A couple of weeks ago, We Are Basket visited the exhibition Fashion Cities Africa in the Tropenmuseum. One of the fashion brands that caught our eye was Afriek. We got in touch with one of the founders of the brand, Sivan Breemhaar, and were invited to step by in the brand’s atelier. Sivan told us the backstory of Afriek and which role the brand plays in society.
My name is Sivan and I’m 29 years old. My business partner, Kars, and I founded Afriek 4,5 years ago, in May 2013. Before we started the brand I studied Conflict Studies and Human Rights in Utrecht. I wrote my Bachelor thesis about political history and how the Western perception of Africa has not changed over the years. During my master’s degree, I decided to do my research in Rwanda, to get a sense of how things really worked over there. In these three months in Rwanda, I was confronted with how biased my own perception of Africa actually was. The West seems to have a general sense of superiority over Africa, and I think this is the biggest problem we face. The image we have of Africa is often very negative and can be, in part, traced back to a negative depiction by the media. I wanted to change this biased perception we have.
What is the story behind Afriek?
After my Master, I had the idea of co-creating slippers made in Kenya, combining design with my ambition to positively influence the perception of Africa. But I was afraid to make this big step and decided to complete several internships first. Then Kars suggested we carry out this idea, changing one thing; colorful blazers instead of slippers. I felt like we had nothing to lose and that I could learn a lot from embarking on this journey. The idea behind the brand is that we wanted to work very closely with people in the industry in African cities. We wanted to work based on equality between us, the tailors, the managers etc, everyone in their own strength. The designs are a combination of a Dutch silhouette, African fabrics and craftsmanship.
How did you come up with the idea of using fashion as your way of communication, seeing the fact that neither of you have a background in fashion?
Fashion has the power to spread our story further than writing articles or working in a bureaucratic government organization. Even better: we are practicing what we preach and learn along the way of building a fashion brand together with our team in Rwanda. In African countries, it is very normal to buy a piece of fabric at a local market, take it to a tailor, and have it turned into a garment. Not only locals do this, but also tourists. Kars and I also did this. This resulted in lots of positive reactions and the basis for an unusual business model in fashion.
Who plays which part when it comes to running Afriek?
Considering we had the same educational background, it was very hard to divide the roles. I am responsible for the creative process and managing the brand. Kars oversees production in Rwanda and takes care of legal matters. Besides this, he is also responsible for finance. Currently, we are looking for someone to help us with sales.
Do you have a designer that works for you or do you design the collection yourselves?
From the beginning, we knew we wanted to work with experts to make this a success. We are entrepreneurs and bring together talented people with more knowledge of the industry. The tailors are based in Rwanda and have been working with African print all their lives. Each designer we work with comes with us to Rwanda to work with the tailors. We chose for this mode of operation because the Dutch designers have a more accurate perception of what the Dutch market needs. We do sell our collection in Rwanda, but with regards to African print fabric, locals are used to making their own clothes rather than buying it from a store.
What aspects of African culture are you trying to introduce to Holland?
Our first goal is to spread equality and introduce people to different kind of stories and products than most people expect from Africa. From the beginning, we made it very clear that we are not providing financial aid, but work with the everyone on an equal level; distinguishing us from other brands and organizations. The tailors work with us on their own terms. Other than this, we also bring the quality of our tailors’ craftsmanship to Dutch culture. And we share the stories of the faces behind the garments; the dressmakers, photographers etc. I think this makes us a refreshing source of information, because we also appeal to those who may not have a close connection to African culture.
How have the responses towards the brand been so far?
The responses from customers and media have been very positive. One of the things people really appreciate is that we always mention the name of the tailor in every piece. Most of our customers are creatives wanting to share their story and looking for clothing that reflects their mindsets. Of course, some find the garments too outspoken and do not feel comfortable wearing such bold prints.
What goes into creating a collection?
All of our garments are produced in Rwanda. We buy our fabrics at local markets in Uganda. This can be a challenge because these particular fabrics easily run out of stock. Due to this, we can only produce a small number of a certain piece which makes all our items limited edition. We are looking to collaborate with bigger suppliers of fabrics in Ghana at the moment.
What do you hope to achieve with Afriek?
We want to provoke conversation. I believe that once we are open to having a conversation we can understand each other better. Our goal is to change the commonly held perception of Africa and to start learning from each other. We aim to add a bit of the African state of mind to Western wardrobes. Through our collaborations that range from creating garments to photoshoots to storytelling we hope to connect people across the globe.
Afriek is currently part of the Fashion Cities Africa exhibition in the Tropenmuseum, could you tell us more about that?
The Tropenmuseum came to us and asked if we wanted to give a masterclass or workshop during the opening weekend. We gave workshops in which we upcycled garments using leftover fabrics from Afriek. We always try to incorporate sustainability into the way we produce our collections. For this project, we got inspired by our tailors who never throw away leftovers, but use them to make small accessories or even patchwork them into garments.