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IFM to support Benin's emerging designers through incubator programme

By Sharon Camara


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Fashion |Interview

FLY, the new incubator for young African designers. Credits: image courtesy of Sèmè City

In collaboration with the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM), the Sèmè City programme, initiated by the Beninese government to promote innovation and local creative industries, is launching the FLY incubator. Over a twelve-month period, fashion professionals will support and mentor emerging designers from Benin and other African countries.

Over 700 applications were received in just a few weeks, with a dozen places available in total. Between March 12 and April 19, emerging designers from Benin and other African countries responded to the call for applications launched by the Sèmè City innovation hub. The applicants, aged between 18 and 35, want to join the first cohort of the Fashion Led By Youth (FLY) programme, designed and implemented in partnership with the Institut Français de la Mode.

The aim of this incubator is to support emerging talent seeking to enter the fashion industry. They can be entrepreneurs, creative designers, stylists, or just enthusiasts without being professionals. The only important condition is that they want to develop a fashion project in Benin.

Call for applications for the launch of the FLY project. Credits: Image courtesy of Sèmè City

"Our main objective is to identify and support emerging talent. We're looking for people with innovative ideas. We want to support them in developing their projects right through to the marketing phase", Claude Borna, Managing Director of Sèmè City, tells FashionUnited.

After a career in business strategy and marketing, including at Amazon and Sony Pictures in the United States and the United Kingdom, Claude Borna moved into supporting start-ups in the fashion sector. Since 2017, she has been Managing Director of Sème City, an innovation hub in West Africa that includes higher education institutions, research platforms and incubators. The Sème City campus is located in Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin.

Claude Borna, director of Sèmè City. Credits: image courtesy of Sèmè City

Fully funded by the World Bank as part of the FP2E project (Vocational Training and Entrepreneurship for Employment), the FLY incubator will train talented young people in the fundamentals of the world of fashion and entrepreneurship. Over the course of twelve months, the selected candidates will have the opportunity to develop their entrepreneurial skills so that they can design and launch products and services related to fashion and textiles (clothing, jewellery, accessories, distribution, marketing and lifestyle, among others). "In Africa, there are other programmes to support fashion talent, but they select more advanced projects.

"I'm thinking, for example, of the Birimian programme, which supports brands that have been around for a few years and have already developed their business. With FLY, we can select creative talent solely on the basis of an interesting project that we feel has potential."

"The most important thing is to know what impact the project could have on Benin", she explains. The candidates have a wide range of profiles. "For this first cohort, the aim is to bring together different but complementary profiles. We're not necessarily looking for designers or creators. It could be an idea, a medium, a distribution business or a new production method - we're quite open-minded in that respect.

Institut Français de la Mode supports young designers in Africa

Following on from the Birimian incubator in the Ivory Coast, the Institut Français de la Mode is once again lending its support to a programme dedicated to young fashion talent on the African continent. "IFM is undoubtedly the only establishment in a position to support the ambitions of such an incubator. It has the expertise and network of professionals needed to train and support young talent," Claude Borna tells FashionUnited.

IFM visit to Benin as part of the FLY project. Credits: Image courtesy of Sèmè City
IFM visit to Benin as part of the FLY project. Credits: Image courtesy of Sèmè City

Throughout the programme, the selected candidates will be accompanied by fashion industry experts to perfect their concepts and develop their entrepreneurial skills.

The programme includes two five-day face-to-face group sessions at the Sèmè City campus, taught by professors and experts from the Institut Français de la Mode; access to a digital toolbox with autonomous methodological content; group coaching sessions via videoconferences with IFM experts; and continuous individual coaching throughout the programme.

At the end of these twelve months of coaching, the candidates will benefit from subsidies to bring their projects to fruition. "In addition to the technical support, there will also be financial support to help the start-ups that are created. Participants will also have access to low-interest loans ranging from 50,000 to 850,000 dollars (between 46,600 and 793,200 euros)", the Sème City managing director adds.

The first cohort of the FLY incubator will start in June 2024.

Benin's soft power

After Alphadi from Niger, Imane Ayissi from Cameroon and more recently Thebe Magugu from South Africa, will the future star designer of African fashion come from Benin?

In any case, the country is giving itself the means to achieve this ambition. Benin is one of the top 3 cotton producers in Africa, alongside Mali and Burkina Faso, and is banking on the development of its textile industry, but that's not all: "Benin has a very clear desire to support talent in the creative and cultural industries," Claude Borna says. The aim is to promote the country's creative, cultural and artistic heritage and also to have an impact on the national economy".

Since 2016, the French-speaking state in West Africa has developed a number of projects to promote local tourism, culture and art in order to stand out on the world stage.

This ambition has led Benin to exhibit at the Venice Biennale for the first time in its history. From April 20 to November 24, 2024, the country is operating its own pavilion, showcasing works linked to its cultural heritage (spirituality, the Vodun religion, the Amazon monument and more).

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.FR. Translation and edit from French into English by Veerle Versteeg.

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