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The Coronavirus spread has impacted every industry and has forced workers to rethink, recalibrate and react in various ways.

I sat down with the CEO of one of Africa’s leading fashion designers and retailers, CLAN, to hear how they are coping with the implications of a worldwide pandemic and how they are adapting to the challenges.

I wasn’t prepared for the passion through which CEO, Teni Sagoe used to respond but I was ready to take it all in.

If COVID-19 has proved anything, it’s that not one part of the world is immune to the impact of a pandemic.

As coronavirus spread with unprecedented speed around the globe, President Buhari was forced to put in place regulations guiding social distancing, isolation and a mandatory lockdown.   

CLAN was one of the first businesses to enforce the #stayhome movement.

CLAN is a premium ready-to-wear brand that specialises in the needle-crafting of minimalist and distinct cosmopolitan pieces through the use of authentic techniques. With its first international showcase at the Mercedes Benz New York Fashion Week in 2014, CLAN has since gained international acclaim and traction for the superior quality and minimalist aesthetic of its clothing. Offering a range of pieces from work-wear to everyday basics to occasional wear, CLAN is quintessentially African in conceptualization while catering for the urban, social and corporate needs of the modern-day woman.
On business during COVID-19

How long have you felt the impact of COVID and in what ways?

Teni Sagoe: We began to feel the impact of COVID-19 about 2 weeks before the government-mandated shutdown.
Naturally, after the first Corona Virus case was reported in Nigeria, we became increasingly worried about putting our employees and clients at risk.
For our employees; our thought process was – How do we equip them with enough information to protect themselves and on a larger scale, curb the spread? It became our priority to provide detailed and specific information on the gravity of the pandemic. 
Our HR team took key steps to mandate the use of masks in the office, educate staff adequately and amp up the sanitary levels within the back office and store – doorknobs and tabletops were sterilised every hour.
With regards to our clients; it became increasingly difficult to ascertain whether they may have been involuntarily exposed to the virus through travel back into the country from countries where cases had been frequently been reported.
We performed this temporary emergency response for a week after which we decided it would be irresponsible to expose our clientele and employees to the risk of something that could potentially grow much bigger than we could anticipate and so we took an executive decision to shut down the store a week before the government-mandated lockdown.

Can you briefly break down the challenges facing you right now as a business?

Currently, we are navigating the inevitable frustration of the fulfilment of existing and potential orders and also of the logistics that come with the same – dispatching orders, offering amendment and fitting services
With DEOLA, the touch and feel aspect of the bespoke and bridal experience is totally lost and is an aspect we cannot easily substitute. There are textures, fabrics, hues and processes that require the physical presence of clients and key personnel for an order to be successfully placed. We are working around this to see how we can innovate as that is always an option.
With CLAN which is mostly sold off the rack, we continue to successfully sell off our e-commerce website.
However, clients will and are experiencing unavoidable delays with delivery due to the lockdown.

What areas of your business have been affected the most?

The Marshmallow store has been significantly affected; quite naturally as all its operations are carried out on site.
Sadly we did not have the luxury of giving our clients up to 48 hours notice to make arrangements to pick up their items due to the need to act quickly once the COVID-19 situation began to escalate. 
Although we can and have tried to do our best to operate remotely, walk-in sales and store-related enquiries have been lost. Production is at a standstill and logistics continue to pose almost, at times, insurmountable problems as the personnel who have been told to stay home are still required to sort through items in the warehouse before they are dispatched.
Logistics partners are also capitalising on the situation and their prices have been hiked up – in many situations beyond rates that are favourable to our clients, however, we continue to find new ways to mitigate this.
With operations in Lagos and London, we mustn’t spare any costs in the delivery of our usual customer service; as much as the present situation would allow.
E-commerce is holding up well and we have taken this opportunity to listen to our clients and gather some feedback which will inform new strategies we are adopting to serve them better post-COVID-19. 

How has the COVID-19 lockdown affected your staff and their output?

We have two categories of staff; the first of which contribute directly to revenues and the second who contribute indirectly to revenues. Each of those employees give daily feedback on their daily output and targets met.
The staff that are directly linked to revenue creation are typically able to work remotely and carry on their job functions remotely.
However, within the category of staff that contribute indirectly to revenue,
there are quite several roles that have now been rendered temporarily redundant due to the ‘on-site’ requirement of their jobs.
We have had to make some difficult decisions with regards to staff who are unable to carry out their job functions remotely. Some of these measures have included salary cuts and in a few cases, furloughs.

What advice do you have for workers stuck at home?

Don’t be made to feel like you’re not being productive just because you have to stay home at this time.
Honestly, I feel the pressing need to say this because I know a fair number of people who are beating themselves up over the haunting feeling that they are not doing something work-related every hour of the day or producing high levels of output by the hour.
The truth is, things have slowed down due to the lockdown and so work volumes are significantly lower; therefore one might find that they have a lot of extra time on their hands.
My advice will be to use this extra time to invest in yourself – acquire a new skill, rest, reflect, rejuvenate, learn something new, rediscover yourself. Use this opportunity to envision a new direction for your career and or brand so you can hit the ground running when everything goes back to ‘normal’.
A lot of people equate being in the office with being productive but as we can see, the world is changing rapidly – the opposite (working from and being more productive at home) might be ‘the new normal’ in a few months from now. And we have to ride the wave.

What do you hope the next 3-6 months of the year will look like?

With stores all around the world closed indefinitely, retailers have been forced to re-strategize and diversify their online sales tactics. There is a need to invest in innovative initiatives to restore consumer confidence and re-infuse value into existing products to push the sustainability agenda. 
Within the next 3-6 months, we hope to implement a more structured E-commerce system that would enable CLAN function intuitively and meet the needs of clients, regardless of their location as well as take bigger steps in the area of sustainability and better waste management.
To operate optimally, businesses will need a model that will allow them to depend less on and possibly run without brick and mortar operations.
This does not apply exclusively to fashion.
Let’s look at other fields.
Why are popular brick and mortar supermarkets in Nigeria only just tapping into the concept of home delivery?
I believe that now more than ever, businesses have a huge opportunity to rethink and optimise their business models to realise greater levels of revenue and more importantly, customer satisfaction.
This is a change for supermarkets to merge delivery services into their day-to-day operations and fine-tune the service so it functions effectively post-COVID
I believe this would have happened quite naturally over the next couple of months/years – the COVID situation just accelerated the process.

In what ways do you need support and from who?

I’ve never been one to wait for a handout to get on with what needs to be done so I don’t wake up thinking I’m entitled to support.
But do people need support?
Do people need money?
Yes! All the time.
However, training to me, is more valuable than money; and education is priceless.
-The government, banks and anyone (with the influence and or means to help) should kindly do so by offering sustained support.
-We also need to enrich ourselves by self-educating on the business of fashion. 
We need to push for regulatory and industry changes. 
Boards, regulations and consortiums that convene frequently enough are needed to help fashion brands use money allocated to them more wisely.
At this moment, designers in Nigeria are struggling with heavy duties that are being imposed on the importation of fabric. Importing fabric is however inevitable because we to a large extent, do not produce most of the fabrics we use. And the fabrics that we do produce are not trademarked or protected –
‘I hear a trademark for Adire has been registered in China.
Imagine that, our heritage!’
Say, for example, the government was to give a sum of money; say N2m to a fashion house to cope with the effects of the virus, would we still have to pay heavy taxes? If so, what will we be left with, out of the sum of money gifted, after the tax duties have been paid and how far would the rest take us?
We want to function optimally and be held accountable but we need new policies around the importation of fabric and more favourable tax initiatives from the government to stay in business especially when trying to recover from this difficult situation.
‘Strategy comes first. Money should be a secondary conversation.’

What steps are you taking to mitigate/combat the impact of COVID?

As a brand, we are using this lockdown to work on ourselves by planning, strategising, rejuvenating and recalibrating. 
We also felt the need to actively join the fight against COVID-19. The  House of Deola, produced and donated masks to combat the spread of the virus. 
The process was challenging, but we got it done.
We manufactured masks using materials that had been tried and tested to ensure sneeze droplets could not diffuse through them.
The area that benefitted from our support was Ogun State. We did, however, experience challenges in logistics, so getting the masks there was not as easy as we would have liked. 

How do you think your industry will change locally/internationally?

 Despite the bleak predictions of a future economy, I strongly believe the fashion industry will use this opportunity to adapt to changing demands, embrace new tactics and take a great and powerful stride into the new normal.
I also believe a handful of countries in Africa including Nigeria, will become huge manufacturing powerhouses.
We, however, need to augur the support of the government in our bid to successfully manufacture, retail, promote and export our own local goods.
‘Where there is a will, there is a way!’

By: Joan K. Vincent-Otiono

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