Client Spotlight: How Fitted Is Solving the $4bn Fashion Problem in Nigeria's Wedding Market with Technology
With his eldest sister getting married, Ibi Cookey, founder of Fitted, got a first-hand experience of the wedding market in Nigeria. It’s tradition to have an outfit or a fabric that either side of the family wears to represent their affiliation to the bride or groom. For example, if the groom wears blue, and the bride wears red, the 1000 guests on either side would be wearing either red or blue. “I can't imagine anywhere else in the world, where a thousand guests would have such a formalised system of being included. That's what piqued my fascination,” says Cookey. But he discovered that in the days leading up to the event, people were massively let down by their tailors causing a lot of chaos and fabric wastage. “People give them[tailors] the fabric but the outfits come back looking terrible; you have tailors not picking up their phones on time. It was an absolute nightmare,” he says.
Further research revealed to Cookey that it wasn’t just a one-off problem—it was a massively prevailing one. “There are around 200 million people in Nigeria, who have this problem which spans across classes. The Nigerian fashion industry is structured completely differently from its Western counterparts. The low cost of labour, and a need for event-driven fashion, with people sewing outfits from scratch, makes production complicated,” he says.
“When you're using a fabric just to show affiliation, the ready to wear production model doesn't work. Massive bulk buying of fabric beforehand, and putting products in retail stores for people to buy, can’t work when you have different types of fabric that people need to use to show their commemoration for an event,” Cookey explains.
“If you go onto Twitter and Google “Nigeria” and “tailor”, you will find memes about how unreliable Nigerian tailors are. I wanted to find out why,” says Cookey. By conducting an ethnographic study of around 200 tailors over four months, he found that the tailors struggled with significant infrastructure challenges to be able to produce clothes on time. “ While only 30% of people were happy with their tailor after 24 months, what struck me was that the dissatisfaction came from the unreliability of not knowing if they’d get a good outfit on a given day or not,” he says.
“Nearly 20 and 50 billion dollars is spent on weddings annually in Nigeria alone; even more, if you consider the international community. So I felt like it was a worthwhile problem for me to fix. If we can make this market more efficient, then we would have significantly changed the lives of many of these tailors,”
The tailors had their own problems with infrastructure and order management. “These guys were one-man shops, in charge of fabric buying, getting measurements, sewing, delivery and following up on payments. They did absolutely everything from start to finish for an order, which isn’t scalable for a huge wedding,” says Cookey. “At the end of the day, what became apparent was that the tailors weren’t the bad guys. In trying to make ends meet they had to resort to behaviours to try and manage the difficulties of what they were experiencing,” he says.
“Nearly 20 and 50 billion dollars is spent on weddings annually in Nigeria alone; even more, if you consider the international community. So I felt like it was a worthwhile problem for me to fix. If we can make this market more efficient, then we would have significantly changed the lives of many of these tailors,” says Cookey. When he heard that only 30% of people were happy with their tailors after two years, Cookey wondered what they were doing to keep customers happy for that long. He discovered tailors employing other tailors, giving them parts of the value chain to work on, leaving them free to work on the administration. “They hire someone to go to the market to buy fabric, which saves them four to six hours a week on fabric buying,” he says. But the only way to do this is to have sufficient business to fund these expenses, which isn’t an option for these tailors who are completely shut off from the financial ecosystem.
Cookey noticed that while people were raising hundreds of millions of dollars for fintechs, no one was helping the actual operators in the economy do their jobs better, so they could manage payments and other parts of the value chain more easily. “This massive group of people who are generating a significant amount of economic output for Nigeria, not just on the numbers side, but also culturally, they're important to what it is to be a Nigerian today. That's how Fitted came about as a solution for these tailors,” says Cookie.
Fitted handles the fabric purchasing, measurements, logistics and payments on behalf of tailors. Starting just six months ago, they now have a backlog of around 250 tailors waiting to join their platform.
“This massive group of people who are generating a significant amount of economic output for Nigeria, not just on the numbers side, but also culturally, they're important to what it is to be a Nigerian today. That's how Fitted came about as a solution for these tailors,”
The solution Fitted provides is helping them out while also delivering much higher quality solutions for the customer. “Part of what we're doing is building up the sales and front end to be able to deliver sufficient orders for these tailors. They love it because it allows them to focus on delivering higher quality outputs,” says Cookey.
The 3D angle came from the unique nature of the problem that they were building for. “One thing that became very clear after the initial soft launch was the extreme amount of variation in this market. People don’t come from the perspective of going to retail stores and picking up outfits off the shelf; they are their own designers. They expect a lot of customisation and with weddings, they have very loose guidelines on what the outfit has to look like. For 50 groomsmen and bridesmaids, all of them would have slightly different variations inspired by something they saw online which they would specifically request from their tailors ” he says.
“This kind of customisation would not be economical to a startup like us so the most economical way that we could offer these variations was by adopting the 3D modelling approach.”
Now Fitted can offer people the hyper customisation they want, while also saving on costs, and saving the environment by reducing fabric wastage. In their quest to bring in circularity into the existing business model, the need to strip any unnecessary wastage on the logistics side became vital. With fabrics, one of the biggest inefficiencies was the amount of fabric that we were using just to showcase the products.
On the customer side, they’ve found there’s a curve for building confidence, as Nigerians are wary of brands that make promises but don’t deliver. “We found that you're three times more likely to get a good outfit with Fitted than you are with a regular tailor because we allow them to spend more time focusing on producing good clothes, rather than dealing with the logistics.” With each tailor having to pass an aptitude test before they're approved on the platform, Fitted ensures they can deliver on quality.
“As much as it's driven by the desire to imbue more circularity into fashion, the speed at which the tech side is moving is also a big driver for it.”
Cookey feels like this is the future. “The capability to develop AR/VR has gotten so accessible that now the drive to adopt it is equally driven by its quality, as much as to reduce waste and damage to the planet from the traditional methods. You're now seeing brands partner with Snapchat offer filters of their products, which effectively is one step in the direction of trying out an outfit in 3D before buying it; that’s where the world is heading,” he says, pointing out that he’s no longer worries about clothes not fitting right if he just models it in 3D.
A designer at heart, Cookey’s experience in investment banking and private equity helped him in the more rigorous parts of understanding business models, capital allocation, and building solutions for emerging markets. “It has been invaluable in bringing all my expertise to scale a business specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa, to Fitted.”
“It's been a ride, blending a lot of different things that I’m into and I don't think I could do it alone. It's about the team of people who are solving this problem with me and R&Co supporting us on the e-commerce side,” says Cookey. They have two fitting specialists with pattern cutting experience and local knowledge on fabric markets—experience that’s necessary for managing the different fabric suppliers and tailors that they work with who understand the language differences.
Starting with a test run of 200 to 300 orders, Fitted has now worked out the kinks and is moving into the second phase, which is going out to the public this week. “What's exciting for me and the whole team is we're not looking at India, China, the US or the UK; we're building for this market, so we're trying a lot of different things,” says Cookey.