Written by Helen Jennings
From batik-print tunics by Beatrice Black Atari to white cotton maxi dresses by Tae Afrika, and from Masai wrap-tops by Chechi Arinze to lace playsuits by Lola Buttons, the overarching look is cool, pared back and playful.
“We want to break the mould by showing that African design is universally relevant. I do not see Africa as a trend, but rather the start of a new standard in fashion.”
Following these collaborations, the in-house line Kisua Hariri went on sale in 2014. This collection was influenced by the work of Burundi-born installation artist Serge Alain Nitegeka.
Checked sweats, boyish suits, houndstooth box tops and wax print shift-dresses are all statement pieces, while simultaneously providing a graceful urban camouflage.
“Nitegeka’s immersive architectural structures informed the graphic prints and bold silhouettes and reinforced our vision of the Kisua woman,” Lepen says.
“She’s a confident and artistic individual who feels a connection to Africa. She works hard, she’s well educated and looking for fashion that is different.”
Kisua’s original marketing strategy was predominantly targeted at an international audience, resulting in the biggest sales coming from the US and Europe.
But since opening a warehouse in South Africa late last year (before that everything was shipped from either the UK or US) local customers no longer have to pay customs and duties, which has led to a rise in home grown demand.
This highlights one of the challenges the business has faced since launch: “Africa has significant inefficiency and bottle necks in terms of trade. There should be no duties from one country to another and we must become more regionally integrated,” says Mensah.
That is putting it mildly.
The 55 states that make up the African Union share no single EU-style common market agreement and issues of political instability, bureaucracy and protectionism compound the problem.
“But for our African customers we use courier partners and our switched-on customer services team keep track of every order. We haven’t lost a parcel yet.”
Mensah is proud of the fact that Kisua has now received orders from every continent.
Another major challenge has been manufacturing. Kisua aims to be 100% sustainably made in Africa but due to the lack of full-service factory operations, Mensah estimates they’re currently at 7%, with the rest from Asia.
“It’s been a learning process and the reality is that there are limitations in terms of availability of fabric and production capabilities. It’s taken us a while to find the right partners who can guarantee the best standards. Meanwhile, working with Asia has given us insight we can bring back to Africa.”
He’s also keen to stress the wider African talent footprint of the brand – from the tech and finance teams who have built and run the back-end of the secure e-commerce platform to the editorial contributions on the engaging, magazine-style website.
Recent stories include a travel guide to Namibia by blogger Diane Audrey Ngako and an opinion piece on African textiles by author Melissa Zibi.
Crucially, Kisua’s arresting advertising campaigns were shot by world-renowned South African photographer Misha Taylor.
And now they’re also cracking the manufacturing puzzle with their latest collaborative collection, this time with Italian brand 8.
Comprising 14 easy to wear, minimal pieces in a citrus colour palette, Kisua for 8 has been entirely designed and made in South Africa by independent artisans and production houses using locally sourced materials and indigenous crafting techniques.
“I’m very proud of this collection. It says that this country is open for business,” says Lepen.
“We worked closely with existing factories in Cape Town and with female hand-beaders in Joburg to show them different ways to use their talents.”