This Fashion Entrepreneur Is Helping African Designers Break Into International Markets

Updated on 23 October 2017

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Mahadi Granier describes her entry into fashion entrepreneurship as something of a ‘baptism of fire’. Not only did she go into a new market and sector, she launched her business in a new country with a different language and culture – Paris, France.

The experience, she says, taught her that when it comes to breaking into a new market, a combination of pure grit and tenacity as well as thorough planning and market research can be the difference between a stalled business and a thriving one.

“I believed I could start from the bottom and work my way up. When doors kept closing in my face, it was the passion and the reason why I was doing it that kept me going. This is my second year in business and without market research prior to launching KHALALA, I would have never lasted this long,” she says.

Granier’s business KHALALA, gives market access opportunities to fashion designers from Africa and its diaspora. They help African designers gain exposure by featuring their work on various European fashion platforms such as pop up shops, retail stores, fashion museums and galleries. In addition to this they provide public relations services, including events management; market research services including lead generation, business opportunities identification; brand positioning for international market penetration and product differentiation; as well as logistics.

KHALALA also helps international fashion buyers discover new and uncommercialised fashion talent; presenting new ranges to retail buyers for sale in their outlets and liaising with designers to ensure supply meets demand.

“Our vision is to see more African fashion designers succeed in the global fashion industry, thus boost Africa’s economic position globally,” she says.

The Ultimate Pivot
Before going into entrepreneurship, Granier was a director at the Department of Trade and Industry in South Africa.

“I had it all. I was a high ranking government official. I was living what most people would call a successful life. I earned well over R1m per annum, I owned multiple real estates, I had the cars, the clothes, everything I could have ever wanted. And yet, I lacked job satisfaction and a sense of contentment and fulfilment. It wasn’t until I realised that I was living out of alignment with the truth of who I was, that I decided to take a leap of faith to pursue my true passion. I quit my director job, packed up my family and moved to Paris, France to start from scratch.”

Granier arrived in France with no knowledge of the language, business climate or culture but with just an idea and conviction, she says.

“It has been the simplest way for me to understand the difference between assumptions and facts”

Market Research Would Solve My Biggest Challenge
The move was not without its challenges. She says that on a personal level, her biggest concern was managing what she calls a professional identity loss and being able to transition from a high-status corporate job to starting a business from scratch with no evidence that she would succeed.

On a business level, her biggest concern was starting a business in a country whose economic climate she knew nothing about.

“My French was very basic when I first arrived, I knew nothing about the business culture, regulations and the French customers. So I have had to thoroughly prepare and conduct extensive market research prior to launching,” she says.

It took a year of market research for Granier to narrow down the concept and identify a niche.

Separate Fact From Fiction
Granier describes the market research she conducted before the launch as indispensable adding that this step of breaking into a market, especially one you may have little knowledge of, should never be underestimated.

“It has been the simplest way for me to understand the difference between assumptions and facts. Without market research, everything is guesswork. By casting a much bigger net, I was able to get the full scope of the market and understand an existing problem that my company could solve. Market research has enabled me to narrow down my target market, understand their needs and pinpoint realistic competitors, enabling me to define my own unique value proposition that differentiates and sets me apart from the crowded marketplace,” she says.

“Every time I increase my personal worth, my net worth increases, and overall, business does well”

I Could Solve A Real Problem
The results of that research fundamentally changed what became KHALALAGranier says. She says when she was conceptualising the business – with no research behind it – her initial assumption was that the biggest challenge preventing African fashion designers from succeeding in the global fashion industry was lack of international market exposure.

“So I thought, being based in Paris, I was better positioned to establish networks and contacts with foreign boutiques that may have an interest in stocking African fashion designs, while also facilitating the designer’s participation at high-quality fashion platforms such as Paris Fashion Week,” she says.

But as she sank her teeth deep into the research, those assumptions were quickly nullified by the findings.


“What research instead revealed was that in fact, there is currently a lot of push from the industry, particularly from South Africa and Nigeria, to break into the international markets. And while there is no shortage of creative talent, the fundamental challenges lie in the lack of business skills and mass production facilities. And therefore, while showcasing designers at international platforms offers them the much-needed exposure that makes their design talent and brands known by potential buyers and direct customers, exposure accounts for a small percentage of the designer’s success.”

She says, having greater market access, and being exposed to international platforms can, in fact, have a negative impact on a designer’s business, if the designer does not have their manufacturing capability across the entire value chain in place.

“In order to ensure sustainable commercial success in the real world of ‘business of fashion’, market exposure opportunities must be followed with multiples of original, innovative designs on demand, at the highest quality, on-time in-full delivery and at the right price. There has to be an availability of raw materials, of trims, of manufacturing capacity, and the finance to convert the customer orders into a final product before a designer can commit to showcasing their product on an international public platform,” she says.

Finding My Niche
One of the dangers of entrepreneurial enthusiasm for first-time entrepreneurs, Granier says, is the temptation to want to be all things to all people and trying to capitalize on every potential opportunity. The problem with that is that one suffers from a lack of focus and ends up being average at best with no real competitive edge.

“I almost fell for this trap, until I was reminded of the importance of having a well-defined niche through a course I took while completing a Masters in International Business at a French business school. I decided to put that theory into practice and what I have learnt so far is that focus on a niche is fast turning me into an expert in my chosen field, allowing me to master the International Business of Fashion subject a lot faster than I would have had I chosen to run a broad-based company that is trying to be all things to all people.”

“The way this is translating into business is that potential customers think of me as a specialist source of knowledge, ideas and collaborations and are even willing to pay a premium. I have become their first port of call because they perceive my services to be coming from a think tank with better or even higher levels of expertise,” she says.

Ultimately, It Was Personal Factors That Determined My Success
As important as external resources like funding or acquiring technical skills like project management are, Granier says for her, success has been attributed more to grit and determination as well as focusing on personal growth.

“What I attribute my success to, is continuously working on myself and investing heavily in my emotional capital. I have had to identify those areas in my life that actively sabotaged or blocked my business from succeeding at a large scale and what I discovered was that most of the obstacles were due to things like procrastination, fear of failure, fear of criticism and surprisingly, even fear of massive success. I was afraid that being successful and wealthier than the people in my social circle would alienate me from them and affect how well they received me. I no longer play small in order to fit in. I never stop improving, because the more I improve, the luckier I get. Put differently, every time I increase my personal worth, my net worth increases, and overall, business does well.”

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