How To Build A Luxury Fashion House: Ten Years Strong at Ghana's Christie Brown
ACCRA, Ghana - In the month of Ghana's celebration of 61 years of independence, another export of Ghana's hand-crafted cultural tradition celebrates a decade - luxury womenswear label Christie Brown. Launched in March 2008 led by Creative Director Aisha Obuobi, the brand formed under a fluctuating retail fashion landscape in Accra. Christie Brown placed a bet on the consumption behaviors of a growing middle class with a desire for homegrown products.
Since launch, the brand has stacked up achievements from winning the Emerging Designer of the Year Award at the Arise Africa Fashion Week in Johannesburg to representing Ghana in the L'Afrique-A-Porter Showcase during Paris Fashion Week. With a flagship store in Osu-Re, Christie Brown has future plans to expand its retail footprint into other African cities. However, all of this success required a nimbleness to survive, including an evolution of their original business plan. The development of the online channel alongside selective wholesale partners and the growth of their directly operated store allowed their global devotees to access the brand 24/7 no matter their geographic location. The cultural tides of #BuyGhana continue and brands like Christie Brown have positioned themselves well to take advantage of a proud domestic appetite keen to support the strongest players in the fashion industry.
PROTOChic caught up with Vanessa Bannerman, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Merchandising, on how Christie Brown has successfully navigated trials and triumphs over the past ten years.
PROTOChic: Ten years in business is a serious accomplishment and one worth celebrating. Knowing the fashion landscape in Ghana (and more broadly West Africa) then and now, can you distill down to the factors that kept Christie Brown thriving over the past decade?
Vanessa Bannerman: First, our creative model. On a continent where the fashion retail industry isn’t well established, it's really easy to have a design-driven approach to running the business. We all know that fashion businesses do not thrive on creative direction alone. The brand had fun for the first half of our ten-year life. Now, it’s all about the numbers and making every style, print, and color make financial sense to the business while exciting our clients. The business model has changed from being solely creatively led. It evolved to a merchandising-driven business.
Second, on-boarding new creative minds. The inability to protect intellectual property in the arts has made creatives overly protective of their work. The truth is at Christie Brown (and you wouldn’t think this of a brand as young as ours), we rely on new creative minds to keep the designs fresh and relevant. In the second half of our life, we took on young creatives who have impacted the brand positively from interns, fresh fashion school graduates in design, photography, and styling, and graphic artists. Basically, all young keeners who come in to learn, but they leave us with a wealth of fresh ideas as well. It’s incredible how much you stand to gain when you are not overly protective of your business to the point where you would risk becoming obsolete.
Third, saying No a whole lot more. As the brand grew, there were a ton of opportunities thrown our way. The truth is we had to start saying no a whole lot more to maintain our brand integrity and I can't say we regretted our decision not to participate in a show, collaborate with another brand, or source with a particular vendor. It’s all about understanding your brand DNA and being comfortable opting out, even if everyone else seems to be doing it. A good example is choosing to be season-less. We show Spring collections at the beginning of spring and make them ready for purchase almost immediately. Larger retailers expect to lock in Spring orders about 6-8 months prior. Well, that’s not the way we work and we are completely comfortable knowing our business plans may have to exclude stocking opportunities in larger retail outlets.
Lastly, thinking globally. The global appreciation for African fashion is not just a trend or a phase, it's a movement! More people are embracing the African-inspired aesthetic and it's becoming a more permanent part of their personal style. The point is that we stopped thinking about how best we can serve the customer in Accra and started considering what it would take for any woman who has an appreciation for our story and aesthetic to have a piece of Christie Brown in their closet. Hence, the launch of e-commerce in 2015. Although it is still a work in progress, making the brand globally accessible changed the game for us.
PROTOChic: You spoke about the shift from a creatively led model to a merchandising-driven plan as well as the launch of e-commerce. How else has Christie Brown’s business model evolved over the past ten years? Has your distribution shifted to a more domestic audience who is passionate about #BuyGhana?
VB: We don’t think our audience is more domestic, it was really about access. Eight years ago, you couldn’t get a Christie Brown piece if you weren’t in Ghana or visiting a country that had a retailer that stocked the brand. Today, there are no restrictions because of e-commerce and thankfully, we offer that access. Do I think Ghanaians and Africans as a whole are embracing or more passionate about domestically made products? Absolutely! Do I think we can do more to give Africans access to Christie Brown? Absolutely! Can we afford to leave the rest of the world out while we pursue domestic expansion? Absolutely not!!
PROTOChic: With so much achieved in the brand’s first decade, the horizon for the next ten years is no doubt bright. What are your hopes for the next wave of African designers building global fashion brands?
VB: It’s time to scale up and make ourselves more competitive with better quality, internationally acceptable shipping standards, and a more global approach to being customer-centric.
African designers are more confident than ever. There isn’t a better time to push our aesthetic. The interesting thing is that the rest of the world is ready to accept and absorb what the continent has to offer. I hope that the next wave of African designers are able to stay the course and tough it out because it's not easy. It's important for newer designers to showcase THEIR AFRICA as we can’t expect a 18-year old designer to see this continent or regard history and heritage the same way a 50-year old veteran designer does. Let them do it their way, the same way Christie Brown did it its own way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.