fashion is not all

“Fashion is not all about big brands and red carpet.”

When Anna Getaneh made headlines in late 1980s, the modelling industry in Ethiopia was almost non-existent. Born in Sweden as the second child of an Ethiopian career diplomat father and a fashion designer mother, Anna is one of the few Ethiopians who have become successful on the global modelling stage.
She briefly lived in Ethiopia at the age of four, but it was only after she earned a bachelor ‘s degree in business and marketing that Anna realized her potential in modelling. Subsequently, she pursued it as a part time job. Soon, she met with an agent who persuaded her to work as a model in Italy and then London. After that, modelling became her full time job. Besides modelling, Anna is also involved in humanitarian work. After she met with workers from Pharmacists Without Borders, a French organization, Anna went to a camp in Moyale, on the Ethio-Kenyan border, an area which houses many refugees from Somalia. She stayed there for a week helping with the feeding program. This inspired her to establish the Ethiopian Children’s Fund, which is registered in New York. Soon after, she came back to Ethiopia, visiting places around Addis Ababa, and opened a school with a feeding program clinic in Aleletu, a woreda in the state of Oromia.
To fund her organization and promote fashion in Ethiopia as well as Africa, Anna, a mother of three, established African Mosaique, a company registered five years ago. A year and a half ago, she built a new factory on 9,000 meter squares of land, at a cost of ETB15 million. The model and designer now produces an average of 500 pieces of clothing a month.
Anna, who stresses that fashion is not all about big brands and red carpets, says that the fashion industry can be source of growth for the Ethiopian economy. However, she also has concerns over the rise in consumption of used clothing imported from abroad. Anna thinks that the government gradually must ban used clothes and should create awareness of local clothes amongst the public. EBR’s Samson Berhane sat down with Anna to learn about her journey from international model to successful designer.

EBR: How did you start modeling?
Anna: I was raised in eight different countries. Initially, I had no clear image of my future profession. But my high school friends pressured me to sign up for modeling in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, I was already on the world modeling stage. I started blind because there was little access to information about the fashion industry, the opposite of the way it is now, where everything is available on the internet and social media. Despite the challenges, however, it was fun for me on top of being a source of pocket money. It is only after I completed my degree in marketing and communication that I decided to pursue modelling as a career.

How did you make modeling a full time career?
I traveled to France, the fashion hub of the world to attend the Paris Fashion Week events, which are attended by professionals and enthusiasts from German, Tokyo, Italy, Belgium and New York, among others. At that time, the fashion industry was looking for new faces.
Industry insiders were interested in working with me immediately after they saw me. Had I joined the industry five years before, nobody would have noticed me. I was very lucky. I arrived at the right time and place.
After I started working with big agents from all over the world, everything was simple for me. First I was based in Paris, then New York. But I travel a lot to explore, connect and learn about different cultures.

At the time you started modelling, Black models were not given as much attention or as many opportunities as white models. Did this impact your career?
There is no doubt that the industry was white-dominated. The journalists, photographers, makeup artists were all white. We had to create our own industry. If you are not invited to dinner, you make dinner and invite your own people.
We had our own narratives so we never begged them. In our agency at the time, blacks used to account for 20Pct of the crew. Despite this, the main point, for me, was developing the industry and representing Africa. In this light I think I was successful.

The Ethiopian fashion industry was almost non-existent at a time you were popular in the global arena. Do you think the profession has gained momentum since then?
Firstly, industry perception has grown in Ethiopia. In the past, when I came to show fashion, it was difficult to find models. Now I can find at least fifty models at the speed of light. Compared to twenty years ago, models now have the right knowledge, clothing and catwalk skills.
It is even accepted as a career by those in the education sector. For instance, Bahir Dar University became a pioneer in providing the first-ever fashion courses. Families are now relatively understanding of the benefits of the fashion industry and believe it makes their children successful, just like engineering, medicine and other professions.

Modeling is beyond a part time job. Ethiopia has huge potential in cotton and leather. That is important for the fashion industry. The government is also aware of this. It can definitely be a robust industry. Mass production can come gradually, although it is in its infancy now.

What about in Africa as a whole?
The international demand for African products has grown. Gone are the days when fashion was considered as ideas dumped by the western world. That narrative has greatly changed now. The demand for Africa’s handmade products, non-chemical, soft and sustainable clothes is at its climax. The demand for the continent’s non-plastic products has grown because of its importance in protecting the environment.
The garment industry is the most polluting. Fast fashion is losing its momentum. A factory pollutes the environment just to produce a t-shirt. Producers and manufacturers in developed countries are failing to fulfill environmental standards. So, international buyers are looking towards Africa.

What should be done in order to create a more vibrant fashion industry in Ethiopia?
We have to change the mindset. If Ethiopians start wearing ‘Made in Ethiopia’, we can create our own fashion industry, rather than buying second hand clothes. We have to do many things, especially in terms of changing government policy. Firstly, the government must ban the import of second hand clothes. Rather, it should encourage producers to come up with local clothes that are comfortable for work, rather than just being useful for ceremonies and special occasions. Designers must strive to create modern clothes using our own fabrics. We have to find out the gaps in the market and come up with our own competitive products.Take the Brazilian fashion industry. Nobody talked about the Brazilian fashion industry 20 years ago. Brazil developed awareness, improved their designs and simultaneously incentivized producers. Now 80Pct of their population prefers locally-made products.

People think fashion is about big brands and red carpet. It is not. Just focus on basic things. Ethiopians would buy their own products if they had similar quality to clothes imported from abroad. There is a huge market. While the government must give the sector proper attention, the community should also embrace local products.

But there are claims that Ethiopian textile products can not satisfy local demand.
That is wrong. It actually satisfies local demand perfectly. But we have to add value to local industrial products. If we do research, upgrade weaving, innovate, and do printing, the market is there. Madagascar changed many things this way. Ethiopian cloth makers have been using the same system and technology for the last 200 years.

Changing designs might take more time, even beyond this generation. So investing in the designers is critical. Ethiopia cultivates cotton. But South Africa has no cotton. They import the entire textile and print whatever they want on it. But their industry is huge, unlike ours.
But there are limited linkages along the supply chain, for instance, between cotton growers and garment producers.
In Ethiopia, the designer and textile producer do not know each other. It is necessary to come up with any mechanism to create linkages between fashion designers, cotton producers, and textile and garment industries.

The other problem is the absence of value chain suppliers. For instance, it is hard to find suppliers of zippers in Ethiopia. Should we allow second hand import to flood the market, just because we cannot make zippers? Instead of rushing to import the zippers, I say it is better to find a solution. For instance, keeping the shortage in mind, for my factory, I decided not to use zippers.

Do you think Ethiopia should take a lesson from Rwanda and ban second hand clothes and shoes?
Absolutely, but not overnight. It is a free market but interventions are needed. I see clothes markets in Addis Ababa, including the street markets. The prices of second hand clothes are very cheap. It is too early for local producers to compete with such products.

Even Habesha dresses made with Chinese fabrics are taking off on the local market, which is unbelievable. You cannot go and copy a product in France. But nobody asks you in Ethiopia. How come foreigners copy our traditional clothes? There is no protection for local producers. Both foreign and local producers sell their products in shops just next to each other. Local industry is highly discouraged because we have no line between local and foreign products. If the market was protected, locals could produce affordable clothes for all Ethiopians. No foreigners should be allowed to produce ‘tilet’. It is our own heritage.

How do you see the necessity of patents for the growth of fashion industry in Ethiopia?
International designers lose billions because of fake brands. We are not at that stage. But once our designers break into the market, they will be in a continuous innovation and creativity cycle. Innovations in weaving techniques, design, and production must be protected because they involve huge investments and they are national property. But if designers or producers sell their products only to selected customers for fear of copying, they cannot grow.

As an example, if the designs a well-known designer in Ethiopia is copied, it is not bad thing because that designer is inspiring an entire generations of designers. Many youngsters join the industry following a few designers. Copying the works of designers should not be taken seriously, at least at this level. It is not easy but we must be patient. It is good if young people start by copying the works of well-known designers, who they admire, until they create their own.

Tell us about your company African Mosaique.
We are about two years behind schedule because we were quite over-ambitious. We source, design and do many things including supporting government owned industries. We are working with Bahir Dar University and other institutions. We are also supporting other industries to grow, which are necessary for the development of the fashion industry. There might be no other person with huge experience like me. We are doing so many things including preparing designing book. So we are running many side projects, to create the fertile ground for fashion. With this regard, I have progressed more than I planned.

Our business model is to train 20 women within two years and preparing them to be future leaders and supervisors. It is not about just hiring 500 people in a factory and starting production at once. It is about creating professionals in two years. They will have all-round knowledge from designing to production and branding. They can produce their own brands. We also opened a fashion incubating center where we meet with students five to seven days a week.

Last September, we started construction on our phase two plant. We are gradually starting manufacturing. We can produce a maximum of 2,000 pieces per month. But our average actual production is 500. We will start mass production in the near future.

Why is your company working below its capacity?
When I first set up the company, my plan was to produce as much as our capacity. But after encountering a shortage of raw materials, we were pushed to change our plans. What I fear is receiving an order and not being able to deliver on time, without reaching the required quality. That will not be good for our reputation. Maybe I’m a bit afraid. So I decided to raise production gradually.

How much of the inputs are locally sourced?
They are 100Pct sourced from Africa, and more than 50Pct is from Ethiopia. Our aim is to produce African fabrics printed with African histories. The problem is there are no printers. Foreign-owned companies only receive orders in bulk, which we can’t. We are printing basic colors locally until the industry grows. We might find a good fabric today, but the supplier might run out tomorrow. The supply of cotton and textiles is not sustainable.

Do you plan to export or sell your products locally?
The plan was to export 75Pct of our products and sell the rest locally. Initially the biggest business component was e-commerce. But e-commerce is still in the early stages in Ethiopia. So at the moment, it is 80Pct for the local market and 20Pct for the export market.

Are your prices affordable?
Our minimum price is ETB1,200 and the maximum price of our product is ETB3,500. This is very affordable for local consumers. But when we start exporting according to our plan, we will raise the price.

Do you have plans to get involved in mass production and reduce the price on the local market more?
We have a plan, but I don’t want to make it reality alone. To do so, we need to develop new business model that is going to be relevant for us. Now we are just adopting other countries’ business model. We have a population of more than 100 million. So we should get talented designers, train them, and collectively we can create the market. We need to focus on this. The incubation center is suitable for this type of thing.

Studies show that unprofessional working conditions, nonpayment and abuses are common in the modelling industry. Did you encounter these issues when you were a model?
Anyone can get into hard conditions. When I was a model, many young women that came from different backgrounds thought that their sole ticket to success in modeling was to go through these unprofessional working conditions. However, if you are determined and unwilling to get involved in that kind of thing, you can protect yourself. Of course, sometimes things may become beyond your control, especially for younger people. Some of them get into debt and might not have jobs to repay them, which means they may be pushed to get involved in unnecessary things.

Even physically, body shaming is common. Insecurity might then develop and the models who encounter this may start using drugs. Some of them even try to commit suicide. This seems to be changing. International designers are starting to use full-bodied models, although this is not common in Ethiopia yet.

Do you think the same problem exist in Ethiopia?
The industry is in its infancy although it is growing. Our models are happy with what they wear and respect what they do. I know how important models are so we treat them as well as we can. There are models who we use for free for charity work. We did this in past years. But when it comes to abuse and nonpayment, the law should protect models.

Do you think Ethiopian models are paid well?
Of course not.

How much do you pay?
We pay a fair wage, from ETB1,500 to ETB2,500 a day. Since they know what we are capable of, it will give them exposure. They learn professionalism in the process. But there is no doubt that models in Ethiopia are underpaid compared to those in the global fashion industry.

What was the maximum amount you were paid as a model?
As an international model, I used to be paid USD10,000 a day. Now there are also models with million dollar contracts.
International designers use plus size models, but we haven’t witnessed Ethiopian designers, including you, doing the same.
You are right. We should nurture plus size models. Maybe it’s because we design our clothes for specific sizes. Plus sizes are a very specialized thing. What I do is small, medium and large sizes, not necessarily plus size. It is just our choice.

What do you think are the hardest challenges that women entrepreneurs in Ethiopia face and what are the opportunities they have?
I’m genuinely a very positive person. The challenges I face are not gender specific. In the business world, if you are committed and determined, challenges cannot stop you from doing what you want. But I believe you must prove yourself. It is not easy to establish a factory, retain employees and be successful.

It is good if we have a storytelling platform. Some people thought it was easy for me to become a model. It was very challenging but not because I am a woman. The challenges relate to poor work ethic and bureaucracy.

Access to finance is still the biggest headache for entrepreneurs. How are you doing in this regard?
New entrepreneurs face these challenges not only in Ethiopia but also internationally. There should be a mentorship program. One of the components that we teach is business in fashion, how to raise funds and how to sustain the business. Most designers lack knowledge of business. They lack readiness and some of them borrow money to rent a space and open a boutique.

In other countries, 80Pct of their economy is supported by entrepreneurs and small-scale business. Yet in Ethiopia it is not common. Such businesses remain informal. There are 100 million plus of us, which brings a lot of opportunities. Entrepreneurship should not only be encouraged in Addis Ababa, but also in regional states. I think now is an exciting time for entrepreneurs.

8th Year • Apr.16 – May.15 2019 • No. 73


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