Ethiopian craftsmanship is perhaps best displayed by the country’s traditional clothing that combines cotton fabrics with strips of hand-embroidered multi-coloured patterns. During special events such as weddings, guests adorn ‘Habesha’ clothing as they are referred to.
But they are expensive for most people, with some of the priciest garments selling for 15,000 Birr (US$730). Additionally, urban youth who want to keep up with global fashion trends also choose not to wear traditional clothing on regular days.
Fashion entrepreneur Egla Yetnayet Negussie, however, hopes to make Habesha clothes an everyday choice. She runs ES Collections, a fashion business focusing on combining Ethiopia’s rich cultural heritage with modern designs.
“My target customers are the hardest to capture – it is young people. If you walk around Addis Ababa you will see clothing stores everywhere. I try to stand out by blending the modern trendy designs with Habesha designs,” explains Negussie.
A passion for fashion
Negussie always wanted to do fashion, but her parents did not support the idea because it was not a large industry in Ethiopia at the time she enrolled for college. So she majored in public relations in the US. And while in college she found opportunities to hone her design skills during free workshops and seminars.
When she moved back to Ethiopia six years ago, Negussie worked for a film production company but soon opted out to focus on fashion.
“I liked fashion more so started making clothes and selling online. I got an opportunity to design red carpet outfits for a film awards event in Ethiopia and received positive responses. From there I begun teaching myself online sketching and I just kept going.”
ES Collections targets mostly the elite and upper-middle class who “appreciate hand-made products” despite the price tag that comes with it. The company runs an outlet in Addis Ababa, and also stocks its goods in stores in the US.
But changing people’s attitudes toward traditional clothing in Ethiopia has not been easy, says Negussie.
“I like trying new stuff and bringing my creativity alive in my designs. But selling new ideas is hard because most customers are more comfortable buying something they have seen before.
“They are not willing to trust the designer’s creativity so it’s hard to introduce new stuff and profit out of it. It needs a lot of dedication.”
She notes creativity is also a big enemy at the moment because people tend to copy designs and replicate them at lower prices. But the challenges faced in Ethiopia are worth the gains, says Negussie.
“Doing this business in America is unimaginable. The market for fashion design is huge and my space there would be very small. But here in Ethiopia I can actually grow my business. In the US I would work to make enough money to pay my bills – and that is it. Here I started from the bottom, but I have an opportunity to make it to the top and live a life that is beyond paying my bills.”
Difficulties returning home
Negussie says she was motivated to return home by opportunities opening up in the country. She also didn’t want to be like some of Africa’s diaspora who keep talking about “going home someday”.
However, fitting into the work environment in Ethiopia was not easy.
“I left here when I was in high school so I started my adult life in the US. I grew accustomed to the American lifestyle. I went to college there, learnt how to drive there, got my first paid job there and everything else that you do as an adult. When I came back it felt like a strange land at first,” she recalls.
Negussie says her biggest struggle was adapting to the concept of time in Ethiopia. In the US she once got fired for being five minutes late to work for two consecutive days. So she mastered keeping deadlines. She believes lack of respect for deadlines could be a barrier to the success of Ethiopian fashion in the international market.
“In the western world they have a lot of respect for hand-made products. I used to buy handmade scarves for $40 each while the regular scarves would sell for $5. But in order to take our talent to the international market, we have to work hard and we have to respect time.”