Lilly Alfonso, founder of the eponymous Malawi-based fashion label, explains how she built her business.
How did you get started in the fashion business?
Fashion started off as a hobby from a very young age – I was designing, cutting and making my own clothes. People started approaching me and asking me to design clothes for them. I kept investing any money I made back into the business and eventually I opened a small shop and created the Lilly Alfonso brand.
The business was born entirely out of passion. I never thought about doing any other career.
What are some of the milestones that helped turn Lilly Alfonso from a hobby into an international business?
In 2010 I won the Fashion Malawi Edition fashion designer of the year award. That was when I started thinking more about fashion design as a business.
Following the award, I was invited to a three-week summer course in Italy. This really opened my eyes to the business of fashion, and helped give me confidence in what I was doing. Since then my work has been featured in fashion shows around the world, including in 2018, 2019 and 2020, where I won the International Fashion Designer Award in Cairo for three consecutive years.
Describe some of the challenges you have faced along the way.
The challenge I faced the most at the beginning was lack of support. Not just financially, but also emotionally. Fashion wasn’t a familiar, or respected, career choice. There was very little guidance on how to go about it.
It took time, but the successes and achievements over the years have lessened this challenge. I also have learnt to accept myself and worry less about other people’s expectations.
Now, the challenge is scaling supply to meet the demand. We have a lot of international demand. But even though many of our materials are sourced abroad – from places such as Italy, Turkey, Ghana and Tanzania – we still manufacture everything in our workshop here in Lilongwe, Malawi, and shipping individual items from here is expensive. So we have distribution partners in places such as Egypt, South Africa and Europe, who we provide product to in bulk, so that we can reach international customers more quickly.
However, Covid also slowed us down and it made us realise the difficulties of distributed supply chains, and this is something we are working on currently.
Who are Lilly Alfonso’s target customers?
We cater for a growing class of people that want to express themselves outwardly, and who like their outfits personalised, whether they are 18 or 64.
There is a lot of demand for clothing in Malawi but we also have huge demand from South Africa and from the diplomatic community, and a growing international demand from across Europe, Africa and beyond.
Identify some of the industry trends you are seeing.
Before, more people were happy with clothing off-the-peg. Now, people want to experiment more. They want to come up with their own style and fit. Around half of the items we sell now are bespoke. And that includes working with customers to advise them on what works best based on their skin tone, their body size and the events they will be attending. As an example, our jackets start at around $100 a piece but, depending on the style and the fabrics, the bespoke pieces can reach well over $1,300.
Interestingly, the men’s market has really grown in the last five years. Now, 65% of our clients are men. What has changed is that men tend to ask a lot of questions – they want clothing that is bespoke and specific to their own tastes – whereas women are more likely to buy off-the-peg.
How do you reach new customers?
We don’t do much traditional marketing. We have a lot of organic growth through word-of-mouth, and international exposure through fashion shows and my interviews with the likes of BBC and CNN.
When it comes to marketing, the story is very important. When you wear our clothing, you are not just wearing the fabrics but you are wearing the Lilly Alfonso story. You are supporting our 100-year vision to support young people in the creative industries, and to promote African creatives on the global stage.
What are your future plans for the Lilly Alfonso brand?
As we move more into mass production, I want to try and remove myself from the production process. I have been training a lot of young people, some of whom go out on their own and define new markets and some of whom stay and work within the Lilly Alfonso line.
We are working on building out three lines. First, there is the existing Lilly Alfonso brand of bespoke and read-to-wear clothing.
Second, we have individual designers that we have trained and supported that will operate their own lines within Lilly Alfonso (‘Lilly Alfonso by XX’).
Thirdly, we are working on building a platform that allows independent designers to sell their pieces through us. This is already something we are doing in our physical store in Lilongwe. Oftentimes designers can’t afford their own rent or marketing, so we devote a section of the store to pieces from other designers. This platform is not yet online although we hope to launch it before December. We don’t want to start showcasing clothes online until the production and distribution are ready.
Many people dream of running a successful clothing brand, but more often than not it fails. What do you think are the reasons for your longevity?
You need to have patience and be willing to overcome failure. In the creative sectors, it can take a lot of years for money to start coming in, and there are a lot of challenges such as people putting you down and telling you you will not succeed. If you truly want to succeed in the fashion industry, you have to be prepared to make sacrifices and have patience. You cannot have success without failures along the way.
Secondly, you need to have a willingness to learn and openness to asking lots of questions. Get outside and speak to others who have travelled the same road before. In Malawi, we don’t have much in the way of fashion industry, so you may need to push yourself outside to get exposure to new ideas; if you cannot travel then the internet can be very useful in this respect.
Finally, many fashion designers are misguided about what growth means and what it takes to grow. They want to use shortcuts, to be handed everything on a silver platter. Most of all, they won’t invest emotionally, financially and physically. People make excuses. For example, that they don’t have the correct machines. Start with what you have, take a risk. You don’t learn from just sitting around.