No Holding Back – A Zambian fashion designer’s journey to building a brand in China

Serah Sela is a Zambian-born fashion designer who co-founded a fashion enterprise with her brother Enock Sela in Shanghai, China. I met Serah in Kabwe, Zambia while I was on sabbatical, and we made fast friends since I was one of the few Chinese people in the town of 200,000, and Serah was one of the few Zambians I’d met that had experience in China.

In March 2022, I had the pleasure of asking Serah about her career journey and philosophy. The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

K Tsang: Tell me, how did you start your business, and how did you end up in China?

Serah Sela: As a child, I remember being obsessed with touching fabrics, and growing up I was always fixing up my own clothes. By the time I was 17, my friends started paying me to alter their clothes, and sometimes I would completely redesign them! My younger brother is also extremely creative, and we had spent our whole lives bouncing art project ideas off each other.

My journey to China actually started with a desire to study abroad. Instead of North America or Europe, I decided to take a friend’s suggestion and study in Asia. My brother joined me the next year to study arts while I studied marketing and economics. While there, we continued our collaborative art projects, becoming increasingly involved in design and creative projects at our school. We eventually had our first exhibition at a Shanghai art gallery Shanghai China-Israel Innovation Hub which gave us great exposure in the Chinese media.

We currently do bespoke pieces for individual clients, with plans to expand our brand through the two continents then a world series of growth and events. We will build through translating the unity and togetherness of everyone around us.

KT:      It sounds like it was going well; what made you decide to come back to Zambia?

SS:        Actually, losing my marketing job in 2021 in China was the catalyst for me to come home. I had only been working on my fashion business part-time up until then, so I decided to take the opportunity to double down my efforts in realizing my vision in fashion, and I knew coming back would yield inspiration. With my brother still in China, we both agreed it could be an opportunity to keep our portfolio in China while scoping out new horizons back home.

KT:     Having left Zambia for several years and coming back now, what have you learnt about yourself and/or the business?

SS:      Before I left for China, I had this idea that I needed to represent “Africa” in some way. In China, I learnt two things. First, that it’s not about [me]. The world became much bigger than I had previously thought, and I realized that I needed to find my own voice, to stand in as myself, and it wasn’t possible to be a representative for any place or anyone. Second, I acquired a different mindset in pursuing opportunities. In China, the pace is a lot quicker. People run to opportunities there, are ready to embrace shocking ideas and really push boundaries. The more avant-garde and explosive I went with my work, the better it was received. Each time I brought my colleagues and clients a bold idea and delivered, they would expect it further.

Having been back home since 2021, I’ve been relearning to work at my people’s pace. I’ve been shifting my brain and creative process and learning to take breaks. Here, I am the one pushing folks’ boundaries, conjuring shock and surprise while walking on my clients’ paths alongside them. And interestingly I’ve been finding own voice and strength even more this way.

KT:     What’s your advice for those who are interested in starting their own business or even going abroad to do so?

For me, finding mentors has made all the difference. For example, when I came back to Kabwe, I met a friend through a social gathering that became a client of mine, and she has in fact turned out to be an incredible mentor given her deep connections and expertise in the business community here.

The other thing is to not hold back and keep an open mind. Ideas always seem heavier when they’re just in your head, so put it out on the table – someone will be willing to hear it. Our own personal exploration can’t end; the world became smaller, people have come together from all over the world because of explorers, so we have to continue the venture.

SS:      What’s next for you, and how can people get in touch if they’re interested in collaborating?

I’ll be returning to China in June 2022 to oversee an exhibition we’re putting together for Shanghai Fashion Week. We’ll be exploring the idea of “what’s behind the masks of Africa”. And yes I love collaboration! Find me on Instagram @serah.queen.sela.

As of 2020, apparel exports from Zambia to China were negligible to the degree they were not accounted for in trade data (such as in UN Comtrade database). While Zambia—and indeed most countries in the region—may not have a comparative advantage against China or artificial intelligence advancements in manufacturing (Ekekwe, 2019), China’s burgeoning fashion industry presents a vast landscape of opportunities for African designers to export creative and cultural capital.

In 2019 China surpassed the US as the world’s biggest fashion market (McKinsey, 2019). With a ballooning middle class that has increasing taste for international goods, individuals such as Serah are pioneers in building international interest for South and East African products, with lots more room for entrepreneurs of all scales.

Ekekwe, Ndubuisi. “Why Africa’s Industrialization Won’t Look Like China’s” Harvard Business Review.
04 Sept 2019. “The State of Fashion 2019
McKinsey and Company. 2019.


K(aren) Tsang is a risk and governance professional with experience spanning the financial services, healthcare, and not-for-profit sectors. She is currently Director, Global Enterprise Risk at Manulife Financial Corporation, overseeing its global risk management framework. Passionate about international affairs, K is also a private investor in land development in Zambia, and is a pro-bono board member at Oikocredit Canada, a social enterprise that provides Canadians impact-investing opportunities globally, in addition to being a governance consultant for the Zambia Tennis Association. K holds an M.Sc. in International Management from the University of Liverpool and a B.A. Honours in International Development from York University.

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