It’s hard to say which part of Catherine Addai’s story is more bold: her personality – the Ghanaian-born designer resigned from a secure full-time career in health care to pursue her own business – or her product, the electric-hued African print textiles that she crafts into artful modern garments.
What began as a hobby, sewing an item for a friend here, another for herself there, quickly grew into a thriving side business, and in 2013 Ms. Addai officially registered her company, an African print fashion label specializing in unique, made-to-order garments, called Kaela Kay. That same year, with just one part-time employee on payroll – herself – Ms. Addai presented her first-ever runway collection at African Fashion Week in New York. Bold move.
“Those first few years were full of growing pains,” Ms. Addai says. “It was me doing it all – designing, sewing, shopping, executing, branding, social media.”
In 2017, after giving birth to her third child, Ms. Addai made the decision to leave a 10-year-long career as a health information analyst to focus all of her efforts on growing her fashion label. Another bold choice.
Since committing herself full-time to Kaela Kay, Ms. Addai has doubled her sales in the first half of 2018 alone. Currently she employs five staff – two production staff, an administrative assistant, a brand manager and a part-time assistant – all of whom are women.
Most of Kaela Kay’s customers shop online either directly from the brand’s website or through Instagram. Ms. Addai also offers private shopping parties at her home studio in Brampton and participates in trunk shows where both new and returning customers can experience the clothes in real life.
The majority of fabrics used at Kaela Kay are purchased from a textiles buyer in the Greater Toronto Area that sources all materials directly from Ghana in West Africa. In this way, Ms. Addai is able to honour her Canadian and Ghanaian roots, and support the businesses within each country.
While all Kaela Kay garments are designed and handmade in Canada, a large portion of sales come from the United States.
“When I started, the appreciation for the craft and the fabric was more heightened in the U.S. than it was in Canada, and as much as Toronto was a fashion city, for whatever reason, it just hadn’t caught on,” Ms. Addai says. “But in the last couple of years, African fashion has really picked up.”
Roughly 80 per cent of Kaela Kay’s revenue came from the United States two years ago, but today the split is closer to 60/40 in favour of the United States. In Canada, the GTA remains the top region for sales, though Ms. Addai notes that interest has begun to pick up in Vancouver within the past year.
Suzanne Gott, associate professor of art history and visual culture at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus, has been immersed in the world of African print fashion since the 1990s and can attest to the rise in African print fashion. (Dr. Gott is the author of African-Print Fashion Now! and the curator of a travelling exhibition with the same title.)
“Ms. Addai’s business model is very astute, as this is definitely an active time for African print fashion,” Dr. Gott says. “If you type ‘African print fashion’ into Google, you’ll come up with an enormous number of different independent designers promoting their brands and businesses online. It is really a booming fashion interest.”
Securing funding or professional guidance for a fashion startup can be competitive, regardless of how trendy the style may be, but those who manage to attain outside support can benefit greatly. Ms. Addai received a boost while getting her label off the ground thanks to the Mercedes-Benz Start Up at Toronto Fashion Week, which provided her with constructive feedback and direction on how to catapult her business to the next level. (The takeaway: delegate.) Today, foundations like the Canadian Council for the Arts, which in 2016-2017 awarded more than 4,200 grants to local artists and organizations, can provide invaluable information and funding.
Beyond Canada, international companies like Vlisco, a major producer and distributor of African print fashion with roots dating back to 1846, provide African designers living in Africa or abroad with financial support, as well as other initiatives such as classes and seminars.
“Over the past decade, Vlisco has partnered with different African fashion institutes and is really supporting the development of African women creating fashion startups,” Dr. Gott says. “They also promote current African designers who are working to establish their brands.”
For Kaela Kay, the rise of African print fashion as a mainstream trend is welcome, and the brand’s diverse client base, which Ms. Addai says includes black, Caucasian, Asian and Indian women, is a testament to its growing popularity.
“In my customer base and from people that I met, it really is about appreciation of the fabrics, the cuts, the prints … [my peers and I] love it when non-blacks or non-Africans want to hear our stories and they want to support us and they want to appreciate our work, what we do, what we stand for and who we are.”
Dr. Gott is one of those.
“From my own experience in Africa and also in talking to people who are seamstresses and designers and tailors, African print fashion is really something that is proudly African, and they want to share it,” she says.
Ms. Addai’s pursuit to make African print fashions a style staple in Canada isn’t a solo mission. Other Canadian-based labels like Fenix Couture and Kwesiya are helping to fuel this growing industry, as are national events like African Fashion Week. While Ms. Addai has shown at that event in years past, this August she participated by presenting the award for Women’s Wear Designer of the Year.