Archel Bernard is a Liberian fashion designer and entrepreneur. She successfully raised more than $35,000 target on Kickstarter for her company’s growth and shares with us how someone stealing her ideas got her started in fashion, her ambitions to build a global brand and why crowdfunding was the way to go to raise much needed cash.
Why did you choose fashion as your avenue to make a difference in Liberia and how has your business made an impact on the local community?
I wanted to be the West African Oprah Winfrey when I moved to Liberia. I would go to communities and shoot and edit videos of exciting things happening around Monrovia, and of course the West African Oprah had to wear West African clothing! I would make dresses at a trendy boutique in town, and she would take FOR EVER to get my clothes to me. I was doing my own designing because traditional African clothes aren’t typically my taste. One time I went to pick up a dress the boutique had been working on for about a month, and when I saw her, she was wearing a copy she made for herself, another customer was wearing a copy she just purchased, and another tailor was sewing one for her to sell on her racks! I still had to pay top dollar for a dress she was taking credit for designing. At that point I realized I could figure out a way to do everything I was paying her to do for me, AND possibly make a profit from it if people liked my styles.
I made 8 different styles, found two tailors, and paid them a small amount to make my first line. I didn’t even know I was creating a line, much less a company. I just thought I could make a little money around christmas. I sold out of everything and used the feedback (and money) to make more styles. Two of those same looks are still our top sellers today!
I was never inspired to create until I came to Liberia. I loved the bold colors and patterns. The chaos in the markets and streets, and always the women wore bright lappa to navigate it. Seeing and wearing African cloth made me feel at home. I was thrilled by the design possibilities because from where I sat, we could do much more than tie lappa around our waist.
Two months after selling my first dress, my government contract ended and I was unemployed. My mom hired me to be her driver on a visit to Liberia, and my dad gave me his pick up truck, so I bought cloth with the money and sold dresses from the back of the truck. Slowly, I saved enough money to open a shop. I’ve worked all kinds of jobs to make this happen.
Now our business has grown so much, our tailors get sad when I leave town, not because they will miss me but because when I’m in town there’s always a ton of money to be made!
What are your ambitions for your company and The Bombchel Factory?
I want to build a large factory that staffs and trains hundreds of Liberian women, and offers classes on the side for literacy and business skills. This is about community building and industry changing. I want our factory to rival anything in China for quality, but be the best in the world for human development. I want clothes made in The Bombchel Factory to be sold everywhere from Nasty Gal to Bergdorf on Fifth Ave soon, to prove that there is space for quality, ethical fashion in the most exciting shopping districts of the world.
Why did you choose crowdfunding as a fundraising strategy for your business?
I chose to crowd fund our company because we had hit a point where we couldn’t grow anymore doing the same thing we were doing: small custom orders for under $100 a client. We wanted to reach the everyday girl, but customer acquisition was expensive and there wasn’t much profit in a few custom orders a month. I’m incredibly scared of loans, after having already signed my life over to Sallie Mae years ago, and I don’t think we are big enough to start including investors with equity. Since all we needed was a strong following to preorder our goods, crowdfunding was perfect for people like us. Everyone who backs our campaign knows to expect a wait before receiving their goods, so that gives us a chance to perfect our items and plan our website and New York Fashion Week launch party. We are using Kickstarter to literally explode onto the market, and Kickstarter is good for helping you build a loyal following.
What factors did you take into consideration before starting the crowdfunding campaign and how did you prepare to make sure it is a success?
I had a friend, Chid Liberty of Liberty & Justice factory, also do a Kickstarter for his t-shirt line. He was actually the person who recommended crowdfunding to me.
When his campaign launched it was flawlessly executed. They met their goal in a few hours and even got endorsements from several celebrities. I knew I didn’t have that kind of reach, but I also knew I had a lot of things going for me that I could package. I read every article and watched every video on having a successful crowdfunding campaign and applied what I could. My best friend in Atlanta offered a great photo shoot deal, and my sisters have been known to work long hours for clothes, so I knew my packaging would be spot on. I had a ton of people interested in ordering my designs, but I needed to streamline the ordering process and show the need for my product would gain the same results as having a large network. Crowdfunding has proven I have a market, not just cousins and friends who want to support me.
What message would you share with other young African women who have big dreams but limited funding to make them happen?
I would ask you the same questions Chid asked me:
- You need more money? Yes
- You don’t want a loan? No
- You don’t want equity partners? How much is your business worth? Not enough
- You ever thought of crowdfunding?
You can ONLY use Kickstarter if you have a product. I would also make sure you have thoroughly tested the market, as you don’t want to presell items and not be able to fulfill quality orders. Reputation is everything and that would kill yours. Just prepare, and prepare some more, and keep going because your (company’s) life really depends on it.
Photos courtesy of the New York Times and Archel Bernard.
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