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From Mille To A Million

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It was a gamble that paid off, 8,500 kilometers away from their comfort zone.

Two 21-year-old fashion students, Inés Mille and Marc Collines, left the hallowed hallways of fashion in Barcelona and with just $9,000 in their pockets, traveled all the way to East Africa to set up shop in little-known Kigali in Rwanda, which at the time was building itself – a fully-fledged fashion industry was not yet on its radar.

“Rwanda. It’s where our heart is. It’s where the soul of this company is. It’s where we were born and where everything happened,” says Mille.

Eight years on, Mille Collines, the brand she built with Collines from Kigali, is a million-dollar fashion line that can spotted on the runways of Lagos and Cape Town. Now 32, Mille looks back at the memory with a smile.

“The obliviousness, the ignorance. We were mad and we were so young and we were so crazy. So we said we can do this.”

Mille sits in her home in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, among inspiring pictures of fashion models on runways, African sculptures from her travels and intricate bookshelves. Naturally, it is the epitome of one conscious of subtle African style – much like her work.

Her story goes back to a time when she was young and fresh in fashion school in Barcelona. It was 2005 and Mille was traveling in Rwanda with her mother’s NGO looking for outreach programs to sponsor. Here, she met a seamstress named Antoinette, who trained women and kids to sew.

“She said ‘you are a fashion designer. You have no idea of the handcraft skills we have here, if only you can put your brain in design and their handcraft skills together, it would be incredible’,” says Mille.

The idea hit home. A year later, and in her final year of design, Mille thought it would make the perfect thesis. She decided to travel to Kigali and pursue Antoinette’s suggestion. Along with her came Collines, who at the time was at another school and also looking for a project.

“The funny story is when I went [to Kigali], there was huge resistance from my tutors and the board of teachers at my college. They said ‘there was absolutely no ways you are going to Africa to do a collection where there is no infrastructure. How are you going to make garments in Africa, they don’t even dress in clothes’… I was at a progressive design school in Barcelona. They were afraid that just because I went there and worked with poor people, I would come back with a sh***y collection. That was the spark,” says Mille.

A 50% mark prompted Mille to move to the heart of Africa. They took with them $9,000 in savings and set up shop in Kigali where they developed their first collection, in partnership with Antoinette. At the time, Mille recalls there was no infrastructure for fashion in Rwanda whatsoever. They had to start from the ground up looking for people to work with.

“Many people thought, ‘where are they going? Are they going to be able to do anything in Kigali? Is there even fashion there?'”

Mille’s first designer diary. (Photo by Jay Caboz)

One of her prized possessions from this time lies on the stone table in front of her – their first designer diary. Kigali springs to life and Mille’s eyes light up as she fingers the pages recalling drawing African masks and collecting slivers of material from the markets.

“There were informal collectives of women around the country, which were amazing and very well organized, they’d been doing handcraftsmanship for a long time… Initially, we tried to think everything is going to be coming from Rwanda. If it was textiles, it was found in the markets with a few wholesalers here and there. Obviously, it was challenging.

“I remember some women were doing baskets and I said ‘do just flat disks’. They said what for? I said we’re going to do necklaces. They went crazy over the idea. They then started doing their own earrings and selling them in the market. They were everywhere from corporate to home. It was the thing to have in Rwanda,” says Mille.

Their ticket to success was blending the creativity, strength and culture of the African spirit with ever-evolving global trends.

“There was a lot of intrigue. Nobody was doing this in Rwanda. No other brand existed that had taken handcrafted skills, redone it and made a contemporary product. We were some of the first ones to do it. It sparked a number of other brands to follow,” says Mille.

The team moved in to Kenya, casting their net in Nairobi. The demand was high and four more stores followed. It wasn’t always easy – a store on the coast of Kenya and a store in South Africa failed because they didn’t catch the right market.

“We were opening the door to the African clothing market… We thought if we sell abroad with all our challenges we already have, in terms of logistics, in terms of quality, we needed to align our market. We are producing in Africa; it makes sense to sell in Africa and make this product African.”

READ MORE: Fashion in The Operation Theater?

Along with the birth of Mille Collines grew the fully-fledged fashion atelier, which is owned and operated by the Kigali team that helped build Mille Collines.

“It was the hardest moment in the company. We needed to hand over the workshop to the team in Rwanda. They were prepared. We needed to transfer it and move away from production and focus on distribution and design. Otherwise we couldn’t grow further. It took one-and-a-half years. We sold it to the Kigali team for $1. The employees all have a stake. Rwanda is not in our core business, it’s became an actual supplier.”

Mille Collines

Mille Collines on the catwalk. (Photo by KatGrudko)

Now their journey has taken them to Cape Town and the house we sit in. Their team is here to begin the next step of their journey.

Mille wants to see their clothes hang in major retail stores across the continent and hopefully take an even larger chunk of Africa’s dynamic fashion industry.

“I was the first one to land in Cape Town in 2015. We had to start from ground zero. We had participated in fashion weeks, so people kind of knew us. Our main market it still Kenya. But we’ve been building relationships with suppliers in Cape Town.”

As the company expands, Mille has shifted to purchasing textiles because it’s cheaper. They are also looking to the likes of Mauritius and Madagascar for textiles once their orders get larger.

“You need to find who is better for what. When we left Rwanda, that’s what happened, we became more pan-African. We only produce in Africa.”

READ MORE: From Pizzas To Pizzaz

The company has even expanded in ways they didn’t expect. Without owning a store or being on the shelves of retail outlets, Mille says South Africa is their second largest customer. This is because of online sales and a strong presence on Instagram.

“Instagram is the strongest source for us. We make sales on it. I think it’s because it’s a visual platform. Instagram is my baby. It’s difficult to delegate. How can I explain to someone that an image is not Mille Collines? It’s very tangible, either you feel it or you don’t. We go a lot with how people react when we put images up.”

The brand’s attention to detail and passion for telling beautiful stories continues.

Mille’s clothes have been worn, she says, by the likes of Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o and journalist Mélanie Gouby.

Inés Mille in her Mille Collines studio in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Jay Caboz)

It’s a brand for the African woman.

“She is a mother, an entrepreneur, an individual. She is alive with bursts of color and print and grounded in muted tones of Africa’s landscape.

“In a world where differences are increasingly emphasized and where people are divided and separated, it seemed fitting to celebrate the rich beauty that comes from combining many different influences. We wanted to celebrate the fact that, despite parochial thinking in some quarters, the world is becoming more of a mélange every day,” says Mille.

“I never dreamed I’d open a business in Africa. Not a business in fashion, never. My father was a businessman and my mother was passionate about Africa. I said I was going to be a vet. I loved the fact that [fashion] is a business and art. It’s a space where it meets in the middle. It’s very commercial and it’s very challenging and very interesting.”

For Mille, Africa is the muse that keeps on giving.

Billionaires

Quote Of The Day

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We have grown past the stage of fairy-tale. As women, we have one common front and that is to succeed. We have to take the bull by the horn and make the change happen by ourselves.

– Folorunso Alakija, Billionaire Businesswoman

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Entrepreneurs

From The Arab World To Africa

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Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi; image supplied

In this exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA, successful Dubai-based Emirati businesswoman, author and artist, Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi, shares some interesting insights on fashion, the future, and feminism in a shared world.

Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi wears many hats, as an artist, architect, author, entrepreneur and philanthropist based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She currently serves as the CEO of Paris London New York Events & Publishing (PLNY), that includes a magazine and a fashion house.

She runs Velvet Magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication in the Gulf founded in 2010 that showcases the diversity of the region home to several nationalities from around the world.

In this recent FORBES AFRICA interview, Hend, as she would want us to call her, speaks about the future of publishing, investing in intelligent content, and learning to be a part of the disruption around you.

As an entrepreneur too and the designer behind House of Hend, a luxury ready-to-wear line that showcases exquisite abayas, evening gowns and contemporary wear, her designs have been showcased in fashion shows across the world.

The Middle East is known for retail, but not typically, as a fashion hub in the same league as Paris, New York or Milan. Yet, she has changed the narrative of fashion in the region. “I have approached the world of fashion with what the customer wants,” says Hend. In this interview, she also extols African fashion talent and dwells on her own sartorial plans for the African continent.

In September, in Downtown Dubai, she is scheduled to open The Flower Café. Also an artist using creative expression meaningfully, she says it’s important to be “a role model of realism”.

She is also the author of The Black Book of Arabia, described as a collection of true stories from the Arab community offering a real glimpse into the lives of men and women across the Gulf Cooperation Council region.

In this interview, she also expounds on her home, Sharjah, one of the seven emirates in the UAE and the region’s educational hub. “A number of successful entrepreneurs have started in this culturally-rich emirate that’s home to 30 museums,” she concludes. 

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Entertainment

Kim Kardashian West Is Worth $900 Million After Agreeing To Sell A Stake In Her Cosmetics Firm To Coty

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In what will be the second major Kardashian cashout in a year, Kim Kardashian West is selling a 20% stake in her cosmetics company KKW Beauty to beauty giant Coty COTY for $200 million. The deal—announced today—values KKW Beauty at $1 billion, making Kardashian West worth about $900 million, according to Forbes’estimates.

The acquisition, which is set to close in early 2021, will leave Kardashian West the majority owner of KKW Beauty, with an estimated 72% stake in the company, which is known for its color cosmetics like contouring creams and highlighters. Forbes estimates that her mother, Kris Jenner, owns 8% of the business. (Neither Kardashian West nor Kris Jenner have responded to a request for comment about their stakes.) According to Coty, she’ll remain responsible for creative efforts while Coty will focus on expanding product development outside the realm of color cosmetics.

Earlier this year, Kardashian West’s half-sister, Kylie Jenner, also inked a big deal with Coty, when she sold it 51% of her Kylie Cosmetics at a valuation of $1.2 billion. The deal left Jenner with a net worth of just under $900 million. Both Kylie Cosmetics and KKW Beauty are among a number of brands, including Anastasia Beverly Hills, Huda Beauty and Glossier, that have received sky-high valuations thanks to their social-media-friendly marketing. 

“Kim is a true modern-day global icon,” said Coty chairman and CEO Peter Harf in a statement. “This influence, combined with Coty’s leadership and deep expertise in prestige beauty will allow us to achieve the full potential of her brands.”

The deal comes just days after Seed Beauty, which develops, manufactures and ships both KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, won a temporary injunction against KKW Beauty, hoping to prevent it from sharing trade secrets with Coty, which also owns brands like CoverGirl, Sally Hansen and Rimmel. On June 19, Seed filed a lawsuit against KKW Beauty seeking protection of its trade secrets ahead of an expected deal between Coty and KKW Beauty. The temporary order, granted on June 26, lasts until August 21 and forbids KKW Beauty from disclosing details related to the Seed-KKW relationship, including “the terms of those agreements, information about license use, marketing obligations, product launch and distribution, revenue sharing, intellectual property ownership, specifications, ingredients, formulas, plans and other information about Seed products.”

Coty has struggled in recent years, with Wall Street insisting it routinely overpays for acquisitions and has failed to keep up with contemporary beauty trends. The coronavirus pandemic has also hit the 116-year-old company hard. Since the beginning of the year, Coty’s stock price has fallen nearly 60%. The company, which had $8.6 billion in revenues in the year through June 2019, now sports a $3.3 billion market capitalization. By striking deals with companies like KKW Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics, Coty is hoping to refresh its image and appeal to younger consumers.

Kardashian West founded KKW Beauty in 2017, after successfully collaborating with Kylie Cosmetics on a set of lip kits. Like her half-sister, Kardashian West first launched online only, but later moved into Ulta stores in October 2019, helping her generate estimated revenues of $100 million last year. KKW Beauty is one of several business ventures for Kardashian West: She continues to appear on her family’s reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, sells her own line of shapewear called Skims and promotes her mobile game, Kim Kardashian Hollywood. Her husband, Kanye West, recently announced a deal to sell a line of his Yeezy apparel in Gap stores.

“This is fun for me. Now I’m coming up with Kimojis and the app and all these other ideas,” Kardashian West told Forbesof her various business ventures in 2016. “I don’t see myself stopping.”

Madeline Berg, Forbes Staff, Hollywood & Entertainment

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