Fikirte Addis, creates cultural everyday wear. She started designing in high school, enjoying the freedom of creating and experimenting with different designs and fabrics. It evolved into a brand, Yefikir Design in 2009. Since then, Yefikir has participated in different fashion events in Addis Abeba, including Hub of Africa Fashion Week, in New York, Paris, Prague, Mauritius and other cites of fashion. As a designer and Psychologist she creates awareness in issues such as child labour by participating in various fundraising fashion shows. Her approach is therefore the epitome of social entrepreneurship in sustainable development. In this exclusive interview with FORTUNE’S DEPUTY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SAMRAWIT TASSEW, Fikirte Addis helps to welcome the New Year by sharing her story and upcoming fashion exploits, while keeping the status of Ethiopia’s children and environment in mind.
Fikirte Addis, creates cultural everyday wear. She started designing in high school, enjoying the freedom of creating and experimenting with different designs and fabrics. It evolved into a brand, Yefikir Design in 2009. Since then, Yefikir has participated in different fashion events in Addis Abeba, including Hub of Africa Fashion Week, in New York, Paris, Prague, Mauritius and other cites of fashion. As a designer and Psychologist she creates awareness in issues such as child labour by participating in various fundraising fashion shows. Her approach is therefore the epitome of social entrepreneurship in sustainable development.
In this exclusive interview with FORTUNE’S DEPUTY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SAMRAWIT TASSEW, Fikirte Addis helps to welcome the New Year by sharing her story and upcoming fashion exploits, while keeping the status of Ethiopia’s children and environment in mind.
Fortune: I want us to start by talking about the New Year. Connect the New Year with the traditional clothes designing business.
Fikirte Addis: Our business is highly seasonal, so around holidays and festive seasons, like the wedding season is the best time for us – peak season for our business. We are happy it gets us closer with our customers in higher number. We do not see it as pressure but as an advantage. But it is true we are limited and at times forced to reject some requests.
It gives a special meaning when people choose to wear your dresses on special days, New Year, weddings and other important events. I, Yefikir, feel like I am celebrating New Year with all my customers who are wearing my dresses. Contributing to ones’ good spirit and looks and comfort is a blessing for us. I want to thank all my customers for giving me such a privilege.
This New Year specifically I am looking forward to my African designers Summer-Spring runway New York fashion show on September 11th. My theme and inspiration is Lalibela. I cannot wait to see it. We will have the same runway show in Addis Abeba in October with the Hub of Africa fashion show. So the New Year I guess comes with opportunities for more visibility in the global sphere – visibility for me and Ethiopia.
Q: So fashion and culture – the taste for cultural/traditional clothes is raised. Some though are cynical about the modern/contemporary touch you give it through your design, saying it erodes tradition and culture – what do you say.
With fashion we actually do something new inspired by the culture, nature, politics, social and economic settings – our surroundings. In a way there is a difference but yet I can say we are talking about the same thing. I think culture is something that we have [developed] over a long time and it has been part of the norms of the society. It had, of course, been once a fashion and then lasted longer.
We respect and try to preserve culture and we need to understand and document it. As Yefikir that is one of my missions. But at the sometime being inspired and creating something new is what fashion is all about. And along the way these designs will be part of the culture, dynamics is all that is behind this. The 60s, the 70s and all, is about time and documentation. We can always use them if we document. If you look into our collection you find the reflection of this dilemma.
Q. How do you ensure touching base and ensuring continuity?
Yefikir uses local talent, local wisdom and indigenous touches, a production system embedded in the society. This shows how sophisticated Ethiopian society was and is now. Through this we, as Yefikir feel like we are telling a story of unique people. Whatever we do reaches and continues with our clients.
Q. Who are your clients, who do you cater for?
People who actually can and want to identify themselves, their culture, and stand unique in the crowd usually come to us. Those people who want to stay Ethiopian with a contemporary touch, we try to go in between.
Age wise we usually cater for people around 18-50, this is just the average. Women and children make up the bigger customer base. But when we cater for occasions. We cater the whole set for a wedding, where men, the groom and his best men come into play.
Q. Are you not planning to move to include men in your customer base?
We are. The business is really picking up and requests from men are increasing. Some of our recent collection for men was really successful. So expanding the men’s wear is in the business plan. But I can say it needs some more preparation. It needs a unique texture and special fabrics. Our hand woven fabrics are usually loose and weak weave due to the small number of counts. So catering for men in higher number demands creativity in changing the fabric into stronger ones. It is not only about design it needs special weaving too. I am sure we will come up with special fabric suitable for that.
Q. Does that mean designing for men is much more difficult than designing for women?
In terms of design not really, but in terms of material production Yes.
Q. In your industry, we are talking about hand-made, custom-made garments, which in the international fashion industry means very expensive and are considered a luxury, just for those who can afford them. Does the price resonate with those terms here, locally?
Internationally hand-made clothes and items are very expensive. The details and production are so cumbersome calling for higher prices. So here in Ethiopia too they are relatively expensive, but not comparable to the international recognition and price.
Q. Does it pay then?
I can say the business is growing. The major constraint in the current situation is that we do not have a production base. The majority of the supply is order based, which makes mass production impossible. And if the industry has to depend on these hard to get inputs, it will always remain expensive. Little production means high price. But we can survive and I see some change in the near future. We should really invest in strengthening the value-chain without the weavers’ bigger capacity we will remain to be small and expensive. And with all due respect I do not think our customers really understand. We are asked to provide haute couture hand-made products for a ready to wear price.
Q. What is the range of price in your business and the industry?
It depends. The range for couture custom-made products is 14-25 thousand birr. Depending on the design embroidery and details required. We also have a ready to wear price from 650 -1,500 birr for tops and other accessories.
Q. How do you see the system for designers? We have had a handful of designers in the last 40-50 years as a formal sector, and from the event on Saturday September 6, I see numbers within the Fashion Designers Association (FDA) growing – close to 60 members. Why is this happening?
I say it is the best time to join the sector. Anyone with the passion should join the sector now. There is support from the system. Priority is given to the textile and leather industries – incentives like export facilities, duty free machine importation. But the support comes in a fragmented way. I believe FDA is trying to play a role in making the sector friendlier. The awareness has been created and people have started to see the sector seriously. This is evidenced by the number of young people who come to my office asking for internships – free service. The support also comes from our customers, who really pay so much money for the designer made dresses.
Now is the time for the industry to sprint out, and flourish and it has begun. The growth however needs to be structured to be efficient. The association is working in many aspects; economic, cultural values but ethical productions, eco-friendliness and child labour free system, and fairness should and is the priority now. I am happy that it has started to grow in a comprehensive manner.
Q. How did you get here?
I am always amazed about this. I can say I was a designer before I knew it. Now I look back, I realise my mom knew the designer in me before I did. She always allowed me to destroy clothes – patch here and there, despite every family member’s complaint about the damage. Sketching and changing new clothes to my taste started later when I was in high school. When I was in university in parallel I went to designing school. It was a journey that never stopped. It was all passion and a sort of hobby.
In 2009, I joined an NGO as a counsellor for street children. I did not see real change in what I did and started asking deeper questions like what change and development are all about? Working there I saw how dependency and poverty were perpetuated. I reverted to business as a way creating sustainable change. Entrepreneurship and employment can really make a difference. I was contemplating.
Having my first born in the next year put a huge responsibility on my hands. I got the last shot. I needed to manage my own time, to be a mom. All this led me to who I am today; yearn for my passion, higher purpose and motherhood. All created Yefikir.
Q. I see another balance in you than the mother-profession balance you tried to strike. The psychologist and the designer are they connected?
I see the harmony in me. Psychology really helped in understanding people which is basic in business and management. But it gave me some other paradigm of understanding or creating my designs, colour and flow. It is connected in me.
Q. I see your business as a bridge between two sectors, the informal and formal? How does that affect you?
This has been so tough on me and the business. VAT registered company doing business with weavers in remote rural parts of the country like Chencha is a challenge. The gap in the business aspect is much bigger than the physical distance. The situation is the same as the meat market controversy. Regulations, formalities, bureaucracy – very difficult.
Q. What does the future hold?
Establishing an online marketing system is an immediate plan. With that I want to see Yefikir being a world class brand followed brand globally.
For the sector I want Ethiopia’s fashion industry to be a model in ethical and eco-friendly production in the world – creating a whole rounded fair trade value chain for the Habesha libse [traditional clothing] production.
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