Ines of Mille Collines talks brands, burnout and business in Africa

Last week in my review of #MBFWJ16, I spoke about the incredibly moving Mille Collines show. This week I’m sharing some insights from Ines Cuartecasas, one of the brand’s co-founders and designers. Working alongside fellow co-founder Marc Oliver and the team’s new addition Namnyak Odupoy, the brand creates understated everyday elegance for the modern African women, made within Africa.

On The Brand

“The ethos of the brand is ‘Africa First’, in everything we do Africa comes first. Whether it’s sourcing of materials, production, marketing, anything that has to do with running a fashion business, we try to keep within Africa as far as possible”.

On The A/W 2016 Collection

“This collection went back to the start of the brand’s strongly artisanal point of view, we used hand craftsmanship and turned tradition into something contemporary. The concept of the collection was Curio / City, it came from African curio stores and turning that concept upside down. The Mille Collines customer is an Afro-polite woman, we took something that is so connected to her upbringing and what the world thinks Africa is and turned it around. Turned the curio into beautiful objects of obsession.”

The collection started with the brand’s signature flowing garments and kimonos, a strong suiting section followed which is a first for the designers. Lastly, an elegant cocktail section, “ very classy- it features three-dimensional beading done by Masai woman.” mused Ines. The collection was also highly collaborative, with work from a group of aforementioned Masai women, a sunglasses collaboration with Cape Town sunglasses brand Ballo and the laptop bags were by Wren Cape Town using prints by Mille Collines.

On Working in Africa

I asked Innes about the challenges and positive aspects of developing a business in Africa, many investors only see the hardships that working in the continent offers but the Mille Collines team see opportunities first. “There is less competition, so there is more opportunity for African based brands who are doing it for Africa. Secondly, the artisanal side of it. We’ve been able to work with artisan collectives and there are very few places in the Western world where you can do that. You couldn’t do it in Spain for example.”

There are, of course, challenges, Ines highlighted a lack of infrastructure and data as two of the biggest. She mentions a lack of electricity and power outages, minimal reliability and having to plan movements in Nairobi and Lagos because of the infamous traffic in those cities. “For us opening a store in Nairobi for the first time, we didn’t really know where the best location was or if there was any data we could compare with. There was nothing like that. It was jumping without no net. We used to sit outside places and watch who came in and out- the old way! No information whatsoever, just intuition.”

 On The Current State of Fashion

Innes and I started discussing the current phenomenon of creative burnout, the questioning of the fashion cycle and the changing role of Fashion Weeks. Countless designers are leaving posts at leading luxury houses and Burberry are changing their business to give customers immediate access to runway looks. “I think it’s absolutely crazy and there has to be an intersection point. We’re getting to a moment of complete change. Doing four collections a year like that is impossible. It doesn’t make sense.”

Ines also thinks the relatability between the runway and the customer needs to be closer, “You need to think about what you’re producing to go to stores and what your customer really wants to wear and dress it on the runway so people don’t get bored. At the end of the day, we don’t wear flamboyant things.” She also spoke about dividing up collections into smaller capsules so that the time a collection is in store becomes extended. “The key is bringing realities closer or it’s no longer sustainable.”

“And I hope Africa takes the opportunity to be innovators in that field, because of the industry not being as mature as in other places… there’s a gap there. There’s room for innovation so there’s room for risk, we’re going behind by trying to emulate instead of moving forward. So that’s food for thought, especially for South Africa. The industry here is more mature compared to the rest of Africa, so they can’t fall back.”

On Starting Mille Collines

 Mille Collines is a French name that translates to ‘One Thousand Hills’, it’s what Rwandan’s call their country, ‘The land of a thousand hills’. It’s the birth and the origin of where Mille Collines came from. Ines had experienced Africa differently to most tourists, because of her mother’s connection to the region through NGO projects. While she was studying Fashion Design, she formed a deep connection with a Rwandan woman who ran a clothing workshop, they decided that Ines could manufacture in that workshop and both Ines and Marc went on to produce their final college collections there.

It was the negative reaction from her lecturers that cemented her passion in showing the world how beautiful fashion produced in Africa really is. “I couldn’t believe that level of ignorance and they were telling me things like I should go for table runners or something less ambitious than fashion.” After gaining experience in Spain’s fashion retail section Ines and Marc returned to Rwanda and founded Mille Collines in 2009. The brand now has its own workshop in Rwanda and four stores in Nairobi, Kenya.

To learn more about Mille Collines, see their website.

Images supplied and SDR/ Simon Deiner

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