answer to Selina and Carmen’s prayers.

“This is our development of the intent to continue being the ultimate fashion and lifestyle solution,” Ogienwonyi explains. “A one-stop, multi-brand shop that is more fashion-focused, expanding the LPM model to better serve our vendors and consumers, while not losing LPM. In fact, in 2012, we have plans to take LPM to Abuja, Port Harcourt and as far as Accra.”

In the near future LPM ladies may be packing their stalls and heading across the border.Over in Accra emerged a new fashion retail experience by the name of Soko Stingo birthed by five young creatives of Nigerian descent, Terence Sambo(blogger/stylist/PR manager), Bubu Ogisi (designer/stylist), Adebayo Oke-Lawal (stylist/designer), Makida Moka (model), and Ifeanyi Dike Jr (actor/ writer). The team created the lifestyle market in a bid to promote African fashion and enable better networking between designers around the continent.

With a successful maiden edition held in Accra in October and a follow-up scheduled for December and a third edition already in the works to take place in Nairobi, Kenya, Soko Stingo is clear about its aim: “To take African creativity to the next level by ensuring that a name is not only known in its country of origin but across Africa,” in Ogisi’s words.

While Le Petit Marche aims to create a permanent fashion-focused base for retailers in Lagos, Soko Stingo aims to address another challenge faced by African designers: running a successful business. Okwesa highlights the importance of balance between creativity and business acumen. “You can’t survive on creativity alone; you need to be able to use balance sheets, know your standard sizes and measurements, learn how to and where to market yourself,” she says.

And this, it seems, is where Soko Stingo wants to be of service to emerging designers. “Our aim is to improve retail and create technical know how on the real business of fashion which is more than fancy designs but making a profit and managing a business at the end of the day,” explains Ogisi. 

A “social market”

Despite such grand mission statements, there is also the public perception of these markets as merely Sunday after-church get-togethers where many go not to shop but to have a fun time with friends and get their pictures taken for blogs.

Ogisi doesn’t see what the problem is with that. “That’s what we promote,” she confirms. “It’s a social market, where you dress up, see and be seen. We encourage people to come with friends and family, mingle, shop and relax. We had a buffet at the first venue, so people were buying not only clothes but food as well.”

Ogienwonyi also points at the level publicity of blogs as proof of the success of Le Petit Marche in creating a very visible platform for their vendors.

Yet, Alara reminds us there is still work to be done. “I still think a lot needs to be done to improve these initiatives,” he offers. “For example, the frequency needs to be more regular, more designers need to get involved – of course, bigger space is very important. Also the people need to really understand that this is a business and focus a lot more on the business side. I think it’s still going to grow than what it is and we are still going to have more of it popping up from different regions. The more we have the better.”

“Over the years, following the success of LPM so many others have sprung up; it would be good to see how they fare,” adds Okwesa.“In all fairness, LPM has remained consistent. With the lack of infrastructure and the exorbitant costs involved in setting up retail spaces, when we do not have a high street culture, this is the next best thing.”

With Le Petit Marche expanding their base, its brand new initiative and Soko Stingo on the way to becoming a continental enterprises, plus many other similar markets and pop-up boutiques ‘popping up’ around West Africa, creating a new retail experience, Africa’s answer to Europe’s high streets might just be on its way. Y!

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