On view since June and closing at the end of this week, Africa Fashion has been featured at the Brooklyn Museum and celebrates more than 70 years of global influence through a display of over 180 pieces. Originated by the V&A, this has been the first North American presentation of the show and is the global debut of ALÁRA, a Lagos-based concept shop offering fashion, design, cuisine and culture. Brooklyn Museum’s Entrepreneur in Residence, STORY Founder and CH hero Rachel Shechtman is responsible for bringing this partnership together. We caught up with her about working with ALÁRA founder Reni Folawiyo, her son Sayo and the the teams from Brooklyn Museum, V&A and ALÁRA to create an extraordinary example of museum retail.
You’ve added museum retail and experience to your repertoire somewhat recently. What aspects of it are new and different from your past experience?
While the function and role of a cultural institution and that of a retailer is quite different, I am continuously surprised by how much they are similar. From operations to opportunities to challenges, it is interesting to see similar patterns and shared experiences. I guess when I think of it, retailers and institutions share an important goal—getting attention from visitors and consumers.
In terms of thinking of specific differences on the nuts and bolts of traditional retail vs museum retail, it shows up the most in merchandising. In addition to trend, audience and vision driving the assortment, there are additional layers to curate and create a merchandise mix in the store that simultaneously relates to the museum’s brand, to the ethos of its permanent collection and then its rotating exhibitions.
What are the untapped opportunities you have observed of museum retail?
I have been wondering why more museums don’t collaborate with each other?! Seems like there could be some institution and exhibition specific collaborations across various museums that could be very interesting. Beyond that I feel like in general museums have the ability to pull from their broader community in terms of location—how can museum stores go beyond being a platform for the museum itself and broaden its engagement with its community through its shop?
How did the retail experience for Africa Fashion at the Brooklyn Museum come to be?
In early 2022 I received a Linkedin note from my now friend Sayo Folawiyo introducing himself and his mother’s company ALÁRA, a Lagos based concept shop that features an impressive range of African brands alongside European luxury brands like Christian Louboutin and YSL. Sayo was interested in speaking as he wanted to explore new opportunities for his mom’s business. Very long story short, we stayed in touch and I ended up going to Lagos in October 2022 to meet Sayo and his mom, ALÁRA Founder Reni Folawiyo. I instantly felt inspired and engaged with the local creative community and when I went to ALARA for the first time I was speechless—it’s such a special place.
By this time, I had just joined the Brooklyn Museum as Entrepreneur in Residence and knew we were bringing the V&A Africa Fashion exhibition to NYC. It seemed like the perfect fit, inviting ALÁRA to have their global debut as the exhibition shop for Africa Fashion at the Brooklyn Museum. What better way to bring authority and authenticity to an exhibition about Africa Fashion than to have a leading African Fashion Concept shop come to Brooklyn—fast forward, and it happened!
How did you approach complementing the exhibition with the store?
We worked very closely with the curatorial team, led by Sills Foundation Curator of African Art Ernestine White-Mifetu and Bard Graduate Center/Brooklyn Museum Postdoctoral Fellow, Arts of Africa Annissa Malvoisin, to ensure the direction and the assortment was a fit with their vision. We wanted to ensure we were working in lock step, so as details evolved, they would also update the retail team. When new designers like Christopher John Rogers were added to the exhibition, we were informed so we could then include them in the shop—in this specific case, we sold the same dress in the shop that was featured in the exhibition!
Since we wanted to maximize the amount of Featured Exhibition Designers in the shop itself, we shared the assortment and all details up until the final hours. Annissa collaborated on each individual piece of signage we created for the store. And, when it was all complete, we overheard many people sharing that the store felt like an extension of the show—so it was nice to see the collaboration materialize and resonate with others.
What were some highlights of the Africa Fashion retail store experience for you?
The best part of the overall experience was discovering so many new brands that Reni Folawiyo and her ALÁRA team curated—from ceramics to teas, from t-shirts to skateboards, there was an impressive mix of over 70 new brands.
It was great to be able to see designers I met while in Lagos, like Patience Torlowei, who were both in the exhibition as well as in the shop alongside select US brands. We featured Jeff Staple’s Myles magazine whose creative director is Nigerian-born NY based photographer Ike Edeani, who I also met on that trip. And lastly, it was great to support independent brands and businesses like Res Ipsa who recently opened a store in Nolita featuring their signature collection made in Morocco.
Where do you go from here for the Brooklyn Museum?
I am excited and focused on learning and doing more beyond retail experiences; I am exploring visitor experience related opportunities around the Museum’s 200th anniversary coming up! So stay tuned…