Moving beyond Instagram boutiques, the audacity of a fashion designer in a developing country to develop a website and court clients in the comfort of their homes is an innovative step in the right direction.
This is because the fashion world is one that is often plagued by uncertainty as each season brings a new silhouette, fad, palate and generational advancement. It is little wonder then that fashion House of Chenjelani opted to set up a virtual store in a time of a global pandemic.
The move is bold and daring, especially for a label in a country still navigating digital freedoms and functionalities. By establishing this platform for itself, the label is setting itself apart from the ‘fast fashion’ driven circuits that have been creeping into Botswana.
At the head of the pandemic in 2020, McKinsey and Company forecast that profits in the fashion industry globally were to fall by 93 percent. Commodities are always the first to fall when matters of life and death are dictating the status quo. There was once panic that the value of diamonds would fall irretrievably, which was a frightening prospect for a diamond-rich country like Botswana. But where diamonds fare better than clothes is that they will always be valued regardless of the time they are sourced or bought in.
The fashion industry has picked backup in some areas, yet much of this has been reliant on moving to virtual shows and filtering production means to those able to abide by COVID-19 restrictions and many other structural changes. House of Chenjelani, being a ‘made to order’ fashion label, is no stranger to timeous labour. Founded and led by International Business graduate Florence Phinda, the label primarily creates clothing that appeals to people who value effortless style.
Speaking to Phinda, one realises that the label’s outputs are an extension of her own fuss-free outlook. As a result, this move to a digital store is another expression of how Phinda wishes to have her clients worry less and spend more. On the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, she states: “It had a major impact on the fashion industry. With lockdowns, no events or social gatherings, fashion became irrelevant to most people. The economy shrank, consumers became more concerned with surviving, and this is the time when major brands were closing their stores.”
The loss of daily income prompted the conceptualisation of a digital platform that gives clients direct access to the creator while minimising losses for the House of Chenjelani. For its maiden offerings, the site boasts four collections that have garnered swathes of social media attention for Chenjelani. Styled Rich Makoti Club, Chenjela, Naka and Shakhwana, they range from officewear to leisure and are charming fashionistas of all ages, sizes and cultural backgrounds doubtless partly because of the witty names in the vernacular that may have an exotic appeal for some people.
The website launch happened on a fairly mild Friday evening last week at Commerce Park in Gabs and was supported by other businesses like Bullsheep, Senepe and Direct Drinks. Customers were treated to a series of fashion installations with models wearing new creations while also getting a guided experience of the website and its payment system. As Phinda noted herself, “having a website and an online store definitely helps in building credibility, getting more customers across the globe, gaining competitive advantage and an increase in sales”.
Perhaps what is intriguing about the story of House of Chenjelani is that Phinda is a self-taught textile practitioner. In her remarks at the launch of the website she confessed this and appreciated the support of clients who took garments that while being wearable were not the quality they knew she wanted them to wear. It is such honesty that is necessary to carry a brick-and-mortar business into the digital space because when clients are not able to see, touch and fit a garment in real time, the last thing a business wants is to be handling returns. Phinda seems ready to take on this challenge.
The launch of chenjelani.com is a bold statement by a young person in Botswana who believes in the values of venturing into the 4th industrial revolution that the government keeps touting. With more Batswana being ushered onto digital platforms, the novelty of this move will wear off as more fashion designers take the leap to digital sales.
What remains unanswered is how far consumers will trust the process. Because it has an optimistic outlook, House of Chenjelani is willing to rise to this challenge as the world builds back from the pandemic.