The first week of June 2020 was memorable for AAKS designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi. She woke up to hundreds of orders via her brand’s online store — a volume of sales unprecedented in the handbag line’s six-year history.
“I knew the [Black Lives Matter] protests were happening, but I was wondering, ‘why are people shopping?’,” she recalls. “Then I realised a lot of people were sharing lists of Black-owned businesses online. From June to December [the sales] never stopped.”
For AAKS, based in Ghana, direct sales online grew by 700 per cent in 2020 alone. From her home workshop in the city of Kumasi in the south of the country, the designer is preparing orders that have been placed by major international retailers over the past nine months.
Afriyie-Kumi initially felt under immense pressure when faced with the expectations of her new clients. “The majority expected me to operate like a major retailer,” Afriyie-Kumi says. “I’m a small business. It’s a challenge meeting the orders. I had the worry that they might cancel the orders.”
The process of completing one of Afriyie-Kumi’s handcrafted bags can take from 10 to 14 days. AAKS bags are handcrafted in raffia from palm tree leaves. The harvested leaves are left to dry in the sun before being soaked in vegetable dyes to create the striking colours so characteristic of the brand’s designs. Artisans in northern Ghana hand-weave the raffia; in the finishing process, leather linings, buckles, handles and straps are applied.
Fortunately for the AAKS designer, her new clients are firmly aligned with the sustainable and artisanal ethos of the brand. “Companies are so understanding once I explain the nature of our operations,” she says.
AAKS sustainable handcrafted handbags.
AAKS is one of many African brands that have become highly prized in the aftermath of last year’s anti-racism protests in the West. Calls to end racial and social injustice catalysed a global Black economic empowerment movement that has boosted Black businesses around the world.
South African brand Maxhosa Africa likewise experienced a surge in demand, with sales growing by 400 per cent in June 2000. The luxury knitwear line was featured on Beyonce’s Black Parade, a platform on the singer’s website to promote Black-owned brands. Its online store promptly sold out of stock.
Maxhosa’s knitwear, for both men and women, features colourful patterns in silk, mohair and wool thread that appear to have been dipped in a rainbow. They reference traditional beadwork and symbolism from designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s Xhosa heritage.
However, despite the positive interest, Ngxokolo says he is unenthusiastic about servicing the influx of requests from international retail platforms. “Unfortunately, they only place orders in very small quantities,” he explains. “Processing a very small order costs more than the revenue that you’re going to generate from that order. I personally feel that some outlets want to be on trend, or they want some form of credibility or want to leverage demand I’ve created. It’s not really worth it.”
Ngxokolo says longer-lasting and lucrative opportunities are needed to promote meaningful change. “If you think [back] five years ago or even three years ago [about] boutiques that placed Black brands, do they still stock them to this day? No, they don’t.”
African Fashion Foundation creative consultant Arieta Mujay-Barg is also a touch sceptical about increased interest in African brands. “Of course, it’s a bit of a trend,” she says. Mujay-Barg has witnessed a revolving door of African creatives over the years. She urges caution: “This whole thing happened last year — let’s wait and see the figures.”
One of the most high-profile initiatives promoting Black economic empowerment is the 15 Percent Pledge, founded by Canadian designer Aurora James. The Pledge has called on major retailers to commit a minimum of 15 per cent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses to reflect the size of the African American demographic in the US.
The Pledge has evolved into a nonprofit headed by racial justice activist LaToya Williams-Belfort. ‘We didn’t get to this moment overnight,” Williams-Belfort says. “It’s been years of systemic injustice to get here. So it will take time and work for companies to take the pledge… Eighteen companies have taken the pledge since June and are making progress to hit their benchmarks and goals, while others are at varying stages of discussions with the organisation.”
Meanwhile, retailers are creating or reevaluating their internal diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. This includes major global luxury platform Net-a-Porter, which says its buyers are in the process of improving access for, and visibility of, Black-owned brands.
Mujay-Barg says social media has played a central role as a conduit for African creatives who have taken control of their narratives to deliver their aesthetic story directly to trend-spotting gatekeepers of the industry.
Sika saw sales grow as influencers shared their garments online.
Fashion designer Phyllis Taylor highlights how social media influencers’ approval has driven transformative growth for her made-in-Africa brand Sika. The influencers’ followers post images and videos of her collections on Instagram. Sales have grown by 150 per cent since June.
Within less than a year, Taylor has hired 30 people to boost the production team in Ghana to 50 artisans. She is ramping up output to fulfil substantial orders for 10 new wholesalers keen to stock her hand-dyed batik prints.
For all the good news, Taylor describes the expansion as an uncomfortable period of “forced growth… With all these deadlines and interest we have to work at a different pace — that hasn’t been easy. I’ve gone from [being] a retailer to a production house. I’m grateful for it, but it’s not what we set out to do”.
Taylor is among a number of African designers who are considering broadening their handcrafted offer to include some elements of machine-made product. The dilemma is that these brands could lose part of their allure and be potentially obliged to abandon some of the sustainable practices that originally attracted eco-conscious consumers and wholesalers.
Growth can be difficult but it’s also exciting and potentially transformative. “Before it was about the big brands — the Guccis, the Louis Vuittons — but now people are craving something different,” Afriyie-Kumi says. “The Black Lives Matter movement has prompted a conversation.”