What happens to African designers when Beyonce and other stars wear your clothes

Supermodel Naomi Campbell displays an outfit by South African designer Kluk CGDT
Supermodel Naomi Campbell displays an outfit by South African designer Kluk CGDT
Image: AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Everything Beyonce touches turns to gold, or at the very least profit. So when the megastar wore an African designer—twice!—she cemented the international status of a local brand.

Beyonce was first spotted in a monochrome geometric coat by South Africa-based design house Kisua in 2014. The coat sold out immediately.

The brand clearly appealed to her because she donned a skirt and top from Kisua just months later, causing another publicity stir for Kisua.  


When Beyonce’s stylist first contacted Kisua, its founder Samuel Mensah and his team thought it was a joke and didn’t respond for over a week. But, when he verified the request, Mensah an economist by profession, quickly spotted an opportunity. They’ve since created the Beyonce Edit, making it easier for customers to shop the look. By the time they were spotlighted by Beyonce, Kisua was already available on the international market—the top and skirt she wore were the result of a collaboration with Italian label Yoox. After Beyonce came a customer from Utah, and Mensah said he knew he’d made it.

“For me that was confirmation that African fashion really started to go mainstream; when Midwest Americans start coveting your product then you know, ok, we’re crossing over from an interesting unique brand to something that is becoming mainstream,” Mensah said. Kisua would not comment on the impact of celebrity sightings on sales since Beyonce.

Other African designers have also shone under the Hollywood spotlight Lagos-based Maki Oh is a favorite of Michelle Obama and Lupita Nyong’o. Yet, that attention doesn’t always translate to sales, especially when the designer doesn’t have the commercial infrastructure set-up to meet the demand, says Moulaye Taboure, co-founder of Afrikrea, an e-commerce platform for African fashion. In fact, they’re caught off guard.

That infrastructure could start with a branding agreement before or after the event, or at the very least a mention of the product when it’s worn, said Taboure. Many brands aren’t ready to meet large international orders, due to their own production limitations and the basic infrastructural limitations that come with emerging economies, like an unreliable postal service. On the other hand, the items worn can only be afforded by a celebrity, so ordinary shoppers in the emerging markets where these brands are usually based, can’t afford the bespoke items.

“But ultimately the biggest obstacles for this kind of promotion are caused by the seller herself,” Taboure told Quartz. “either the product highlighted is not available worldwide, easily enough or just in sufficient stock to be sold at the time.”

The designer behind the Johannesburg-based label Babatunde, Gareth Cowden learned quickly that publicity doesn’t necessarily lead to profit.

“You’d think Solange wearing one of our caps in 2012 would catapult your sales?” Cowden told Quartz. “It helped tremendously with publicity and exposure but it did not affect the number orders we had coming in, sales wise there was not that much of an impact.”

Cowden admits that perhaps at the time their site was” user friendly enough” or perhaps it was because the singer didn’t actually say the brand’s name. Erykah Badu, Lupita Nyong’o and Stevie Wonder have all since been spotted in Babatunde. He’s grateful for the publicity, but remains baffled by consumer behavior.

For young designers though, having a celebrity wear your clothes can still be a career-maker. On her visit to Nigeria in August, Theresa May landed in Lagos having swapped classic red and black suits, for an unmissable yellow jacket by young Nigerian designer Emmanuel Okoro who owns the label Emmy Kasbit. 

Emmanuel was told only 48 hours before May’s arrival that a senior member of the UK government had commissioned a piece from him but he was given no name.

“I didn’t know she was going to wear the jacket,” he told Quartz. When a friend sent Emmanuel a screenshot of the prime minister wearing his creation his immediate reaction was to feel “fulfilled, I felt that this was the high-point of my career.”