How Black And African Designers Are Cracking Paris Fashion Week

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Emerging Black and African designers have long recognised the importance of having a presence during fashion week: the access to buyers, retailers, press and industry leaders that can unlock brand growth. Yet, not many can afford a slot on the international fashion calendar. B2B wholesale platform The Folklore Connect is attempting to provide a solution.

Following the success of its New York showroom, which saw some 800 people in attendance, The Folklore Connect is set to make its Paris debut later this month. The Paris showroom, which will run 26-27 September, will feature 10 Black and African designers, including Kente Gentlemen, a gender-neutral brand based in Ivory Coast, which specialises in tailored ready-to-wear, and Fruche, a regular name on the Lagos Fashion Week schedule, known for its straw-like raffia details. A key criteria for the brands selected was to show they have the infrastructure to cater to larger orders from retailers.

The Folklore Connect showroom earlier this week in New York.

Photo: Courtesy of The Folklore

The showroom will be held in the Palais Royale, the former French royal palace located in the area of the 1st arrondissement. There are two main objectives, explains Amira Rasool, founder and CEO of The Folklore Group (which also includes New York-based online multi-brand retailer The Folklore): to increase the visibility for Black and African brands during Paris Fashion Week and facilitate orders; and to grow the number of European-based retailers who are signed-up to the platform. Currently all 18 of its retail partners are based in the US and Canada.

“It’s also about giving retailers access to brands they otherwise would not discover,” says Rasool. “Customers want something that’s fresh, that comes from a different point of view. Being able to get it from people who have different experiences, who come from different backgrounds and have different traditions — that’s really important. We want to help the buyer discover those types of brands that are really going to get their customers excited.”

France is a difficult wholesale market to break into, she points out. “There are not as many department stores as there are in the US. So, we’re really forced [to prioritise] quality over quantity. We’re focused on bringing in buyers whose intention is really to discover and bring on new brands.”

Kente Gentlemen, Florian London and The Lulo Project.

Photo: Courtesy of The Folklore

She points to a national push in the US to increase the number of BIPOC brands stocked in department stores, thanks partly to awareness raising efforts by the likes of Aurora James — whose 15 Percent Pledge encourages retailers to commit 15 per cent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses — and the Black in Fashion Council. France, and more widely Europe, is yet to experience a similar call, Rasool argues. “We have to approach Europe in a completely different way. They [buyers] value great products, great craftsmanship, so we want to make sure we’re able to get that face-to-face with them and nurture the relationships.”

US department store Nordstrom joined The Folklore Connect platform in February in a bid to grow its assortment of Black-owned businesses. “We’ve committed to delivering $500 million in retail sales from brands owned, operated or designed by Black, Hispanic and Latinx individuals by 2025, and we know that we cannot do this alone without the help of our partners,” says Colleen Mitchell, senior director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at Nordstrom.

Connecting brands with buyers

For brands, there’s an opportunity to have their collections seen by key retailers in one of fashion’s major cities, at a lower cost.

Tola Adeagbo, founder of London-based accessory brand Florian London, says it’s an opportunity to connect with buyers without having to worry about investing in a physical showroom space. “It’s really difficult to get into a show in Paris as an independent designer,” says Adeagbo. “They’re ridiculously expensive and the logistics of everything is complicated… We’ve tried it in the past [presenting in Paris] but by the time we get the orders in, sometimes we’re operating at a loss.”

She adds: “Having the opportunity to even be on the radar of these buyers is so important.”

Duaba Serwa, Cynthia Abila and Rendoll are among the brands presenting their SS24 collections in Paris.

Photo: Courtesy of The Folklore

Ghanaian luxury womenswear brand Duaba Serwa, founded in 2011 by Nelly Hagan Deegbe, has been trying to break into new markets for the past 13 years and is keen to use the Paris showroom as an opportunity to gauge interest from buyers. “The goal is to ascertain whether the pieces can actually cross over,” says Deegbe, whose designs have been worn by celebrities including actress Lupita Nyong’o. “We want to play in the big leagues and see if we actually stand a chance. Doing business on the continent is totally different, but now to make stuff in certain sizes and variations, and have buyers be interested in that is what we’re trying to ascertain.” In Ghana, consumers want bespoke, made-to-measure pieces, whereas her clients in the US and UK are purchasing ready-to-wear pieces, she adds.

Long-term, The Folklore Connect wants to have a regular presence during Paris Fashion Week. “Hopefully, we’ll be doing this every season in Paris moving forward, and present a new group of brands each season,” says Rasool. “Once fashion month is over, the work doesn’t stop, the access to these brands and products and information doesn’t stop.”

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