A look book has the power to turn a fashion blogger into a spokesperson and an independent designer into a household name. But for entrepreneurs Aaron Kohn and Phil Sandick, starting African Lookbook in 2011 was just another way to share stories. “I was living in Botswana for a couple of years, and then it really hit me how powerful oral history is in bringing together underrepresented, or underreported, groups,” says Sandick, a law student at Northwestern University.
The online platform features exclusive interviews with leading African designers and creative entrepreneurs. The stories shared are a reflection of new and old design traditions, serving as a way to connect artistic narratives with leading universities and research institutions. But documenting oral histories is just one part of the site’s overall goal to expand the reach of African-made design products worldwide.
With African Lookbook, users are able to easily browse through a selection of carefully curated items such as a vintage crochet bag or a Merino wool sweater (often spotted on the streets of Johannesburg). BlackEnterprise.com caught up with the entrepreneurial duo to discuss the importance of African art, how they balance school with their venture, and how teamwork makes the dream work.
The Trust Factor
Managing a startup is no small feat when you attend school full time. Based in New York, Kohn is wrapping up a bachelors degree in African Studies at Columbia University, while Sandick, who lives in Chicago, is in the midst of completing a JD-LLM dual-degree program in International Human Rights.
But finding a way to work around busy schedules has become routine for Kohn and Sandick. Trusting each other’s understanding of client relationships goes a long way in using time more efficiently. “We are partners on this… I [always] check in with Phil in the evenings to make sure everything is on the right track,” says Kohn.
A Premium on Passion
To expand their reach, both partners work with a network of curators and buyers who mirror their own passion for the continent’s artistry. “They are really just doing what they enjoy,” says Kohn. “I think everyone should do something they care about.” The entrepreneurs have made a deliberate effort to connect with African artists who take the extra step, and do their best to completely manufacture goods within the continent. Gareth Cowden, founder of Johannesburg-based label Babatunde, says that partnering with the site earlier this year has given his business a clear advantage. “Shipping to the States can be expensive so it often puts our potential clients from America off… it’s wonderful to be able to refer them to African Lookbook for stock, which eliminates the hefty shipping fees.”
Start Small, Then Expand
Both Kohn and Sandick have traveled extensively throughout the continent. Despite their collective experiences of living and working in various countries, the two friends have pumped the breaks and made sure the business doesn’t expand too quickly. Sandick believes that taking action on an idea should only happen after thorough research.
“Be prepared to pivot wherever the idea goes because there are so many ways to do things,” says the law student. “Who’s to say what’s going to be successful?”
The African Lookbook features select items from various regions but, for now, the shop mainly carries goods from countries in Southern Africa. In the next several months, both founders are setting their sights on East Africa.
Treat the Customer Like an Insider
The exclusive interviews with artists and entrepreneurs on African Lookbook gives customers the inside scoop on the design industry in Africa.
“What we are fighting against [is] ignorant African consumerism, dare I even call it ‘otherization,’ where you are like ‘oh, this thing is so cool because it’s from Africa.’ That is so shallow. The thing is cool because it was designed really well… it wasn’t some random European who brought stuff over… it was someone already there, who had really great ideas,” insists Sandick.
Choosing to incorporate an editorial component has enhanced the site’s purchasing experience, giving consumers a chance to connect with items beyond price points and stock photos. From Spoek Mathambo, a young South African rapper, to Senegalese furniture designer Ousmane M’Baye, each narrative acts to showcase great products and gives artists a chance to discuss their creative process without being misinterpreted.
article by Semhar Nyomi Woldeyesus via blackenterprise.com