Trending Now: In this week’s Tête-a-Tête, we catch an exclusive interview with Daphne Kasambala, CEO and founder of ethical UK-based e-store Sapelle. Specializing in original fashion and accessories saturated in bright, bold African tribal prints, designs are sourced from brands, artisans and social enterprises from all over Africa.
TS: How did you first come up with the idea for the Sapelle online store?
DK: I’ve always loved the vibrant prints and textures originating from Africa, which I grew seeing all around me in Malawi. I started seeing these prints crossing over from the realm of costume and traditional attire into contemporary fashion circles, fused with Western silhouettes and textures; I’d seen it on the couture runways and here and there on the street, but nowhere accessible for ready-to-wear. Unfortunately, although the inspiration was clearly drawn from Africa, it made me sad that there was nothing of the amazing craftsmanship and creativity input from Africa itself. I decided to launch Sapelle as a platform for high street fashion with a distinctive – and authentic – touch of Africa, with a range of looks sourced from around the continent. I was convinced that the market would welcome our concept.
A set of exciting new fashion that still loves the female form, but brings with it colors and textures that have as yet only made fleeting appearances.
TS: What does Sapelle offer customers that other e-tail sites don’t?
DK: Sapelle women a unique and high quality shopping experience with original, contemporary pieces they won’t find anywhere else. We’ve sourced and curated exclusive fashion from the most talented contemporary designers around Africa who draw their influences from a whole different landscape while keeping their finger on the pulse of what women in the West want.
TS: Being a UK-based site, what made you want to specialize in African-inspired fashions in particular?
DK: Besides filling that gap I saw in the market, we found a growing number of established designers around Africa who were serious about their craft, were hugely talented and understood what the cosmopolitan woman loves. Designers who wanted to reach out to these women, but didn’t have the means to reach the global market. Also, we wanted to democratize African design; take it out of that inaccessible category of ‘costume’, showcase its value and give it a place on the global fashion stage.
TS: How and where do you source your products?
DK: We have over 40 accessories and fashion labels on our supplier list, and the majority is from East, West and Southern Africa, with a small number based in the UK and Europe.
As an ethical company, we only work with socially and environmentally responsible suppliers who provide fair working conditions for their staff and fair trade with their supply chain; there’s a lot of collaboration and interaction that goes on.
TS: What kinds of factors influence the curation of the site as a whole – are there any specific themes/moods/concepts that create the ‘look’ in any given month or season?
DK: We’re running four season collections this year, to give customers consistency with the rest of the high street. In terms of themes, perhaps the most colorful is High Summer, which features a riot of color for holiday and weekend using a lot of the cotton fabric most people call ‘African print’. Otherwise, we take into account seasonal factors like weather in our sourcing, and we’re working with our suppliers towards more innovation in terms of textiles and cut.
TS: Would you say that your collections are especially trend-led at all – or are you offering a broader wardrobe experience?
DK: Definitely wider than the current trends. In our buying decisions, we’ve found that our customers already know what their ‘look’ is, and what suits them. So, we combine the originality of African prints with a Western color palette and silhouettes that are both classic and stylish. The majority of our customers take note of the current trends but generally, their shopping decisions go deeper than that; they’re seeking classic pieces that do justice to the prices they’re paying for them. I think the recession has really reinforced that sense of acquiring pieces that add value to the wardrobe.
TS: How has the response been so far?
DK: It’s been hugely positive – and what’s surpassed our expectations is the response we’ve had from women of all backgrounds, not just those of African descent. We’ve held several pop-up shops in London since we launched, and the vast majority of shoppers are women who are simply drawn to the original prints – not from any nostalgia for Africa, but just because the prints caught their eye.
TS: Name three key brands that we should keep a look-out for on the site.
DK: This is a really hard one, because each of our brands is a pioneer with tons of originality – but Kooroo, MOYO and Embody are brands that are creating understated beauty in each of their pieces. They’re pushing the boundaries in terms of their interpretation of the fusion of African and Western.
TS: Have you got any exciting new developments lined up for 2014?
DK: After dabbling in it for the last two seasons, we’ll be launching our own Sapelle label in Summer 2014. It’s an experimental line, on a mission is to showcase textiles and effects that are hardly recognized in a modern fashion sense. For instance, there’s a hand-weaving tradition in many cultures around Africa, producing some gorgeous, rich textiles, and we haven’t even started to scratch the surface with regard to how we can bringing these into modern use.