Ethiopian designer looks to take handbag, local fashion business by storm

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Most countries in Africa haven’t been crowned fashion capitals just yet. Some regions, however, have taken many in the fashion industry by surprise. Companies like Hugo Boss, Prada and Cartier have helped to expand the growing luxury market within Africa. One particular individual feels it is a personal call to show the world just what Africa really has to offer — on and off the runway.
Afomia Tesfaye is a designer of beautiful modern handbags and accessories that are made via a 100 percent fair-trade process in Ethiopia. She is currently developing her Spring 2015 collection of handbags and preparing to launch her first online shop through her website FOMI Collection. AFKInsider caught up with Tesfaye to discuss the founding of FOMI, the manufacturing business as well as Africa’s fashion future.

AFKInsider: What made you decide to return to Ethiopia to continue the pursuit of a handbag business?
Afomia: It was a very natural decision for me to develop handbags in Ethiopia, not only because it is the place of my birth, but because it is actually a very exciting time to develop business here. Ethiopia is currently one of the fastest growing economies in the world and leather is our second greatest export (next to coffee). We produce some of the highest quality sheepskin in the world, so it is a privilege to be able to create leather goods with such refined raw materials.
In years past, leather goods companies — including many big name fashion brands — have come to Ethiopia purely to export and then manufacture the leather in other countries. It was important for me to develop leather goods that are produced, from start to finish, within the country.

AFKInsider: You spent some time in the U.S., what did you learn and how did you apply it to your career?
Afomia: I was born in Ethiopia, but have basically spent my entire life in the U.S. and Los Angeles is still home base for me. I was living in California at 12-years-old reading Vogue magazine and watching a weekly program on CNN called “Style with ElsaKlensch” where they showed all the designer runway shows.
That is what first instilled a love of style and design in me. I have obtained my education and all of my professional experience in the U.S. I worked for several years in both the entertainment and fashion industries (LA and New York), so the knowledge I have of both fashion and business was entirely acquired there.

AFKInsider: Can you tell us a bit about your first job in fashion?
Afomia: After obtaining my degree at UCLA, my first real job was working for a fashion designer in Los Angeles. It was a women’s brand that was doing very well at the time and I had the opportunity to work as an assistant within each of the departments — production, sales and marketing. Looking back, I realize that it provided me with a fundamental understanding of how the fashion business functions as a whole.

AFKInsider: Where did you come up with the concept for your handbags?
Afomia: On a visit to Ethiopia in 2010, I began playing with the idea of developing a design business here. I really had no idea what I wanted to do, but I started visiting tanneries and was so impressed with the quality of the leather. That sparked the idea to begin working with leather in some way and handbags felt like a natural way to start.

AFKInsider: Do you only design handbags or do you want to branch out into apparel?
Afomia: My priority is to continue developing my FOMI handbag range from season to season, but I am also slowly starting to expand. This past season I introduced a women’s oxford shoe into my collection and that has done extremely well, so I plan to continue with more shoes in the future. Who knows: eventually apparel may be included someday as well.

AFKInsider: How does FOMI differ from other African based clothing and accessory lines?
Afomia: There are obviously so many talented accessory designers on the continent. I believe FOMI Collection handbags are modern, sleek with a little bit of edge. People are often surprised when they open a FOMI bag and see a ‘Made in Ethiopia’ label, which I find very satisfying because that is always my objective, to defy people’s expectations of what is possible in Ethiopia.

AFKInsider: Where do you see the fashion industry in Africa developing in the next five or 10 years?
Afomia: I definitely know the fashion industry will continue to grow tremendously in the years to come. Kenya, South Africa, Senegal and Ethiopia have already become such important manufacturing hubs. The rate of apparel and accessory production in Africa is growing at such a rate that it feels we will very soon rival China as a major international manufacturing destination.  Major companies like TOMS shoes and H&M are establishing production facilities in Ethiopia and I believe that trend will continue.

AFKInsider: Do you think the fashion industry in Africa is being taken seriously?
Afomia: Most definitely, the international design community is paying attention to Africa! Designers like Stella Jean and Duro Olowu are African designers who are internationally recognized and appreciated. They both infuse their work with a lot of cultural influence, but in very inspiring modern ways. Also, Africa Fashion Week has become a platform to showcase a lot of emerging talent.

AFKInsider: What do you hope to accomplish as an entrepreneur?
Afomia: I hope the work that I am doing with FOMI Collection inspires people and also challenges the perceptions of what people believe about Ethiopia. Unfortunately, Ethiopia as a country has been stigmatized by images of famine and more recently we have become famous for our track runners, but these are just small pieces of our story. I feel a sense of responsibility to become a participant in showing a broader scope of what defines Ethiopia. My mission is to show that we are more than capable of producing high quality luxury goods.

AFKInsider: What are some tips or words of advice one should know if they are pursuing a career in the fashion industry?
Afomia: Patience is the number one characteristic. I would encourage someone to cultivate if they plan to work in this industry, but even more so working in Africa. As I said, our manufacturing facilities are developing, but we have not yet worked out all of the challenges.
Almost every designer I have spoken to has encountered frustrations along the way with issues like dyeing mistakes, sewing errors, shipping and customs problems. However, I definitely think the pros outweigh the cons, so it’s important to always focus on the bigger vision and exercise patience while working through the issues. (EthioSport)

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