Beyond the Frames: Elaine Mensah aims to redefine how the world experiences African luxury
Elaine Mensah is the Founder & CEO of Showroom Etc, a consultancy + multi-brand showroom dedicated to redefining how the world experiences African luxury. Showroom Etc works with designer brands in fashion & luxury goods, entities in arts & culture, beauty & lifestyle, and publications and networks in media & entertainment.
A natural at conceptualizing creative ideas, Elaine has worked with brands large and small across industries to elevate their presence and position in the market. She specializes in brand positioning, scaling & global growth, designer & product collaborations, strategic partnerships, and representation in entertainment. Learn more about her journey in Bôhten's latest edition of Beyond the Frames.
What did your life look like before Showroom Etc entered into it?
Before I launched Showroom Etc in January of 2020, I was a mom of two small children (a 1.5-year-old and a 5-year-old) and I was running a small boutique branding consultancy - the second iteration of my business called Brand Meets Creative. In the midst of all of that, I was figuring out what I wanted the next phase of my career to look like.
Prior to that, I was in Corporate as a management consultant for several top firms, specializing in communications and strategy. But fashion was my passion. So in 2006, I made the leap into the fashion industry with a desire to leverage my consulting expertise to focus on the business side of fashion. Since then, I covered Fashion Week for multiple publications, created “SVELTE TV”, produced and hosted a fashion podcast (Fashion BS), created a feature length documentary (The Politics of Fashion) and taught at the first ever fashion program at American University's Kogod School of Business.
As the founding professor of the Fashion and Luxury Goods program, I took my students to Europe during spring break to give them a real tangible experience of what the fashion industry was like, particularly from a global business perspective. That experience sparked my pivot into international business and branding strategy and really was where the seeds of Showroom Etc was born.
What was the moment or situation that made you think “Ahaa! This is a good idea.”My Ahaa moment for Showroom Etc came when we landed our first television show. The show was a non-fashion, non-African, non-black mainstream US television series that wanted to pull clothes from us. It wasn't the placement itself that made it an ahaa moment, it was the subsequent conversation I had with the costume design team. They raved about how seamless our process was and how amazing the clothes were. Until the team worked with us, they had no
idea a company like ours existed. And they were right–it didn’t. Once again, I knew I was on the cutting edge of the industry. That was one of the first times I thought to myself, "I'm definitely on to something."
Did you ever imagine you would be an entrepreneur growing up?
Absolutely not (laughs). Entrepreneurship was never a dream for me. As a matter of fact, I only became an entrepreneur out of necessity. I live in the Washington DC area, which is not known as a fashion city. Once I started my management consulting career, I was engaged to be married and I’d bought a home. I had put down my roots. I was settled there. So, moving to a fashion capital like New York, London, Paris or Milan wasn't an option for me. But, I knew I couldn’t give up on my dreams of having a full-time career in the fashion industry. Starting my own business was the only way to do the kind of work that I wanted to do without relocating. That's really how my entrepreneurship journey began.
Talk to me more about your company - what makes it different from any other?
Our differentiators essentially come down to three things: an exclusive focus on redefining how the world views African luxury, expanding the breadth of that view to encompass the entire continent, and connecting US-based brands to what’s new and what’s next in the African luxury market.
When it comes to how African luxury is defined by brands and consumers today, so much of the world sees African fashion and luxury through the lens of costume and traditional aesthetics, none of which is bad or wrong. But there's so much more to Africa than traditional tribal patterns and prints that people are familiar with. Those are beautiful, but we represent brands across all aesthetics and we want to share all that Africa has to offer to the world.
Secondly, the continent consists of 54 countries and each of those countries and each of those regions have their own aesthetics and their own look & feel. So many of the African designers, especially now and African brands are really speaking their own truth from their own perspective and I really wanted us to be a space where the range of what it meant to be a luxury brand from the continent could be represented and could also position us on the global front. I believe global influence culture-wise is influenced by music, sports and entertainment and, at Showroom, we’re bringing African fashion and luxury to each of those sectors. Our collaborations with mainstream US media, specifically movies and television, is just the tip of the iceberg. Our goal is to continue to bring Africa to the forefront in every sector and to be the bridge between brands, corporate entities, corporations, and businesses that want to source from African brands, or quite frankly are just interested in a new, innovative and fun aesthetic. As a first generation Ghanaian-American, I have a distinct understanding of both cultures and that really works to our advantage at Showroom.
What has been the most rewarding part of the journey so far? And also the most challenging?
Thus far, I would say the most rewarding part has been being able to help our brands achieve a vision or a goal they have desired but felt somewhat out of reach. Whether that was in a product placement on a major film, whether that was even the little things like just being a hub where they can get their retail fulfillment done or process returns. We’re supporting our clients in modernizing their infrastructure, operations and fulfillment so they can scale. That’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of a brand's expansion from a local or regional brand to an international brand. We’re literally right there with them, every step of the way.
The most challenging aspect is quite frankly getting our brands to be able to compete at a global scale on a global stage and having the resources to be able to do so. It's definitely challenging to be able to get them what they need when they are struggling in many cases at different points of the business life cycle to get them to where they want to be.
Is there anyone that’s influenced you throughout your life journey? Who were they and what was that impact?
Now that's a tough one because I have been blessed with some really amazing people who have done life with me thus far and who have definitely impacted my life journey.
The first one is my grandfather. He was a huge influence on my life and on the way I see the world, the way I process, and the way I handle people. I'm so grateful for the years that I got to spend with him and really glean from his wisdom. I'm infinitely grateful for that.
My husband is another big influence on my life. He's influenced my life from the space of just showing what it means to be supportive, unequivocally, and really being that person that has always held me down no matter where my career and my life has taken me. He has also blessed me with my two children who are instrumental in the way I live and the decisions I make.
My biggest influence, however, is God. Everything that I do in my business is faith-led. Interestingly enough, I think that's one of the things that really sets Showroom Etc apart as a business as well. God guides everything we do as a company. I rely on discernment for everything, down to which clients to take on.
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
In the next 10 years, I see Showroom Etc as a multi-people, multi-service multi-agency multi-brand. By that I mean I see Showroom duplicating and triplicating where we are right now and the vision for our company and our brand is well beyond your traditional agency because we're not an agency. We are a company and brand and I really see us growing and being a key player across both the continent and North America in the space of positioning African brands in fashion and luxury.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
The best advice I can give to upcoming entrepreneurs is that no two people's journeys look the same, so do not engage in comparison. It's one thing to learn from others. It's one thing to look at what other people are doing as a guide or even just to get metrics or figure out how best to price what you're doing but do not compare your vision to another person's vision because what God has given you, he's only given you. So, my first piece of advice is to have a vision and work to execute that vision.
The second thing I would say is "it takes money to make money." Knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn't have left my full-time job when I did. I should have waited a little later to do it because again it takes money to make money. But at the time, you couldn't tell me nothing (laughs) but that statement is very true. In order for you to position your brand where it needs to be, you need to be able to fund it. And if you don't have money coming in, the stress and the desperation that not having capital creates will take you off your target and away from your vision. So being able to build enough of a cushion, or having capital or having a revenue stream will allow you to build and grow your business.
Everything else you can buy. You can buy great branding. You can buy PR, you can buy marketing but you cannot buy vision and you cannot buy capital.
How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?
To learn more about what we do, you can connect with us on our website at www.showroometc.com. You can also follow us on Instagram @showroometcetc or Tiktok @showroometcetc or at Showroom Etc on LinkedIn. Lastly, you can reach us via email at email@example.com.
Thank you Elaine for sharing this insight into Showroom etc. and your own personal journey. We applaud the work you do to connect the African continent with the world when it comes to luxury fashion, and we look forward to seeing what you have in store for the future.