Meet Kiran Yoliswa and Alae Ismail, the brilliant brains behind StyledByAfrica.com – a platform which was created as a means of using fashion to support African manufacturing and encourage sustainable trade. Kiran & Alae spend months travelling across Africa to find the best contemporary, authentic fashion and accessory brands that value quality and design. Initially launched in 2013 as an online platform for people to source only the best African designs, Styled By Africa has recently seen the opening of its first showroom in Brixton, London! Continue reading as Kiran & Alae explain the months of searching they endure to bring beautifully crafted items from countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Senegal & South Africa to consumers at large…
Full Names: Kiran Yoliswa and Alae Ismail
Age(s): 26 & 27
Current Title/Position: Co-Founders of Styled By Africa
Both: BSc Biomedical Science, Queen Mary University London
Kiran: MSc Development Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
Alae: MPH Public Health, King’s College London
Current City: London
Kiran & Alae, you are the founders of StyledbyAfrica.com – an award-winning online platform targeted at people interested in exploring the best Contemporary African fashion. Could you take us through the journey of creating Styled By Africa?
Styled By Africa started as a blog back in 2012 when we were frustrated at the way that young Africans were being portrayed in mainstream media; that being in a very passive & patronising way. This didn’t fit with our experience as young African women ourselves, or the incredible people we knew who were using creativity to create change for their communities. We started the blog to highlight and champion them, and we knew creativity is an engaging way to talk about the wider developmental, political and economic issues that we were interested in. We started to get readers contacting us to enquire about purchasing the fashion brands we were featuring, while at the same time designers were consistently mentioning access to international markets as a challenge to their growth.
We decided to develop the blog into an online boutique with a strong editorial focus. A big push for us to do that was winning a young entrepreneurs competition with Virgin Media Pioneers and travelling to India to be mentored by Richard Branson. We launched the online boutique in May 2013, and have just opened our first bricks and mortar shop in London.
Styled By Africa uses fashion as a tool for sustainable trade, selling products from all over the continent including Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa and Ghana to customers around the world. What do you think makes African fashion and craft unique to that of the rest of the world?
The African brands that we’re really interested in, and that are doing really well in our store are the ones that are giving the world a unique perspective on design – something they can’t get anywhere else whether that’s through the fabrics used, the design techniques, the type of prints or the use of colour. All our brands tell you a story about where they’ve come from but in a really contemporary, internationally appealing way.
As business owners who personally hand pick every item available on your online boutique, what do you look for in particular when curating items for the store? Secondly, how do you strike the balance between being online entrepreneurs with travelling the continent for specially-curated items?
Our main three criteria that we ask ourselves when we’re selecting new products for the store is (1) was it made in an African country (2) is it produced in a way that fits with the Styled By Africa philosophy and that we can be proud of ethically (3) is it telling the world something interesting about African design. As the number of brands we’re selling grows, it’s important that they all tell a story together and complement each other. As we’ve built our community we’ve learnt what we think will resonate with them, while at the same time always trying to bring them something unexpected. With the womenswear it’s been easier as we both have quite a good idea of how women think about clothes and shopping, but we’ve just launched our first menswear brand which is a whole other story when it comes to how men shop.
Being online gives us quite a lot of freedom as it means we can update the site from wherever we are in the continent, wifi permitting. However, opening our first shop has added a more physical aspect to the business, so we’ve used the opportunity to start expanding our team who can manage the retail side while we travel to source and pursue other projects.
As co-founders, do you have a particular method or allocation of duties in running Styled By Africa?
When there was just two of us we both ended up doing bits of everything, while still focusing on our strengths and interests. For example, Alae used to work as a stylist so through Styled By Africa she has led some incredible projects such as styling Miss Universe Ghana last year, some Fuse ODG music videos, and recently helping to style the second season of the Ghanaian web series, ‘An African City’. Now that we’re starting to grow our team we can focus more on allocating duties to specific roles, so we’ve just hired someone specifically to do sales and marketing.
Your focus is mainly on up-and-coming designers. As people who work closely with emerging designers, what do you believe the African fashion industry needs?
There needs to be more support on the production side of the industry. There are lots of great designers who have great concepts, but find it difficult to manage their supply chains efficiently which drives up costs and lead times. There are some organisations which are helping such as the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative which recently set up a production hub in Accra to help Ghanaian designers to produce at export level quantities and quality. They also help local designers to gain international exposure which is great at helping to generate demand and raise awareness.
Styled By Africa was awarded a social enterprise award from UnLTD and School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as well as support from Richard Branson, who selected the company for a Virgin Media Pioneers trade mission in 2012. What do you think has been a major contributor to the company’s success?
We’ve been very proactive and resourceful- all those opportunities mentioned are ones that we actively sought out and applied for. We’re extremely driven and not afraid to ask for help and are quite good at articulating our vision which makes people want to support it and get involved. We’ve also never waited for anyone to get moving. We built the first website and then approached organisations and said “hey this is what we’re doing, can you help us take it to the next level”, rather than trying to pitch just an idea.
As co-founders of an online boutique, what have been your biggest challenges and how have you been able to overcome them?
Our biggest challenge from the online side was getting people to trust the brands we’re working with as they are all emerging designers and they are produced in African countries. Unfortunately people still have negative perceptions about the quality of African made products, but we noticed that once we had the products in front of people, they loved them! We overcame that challenge by hosting regular pop up events and inviting customers to book personal shopping appointments with us where they could try on items. Now having our showroom in Pop Brixton means that people can come in whenever they like to get up close and personal with the items, and feel more confident ordering online at a later date. And as our online presence continues to grow our editorial blog has been a powerful platform to tell the story behind the brands. Our designers’ stories and powerful images help explain how the products were made, challenging people’s perception of African made products.
Take us through what a typical work day looks like for you both?
Kiran: I’m usually up by 6am and try and spend the first hour of my day on my morning routine of exercise and meditation to set my state of mind for the day. I spend another hour reading- books and blogs on business, management, leadership that keep me learning and motivated. I’m at my desk by 8am and start with two hours of ‘deep work’- the tasks that require my best energy and lots of focus such as writing content for the website or strategy planning. I try not to check emails until 10am and answer urgent customer enquiries, check in with our suppliers and catch up with Alae on the day ahead. The rest of the morning I usually spend going through our sales from the previous day and reviewing our financial data and then keep the afternoons for meetings with potential designers, personal shopping clients or brand partnerships. If we don’t have a work-related evening or event, which we usually do, I spend most of my evenings doing more admin based tasks that don’t require too much energy such as updating the products on the website and scheduling our social media.
Alae: I typically start off by having a healthy breakfast and getting myself dressed and ready for the day. My morning to afternoon would usually be filled with me reviewing my to-do-list that I’ve written the night before and actioning them. I review the projects I have for the day such as managing product development, sale strategy and any consultancy projects we have lined up. I then check my emails and go through people who are waiting for me to complete a task such as product approvals with designers and editorial content sign off. I then focus on people who I need to reach out to for growing the business. By evening, I would get involved in some form of physical activity like basketball or dance class and then work on my personal development so reading articles on other business models that have gone from start-up to global brand. I finish my day by reflecting on what went well, what didn’t and how I can improve for the next.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Make sure you create a vision that is so compelling that it sees you through the challenging times, because there will be many.
Morning or night?
Kiran: Morning. There’s nothing better than an early morning run in early sunlight with all the possibilities of the day ahead of you.
Alae: Morning. Fresh day, fresh start, fresh mind.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Kiran: Oprah, and we’d make Sunday lunch at her house with veggies from her garden. It always looks so good on her Instagram!
Alae: I’m going to be cheeky and say Michelle Obama for my main meal and we’d have Etta’s Seafood Kitchen fish curry from Brixton village. Then drab cheesecake dessert with Solange Knowles at Esca Deli in Clapham Common.
I wish I knew how to…
African women are…
Worst money mistake…
Kiran: Wasting money on fast cheap fashion that doesn’t last.
Alae: Starbucks coffee
Kiran: Education- formal and informal.
Alae: Self development. Mentally, physically and emotionally
Motivation in 3 words…
Kiran: I Can & I Will
Alae: Aspire to inspire
To view and purchase beautiful, authentic clothing & accessories, visit styledbyafrica’s site
All images provided by Kiran & Alae.