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Ghana Must Style

Titi Ademola designs for fashion’s future.

COURTESY OF TITI ADEMOLA

Titi Ademola is about to watch “Scandal.” Airing via satellite in her Accra living room, the American show with an international cult following is the brainchild of Golden Globe–winner Shonda Rhimes, who trounced Hollywood convention by casting the first black female to lead a network drama in 40 years.

Like Rhimes, Ademola has vision.

The Nigerian-born Ademola, alum of both the London College of Fashion and American Intercontinental University, moved to Ghana in December 2002 to start a Made in Africa ready-to-wear line for children. Even today, such a decision would elicit a “Tweaa” — the Ghanaian catchall for dismissal.

Ghanaians interested in ready-made clothing tend to buy overseas or at “bend down boutiques” in local markets, where donated wares are sold cheaply in bins that customers stoop to sort through. When it comes to fashion made in Ghana, most patronize seamstresses for custom pieces.

Twelve years ago, the African ready-to-wear market was even more minuscule. For example, when Ademola started her line, Beyoncé’s little sis, Solange, was not yet aVogue darling sporting African head wraps and sharing pics of Kigali street style via social media. Burberry was years from producing its spring 2012 line, featuring the Ankara fabric emblematic of West African apparel. And international retailer ASOS had yet to create a sub-brand dedicated to the continent. At the same time, Ghana was sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest importer of used clothing.

Still, Ademola saw opportunity.

A decade had passed since Ghana’s return to democracy after 27 years of on-and-off military rule. The nation had become appealing to expats looking for a politically stable hub on the continent.

If I could offer something like a nice boutique or store you would see in the States or England, she remembers thinking, that could be great.

Ademola set up KIKI Clothing in her mother’s garage, recruited a tailor, and together they sewed off-the-rack styles for kids. Three years later, responding to demands from her customers’ mothers, she expanded into womenswear.

The timing optimized the government of Ghana’s 2004 initiative to protect the domestic textile market. The “National Friday Wear” campaign, as it was called, encouraged Ghanaian professionals in particular to don African dress on the last day of the workweek.

Today, KIKI Clothing boutique occupies a prime spot in Accra Mall, where it’s known for its Afro-chic leisurewear for women and children, plus the tailored men’s shirts she began designing in 2011.

Ademola’s business grew at a steady clip as Ghana’s — and Africa’s — fashion and retail industries evolved. “Africa Rising,” the optimistic catchphrase reflecting the continent as the center of the world’s fastest-growing economies, had started making repeat appearances in international coverage, and foreign fashion players noticed.

In 2011, Lagos Fashion and Design Week debuted. A year later, Vogue Italia media sponsored the first-ever Ghana Fashion and Design Week, and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week launched its inaugural African edition in Johannesburg. Most recently, Ademola was one of four designers selected to showcase her work as part of the 2013 AltaRoma Ethical Fashion project.

Exposure notwithstanding, Ademola is less focused on fashion shows than on the logistics of running her company. There are the usual concerns: contending with knock-off artists and keeping staff motivated, not to mention the realities unique to doing business in Ghana.

Operations can be tricky when it comes to government rationing of utilities, Ademola says, citing almost five months of sporadic electricity delivery in 2013. The unexpected expense of a generator and diesel costs, plus “the tailor having to do overtime to balance light coming or not,” she says, “was a bit of a challenge.”

Quality control can also be an issue. Raw talent abounds, but the paucity of training schools leaves many garment workers unable to produce refined garments with consistency.

Working with highly skilled artisans who specialize in handmade pieces has its impediments as well: In our now-global economy, customers expect fast and punctual delivery, no matter how time-intensive and painstaking the work required.

Ademola faces these hurdles as they come and rises above them, offering internships to students and adults who want to build their skills — a practice especially valuable in a country whose unemployment rate is estimated at 11 percent.

She regularly contributes to charities that benefit women and children, including local school building projects, the U.N.’s 2006 “Catwalk the World, Fashion for Food” show, as well as fundraisers supporting Haitians devastated by the 2010 earthquake.

For Ademola, seizing opportunity is just as important as creating it for others. And as her experience has shown, prospects are usually found outside of conventional wisdom.

“Maybe we could focus more on specially made pieces that are handmade a few at a time, not mass-produced,” Ademola muses, her wheels turning as the credits for Rhimes’ “Scandal” roll. “Maybe there’s a market there… ”

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is a New York-based Ghanaian writer and the author of Powder Necklace (Washington Square Press). Named among the 39 most promising African writers under 39, she will be featured in the forthcoming anthology Africa39 (Bloomsbury).