Namibian fashion designer Nikola Conradie rose to fame in 2013 when she won the Swakara – Namibian Young Designer Award. Since then her approach to fashion has been that of an entrepreneur and encourages others to look at it as a business enterprise and not a recreational activity. Desie Heita (DH) had a chat with Conradie about the fashion industry in Africa and Namibia.
DH: For many in Namibia being a fashion designer is more of an artistic vocation than an entrepreneurial undertaking. Yet, you seem to have adopted a business approach from day one. Tell us how you came to adopt such an approach?
Nikola: To be completely honest, when I told people I was going to study fashion, it was a joke because they believed that people wouldn’t be able to support themselves doing fashion. So, in my mind I didn’t understand why they would think that way because as humans, we need clothes every single day. It is something that can’t die out ever, because there’s always a need for it, so how can you not make money with something that is fundamental to humans?
DH: Make us understand you, how do you describe yourself – a fashion designer or an entrepreneur? And why do you see yourself as such?
Nikola: I’m both (laughs). I love what I do and I’m a seriously creative person, so I can’t do it for free. I need to work out different strategies to be able to make my passion not remain my passion but allow it to help me make a living of it too. I have no idea what I’d be doing if I didn’t do fashion. I can honestly say that I won’t fit in a nine to five, at a desk, so how else but to make my dream into something that will support me financially too? They say ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ – that I believe is true.
DH: What are the challenges that fashion entrepreneur people, such Nikola Fashions, experience when it comes to accessing finance, accessing markets and marketing support?
Nikola: As fashion in Namibia is still developing, we don’t have many opportunities to branch out and do a whole bunch of things. People don’t think it’s necessary to have a tailored outfit or one made for their every day use. We depend on events and random fashion shows to exhibit what we have to offer. We literally have to stay focused and keep moving otherwise we’ll get discouraged. People are used to the chain stores to access affordable and ready made garments. Thus, not seeing the need to go through the effort of having something made that will take longer or will be a bit more expensive than if you’d buy it in a chain store. We have to really be creative to come up with ways to have the funding we need to keep moving and not having to find another job on the side.
DH: And how doe you overcome these challenges?
Nikola: Like I said, I am so busy with a whole bunch of projects that I don’t have time to think about challenges and whether I’d make it out or not. I don’t think about them, I literally keep doing what I do best and things sort themselves out along the way. People will end up stuck and think there are no solutions. Problems bring doubts at times and I can’t afford negativity when I have a drive to keep growing.
DH: In terms of structural support, what element do you wish governments and private sector would put in place to support fashion entrepreneurs?
Nikola: We need the support from the government and public sectors, as they are the ones who need uniforms, although designers don’t play a part in that, which is strange.
We have a chance to change the whole system of having our government and the private sectors having to order their uniforms abroad and those uniforms are then modified and designed by designers in those countries. Why not empower your own people and start that change? This is something that ought to be considered and put into practice. The Ministry of Industrialisation can also set up a development fund to assist young designers.
DH: There is this new push for African fashion and designers to embrace the vocation as a business and not as an artistic vocation. As fashion designer and entrepreneur how do you relate to that sentiment, or is this just cliché?
Nikola: People are now aware of African fashion and they love it. Our continent is vibrant and full of life. Those abroad don’t have what we have. I have studied African fashion and that’s where I realised that Namibia isn’t so rich in that aspect because culture is not so important here. But go to other African countries and all you want to wear is that African print made in that respective country because arts and culture are so rich and respected there. African arts and culture are praised throughout Africa and that is where we have the upperhand and take it as a serious business opportunity. It’s different in Namibia, we have been westernised. We can’t only be entrepreneurs we need to be an artist too to make our business work. You can’t be one and not the other.
DH: Let’s talk of the ‘Growth of African Fashion Industry.’ You have participated in many international events within and outside the African continent, what do you make of the Namibian and African fashion industry as a business by young people? How does Namibia fare with the rest of Africa? Are we there yet?
Nikola: Namibia is so different from the other African countries, we don’t have that cultural background, almost all other Africans have. We have adopted the traditions from our colonies to the point where it’s difficult to distinguish what is truly Namibian. We don’t have fabrics printed here firstly, so it’s tough to say something it 100 percent manufactured in Namibia and I have done research, we have been using imported fabrics to call our own. We can take silhouettes from different cultures and modernise it even more to truly call it African/Namibian but that’s all we have. Other African countries are very rooted in their traditions, in what is produced in their countries, also it’s very accessible for them to acquire items made in their countries and this is what sets each African country apart. Designers have learned how to make use of everything possible to grow as designers and this is the beautiful thing about Africa, we have what so many other continents don’t have and if they have, its limited. Namibia, however, is different.
DH: In your experience, have African designers and entrepreneurs reached the stage where they are treated as serious business people or are we still a long way away? Share with us your experiences?
Nikola: We’re moving, that’s for sure. We’re planting seeds and truly just believing that huge trees will come from them. We don’t have a structure and if there’s no structure, it’s difficult for people to take designers seriously. There are still so many people who take advantage of designers and want free garments made for serious events, as if what we are doing isn’t that important. In Namibia you surely have to earn that title as being a serious entrepreneur who knows their worth. I for instance can’t be involved in making garments for events where everyone involved has their fees but the designers have to do it for exposure. It still puzzles me but it’s because they don’t know that we actually studied to become designers, we’re not just doing it as a hobby. I mean, even then, there should be a fee.
DH: There is this notion that African fashion, for it to succeed, there should be a reflection of what is supposed to be ‘African’, in either the print, fabric or the design. What is your take on that?
Nikola: [Laughs very hard] To be honest, you’ll know when you touch an African print fabric that it is the real deal. Things are changing. I for instance know, people don’t want to be wearing a typical African garment nowadays. It’s outdated, so designers need to know, although history always repeats itself, as an artist, we need to be creative and transform it in a way for it to be our own and modern. If it’s printed and/or made in Africa, it is African regardless of the pattern or design.
DH: So much is said about ‘Made in Africa’, yet when you look at the market many of the apparels bearing that label are mass-produced by big corporations or established brands. There is little by SMEs and entrepreneurs, such as Nikola Fashions. What has been your experience when it comes to ‘Made in Namibia’ or ‘Made in Africa’?
Nikola: I don’t think companies trust smaller entrepreneurs with mass production. You can say a designer has made a garment but you don’t know if that designer really made that garment. We don’t have a structure or board that can help in this regard, we don’t have a body that can fight for us and know who’s really legit. It’s really tricky but it’s one of those things that we cannot say much about. You’ll know what the difference is when you see the quality of the garments produced, that’s when you have to decide whom you’ll choose. I think, once this is considered we’ll be able to have our own chain stores throughout Namibia. Chain stores like Woolworths produce their garments in South Africa.
DH: Does this ‘Made in Africa’ label help you as a designer and entrepreneur to penetrate more markets, or is this label irrelevant to fashion designers and entrepreneurs like you?
Nikola: Yes it does. It’s always better to embrace all available opportunities. So all designers should be able to do mass production, if and when they have a factory big enough to produce. You choose what works for you but you cannot limit yourself. – New Era Weekend.