Handmade African inspired streetwear – JEKKAH is a beautiful example of how it’s possible to combine fashion, ethical responsibility and a scalable business. Co-founder Petros Solomou shares his best tips and learnings from creating and growing an alternative clothing brand.
It’s a busy day in Camden Market. We sneak in for a break at JEKKAH, one of the most inspiring clothing shops in the area and meet up with co-founder Petros Solomou. JEKKAH truly brings the colourful fabrics typical for West Africa to a wider British audience.
Ten years ago, Petros’ working environment was completely different. Back then he was working with one of the biggest management consulting firms in the finance sector.
– I knew from an early age that I would never be happy working for someone else, admits Petros, who went to grad school with his cofounding partner of JEKKAH, Kamil Farage.
Survival in this market as a small player can only be achieved by originality, authenticity and quality.
Key success factors behind JEKKAH
- (Fully) use social media (over time). Understand that marketing yourself in social channels is work in progress, something to be seen as an investment over time. Don’t mistake social media tools as tools only for selling products, of course we do to some extent but mainly we engage with our customers through social. We’ve learned that hard work pays off!
- Influencers and celebrities – as ambassadors. Competition of using influencers such as celebrities and bloggers is getting tougher day-by-day. Our big break came when Paloma Faith bought some clothing from us during our first year. She later got in touch with us for her summer tour back in 2014. We got a sharp increase in our following and much more visibility, bingo!
- An awesome location. Being located at a location with high footfall can guarantee a certain amount of sales, weigh the premium cost of an attractive location against estimated increased monthly sales and evaluate yourself.
- Clear differentiation. Large high street brands produce at very high volumes and can therefore offer very low prices. Survival in this market as a small player can only be achieved by originality, authenticity and quality. Our goal is to help put Gambia on the map, we want to be known globally as a staple brand in African casual wear.
- Mix of physical and digital. Ecommerce is flourishing. A physical presence adds customer trust, a marketing channel – and of course a place where people touch and feel the clothing.
After graduation Petros went into the finance sector while Kamil, who is Gambian, went back to The Gambia and his family business, a textile import and export business. Kamil used to bring back typical Gambian colourful pyjama trousers as presents to friends in the UK – and the two friends noticed how popular they were. We figured out that we could leverage his family business to make fun African print trousers.
First and foremost we believe in empowering people in The Gambia while we grow our business. We train up new, unskilled tailors to give them a career.
From to trousers to clothing lines – how?!
– Well, we figured out why limit ourselves to trousers?
And from there?
– First we created a website and I would run infrequent stalls in London to test the market. We traded at Portobello, Spitalfields and Brick Lane markets – and did get our hopes confirmed. There was definitely an appetite for our product! When an opportunity to open a small shop in Camden Market came up about three years ago I decided to take the plunge – quit my full-time city job and focus on running our small business wholeheartedly.
Was it a smart move?
– It was and is a lot of hard work, but I have really enjoyed the creativity involved in creating, running and growing a brand. It’s about knowing the customers and understand how to appeal to them – from the message, to the branding, imagery and of course the products, everything! That challenge is fascinating…
Online sales especially in the early days can be very difficult to predict and maintain – opening a shop in Camden with its high footfall added stability.
Any particular pain points?
– Variations in products! With clothing not only do you have to think about different items to appeal different types of customers, sizes and colours add big complications. In order to launch a new range of clothing, the cost of producing the stock with all variants can be huge. Then it’s key to understand which sizes that will be more popular.
It has been quite a political storm in The Gambia…
– Yes, it has meant some logistical complications in having our products delivered to the UK, but we have managed to avoid any disasters although we are sometimes a little late on delivery products to our customers due to unforeseen circumstances. But generally our customers appreciate the challenge in what we are doing and are very understanding.
What does it mean to be an ethical brand?
– First and foremost we believe in empowering people in The Gambia while we grow our business. We train up new unskilled tailors to give them a career. All of our fabrics are bought from the markets in The Gambia.
Our first big break came when Paloma Faith bought some clothing from us at Portobello Market.
What kept you growing?
– We also were fortunate enough to have been appreciated by a number of celebrities and influencers in our early stages. Our first big break came when Paloma Faith bought some clothing from us at Portobello Market and then later got in touch with us and asked us to make outfits for her 13 person band for her summer tour back in 2014. For this to happen in our first year of opening the business meant we got a sharp increase in our following and much more visibility.
Did you life change after you launched JEKKAH?
– Yes! It’s hugely different as I run my own schedule – and do not have to appear in the city wearing a suit and tie and conform to the corporate style of doing things.
Photos: Tina Axelsson
JEKKAH is a great example of a growing business that runs on Zettle. It has helped Petros and Kamil to take payments wherever they are, gathering a picture of performance over time as well as staying in contact with customers.