Art and Design

Online shopping for customised African designs

Emilie Gambade

Digital boutiques are shaking up the fashion retail sector with competitive pricing, quality and designs.

SassyChic (sassychic.co.za) was started by former LW Mag ­editor Roxanne Bromley-Norton and her mother Karen Spies. (Madelene Cronjé)

Kisua, the brainchild of chief ­executive Samuel ­Mensah and creative director Danica Lepen, is slowly revolutionising African fashion. Launched late last year, this clever fusion of an African fashion e-store and a design and ­manufacturing platform, uses the digital bubble to sell the ranges of local designers around the world while abetting their creative process.

In fact, the website is not just a selling platform but also a brand with its own aesthetics and creative process – think Net-A-Porter meets Dries Van Noten meets Gap’ à l’Africaine.

"We collaborate with creatives from across the African continent. Unlike other platforms, where designers would need to have a range available, already produced, and have his/her own manufacturing in place, we take care of all the producing and manufacturing processes," says Lepen.

The result is a clean and modern site that presents about 10 local designers and sells principally in the United Kingdom and the United States. In an interview with style.com, Mensah explains: "We promise to take the Kisua customer on a journey to experience contemporary African culture with stories ranging from fashion, music, art and literature."

All across the globe, one-click shopping has played second fiddle to street retail. E-commerce has risen slowly above the challenges through the years – fear of online payments, lack of personal shopping assistance and sensorial experience have been solved by platforms that are often sexy, ­tailored for the customer security.

Locally, the emergence of shopping sites has taken a late leap but online business is now attracting more ­entrepreneurs and buyers.


BONGEZIWE MABANDLA (29), A singer/songwriter who has just  released a new album called Umlilo:  "I love Laduma Ngxokolo, and my cousin’s label Kha’iso Kreations. She makes a lot of my suits for me - I call my particular aesthetic New African." 

Fatima Sullivan, head of retail at DHL Express for sub-Saharan Africa explains: "With improved infrastructure, in terms of information and communications technology, and online safety and security, more people are choosing to make use of online shopping over traditional brick-and-mortar outlets due to the variety of products available to them at just a click of a button."

A survey by MasterCard Worldwide on Online Shopping and Ethical Spending, ­reinforces the statement, showing that 58% of South African consumers shop online.

In 2009, Dolapo Shobanjo founded My Asho, "an e-commerce site celebrating African designers from all over the world". Shobanjo, at the time a doctorate student in chemical engineering, launched the site with only five designers. Twelve months later, she was selling 20 designers from eight different countries. She credits variety, regular new stock and impeccable service as the reasons behind her success.

"My Asho also offers a unique perspective on the norm. We have our [monthly] My Asho Perspective ­newsletter, and blog where we openly discuss what’s been happening with the business over the course of the week. We are vocal (sometimes perhaps a bit too much) and not afraid to speak up," she says. In short, they are involved, not only as resellers but also as interactive marketers. Like Kisua, My Asho tries not to be a ­simple ­interface but a partner to designers, creating a bridge between them and the customers.

But it isn’t always a smooth road. As Shobanjo admits: "Our biggest ­challenge right now is competing with ­established brands and trying to ­market our products, not as the ­African sob story that people are used to in the Western media, but as ­products that can sit alongside any of the well-known brands in terms of quality, craftsmanship and aesthetic."

Even for established brands, surviving competition and changes can be a challenge. The renamed and re-launched style36, which was operating under Naspers’ subsidiary MIH Internet Africa, is an example; the fashion site that recently started Style Collective, "an incubator for young and upcoming local designers who need a step in the right direction", announced late last month that it was closing down and that "this decision [was] based purely on a shift in strategy and was not performance related".

On the upside, in December 2013, the team behind SA Fashion Week introduced Runway Online, "an interactive e-commerce site selling sample garments to the public". Offering a second life to garments showcased at the seasonal fashion shows, Runway Online gives the public a chance to buy creations by local designers such as Clive Rundel, Black Coffee and Anmari Honniball. It also supports designers past the fashion-show ephemera, allowing them to generate revenue from the samples that have walked down the runways.

TSHEPI VUNDLA (23), student studying marketing, netball coach, aspiring model "I would never shop online because I already have a shopping habit that has me shopping almost everyday."

Some local fashion sites are not as pioneering, but still serve as ­e-boutiques for local creations. ­SassyChic was started by former LW Mag ­editor Roxanne Bromley-Norton and her mother Karen Spies: "We were ­looking to do a business venture together as my mother was a semi-retired ­former business owner at the time and I was looking for a change in careers, ideally to be self-employed.

"Some of our favourite online stores are based in the UK and if you’ve ever bought something online and had it shipped internationally, the import duty you pay at the post office soon takes away the thrill of finding something unique. We wanted to showcase designers from around the country, boutique-style."

Today, the family business competes with bigger players such as Zando or Spree. Interestingly, ­Bromley-Norton explains that the most challenging part of the job is not the competition but to select items from collections that will do well online: "Some items just don’t translate well on to the site … The delicacy of hammered silk can only truly be appreciated by the sense of touch and the feel of it against your skin, but visually you just don’t get that."

Parallel to the rise of online fashion platforms and e-shoppers, African designers, acting independently, have also turned to the internet to sell their collections. For those who make the online hop, it means not only being able to reach a wider clientele, but also having a platform on which to showcase and sell your work while avoiding paying high rentals in shopping malls, which are often unaffordable for young entrepreneurs.

"You have a retail platform almost rent-free with no need for extra staff. It is accessible to people in South Africa as well as anywhere else in the world," notes Babatunde’s Gareth Cowden, who launched his brand’s e-store in September 2012 because he couldn’t afford to rent a space.

Online sales contribute up to 50% of his turnover, while the rest is covered by sales made through websites such as Spree, Style36, Utique or fab.com. He has also recently launched babatunde.fr – an e-store that services his ­clientele in France.

On the opposite side of the scale, London-based fashion designer Sindiso Khumalo closed her e-store to focus on the wholesale market. "An online retail venture is extremely demanding and we would only want to do it when we have the correct operational systems in place. It’s all well and good having a great idea to go online, but you have to look at the logistics side and ensure that you have the entire process covered, with no loose ends. The last thing you ever want to do with your business is ­disappoint your customer through mismanaged operations."


NZINGA QUNTA (30) An anchor on ANN7, she co-owns and runs the model agency Ayana Africa, and online magazine Jucyafrica.com. "I don't really shop online. It's a mission. The dresses I ordered from Asos.com took 15 years to get to me. That kind of put me off."

Anisa Mpungwe of Loin Cloth & Ashes (LCA) agrees, explaining that, although she would like to launch her own e-store, she understands that there are challenges such as "maintaining the website, supplying the demand, maintaining supplier agreements, distributing the products on time, and working with a trusted point of sale".

Owner of the LCA store in ­Maboneng Precinct downtown Johannesburg, she adds: "In a store, a ­client sees, touches, smells, interacts. Online, we try to reach a bigger audience and deliver to clients that cannot come to our store." The key is to offer online clients a similar experience: the million little details from the first click to the delivery of the product all the way through the packaging must be startling.

Habits’s designer Jenny Le Roux, who is the pioneer in the South African e-space, having launched in South Africa in 2002, says: "We do not offer just personalised service and timeous delivery but also during office hours, someone au fait with the brand is on the other end of the line to deal with fashion queries. Our customers love the in-store experience and we endeavour to do the same online."

This personal-shopper service, where the brand exists beyond its store and the visuals of a pretty website, is crucial – it helps to build a loyal clientele.

While e-stores are being ever more creative to bring the "sensorial" experience online and adapt instantly to changes in the weather, season and trends, traditional retailers are responding to the online threat by equipping their stores with ­gadgets and electronic devices that bring the customer into a giant website of the brand.

Whatever your shopping mode, dressing in 2014 will never be the same.


BOBO MOKGORO (29), executive producer at e.tv "I love this skirt [Amanda May Georgette Skirt with Tulle, Sassychic, R790]. I imagine it would cost between R1 500 — R2 00 0 but I wouldn’t really spend that much on it. I'd wait for a trip abroad and go to H&M and look for a similar skirt that would cost me $40."

Fashion: Kisua.com, Sassychic.co.za, Kiph.co.za
Photos: Madelene Cronjé
Production and styling: Rhodé Marshall and Garreth van Niekerk

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