Fashion Cities Africa (Part One)

Fashion Cities Africa (Part One)

African fashion is HOT today. Hands down – it’s the most innovative, exciting contemporary design scene on the globe. From couture to street-hip, it’s not only buzzing on the continent itself, but also influencing style internationally. In the last decade, there’s been a huge surge of interest in contemporary African art and design, as well as in its value. Now, for the first time, a major exhibition dedicated to modern African fashion is on show in Brighton, southern England, a city always a champion of the avant-garde.

The show and the highly collectable book, both titled Fashion Cities Africa celebrate the emergent or established fashion and style landscapes of four cities at the compass points of the African continent – Lagos, Nairobi, Casablanca and Johannesburg. The exhibition focuses on style choices of individual ‘fashion agents’ or key players from each city. These include designers, stylists, photographers and bloggers. Their choices celebrate each city’s clothes, jewellery and accessories – both real – on mannequins, and virtual – via images, film, sound, and elements of a tailor’s workshop. They evoke the vibe, the drama and creativity of the distinctive cities.

Some African designers are now major players in international fashion. Others sell primarily to a local audience. They are all creating style on the interface between global fashion influences and local culture. Craft heritages play a major role.

For too long, books on African style/design have been written by anthropologists and ethnographers. So now let’s hear the voices of those who create and wear it today.


“We are known for being rambunctious and flamboyant”, says Tokini Peterside, a strategy consultant specialising in African luxury. “But here you have to stand out. Otherwise you drown in the noise and volume of people”. Bubu Ogisi of I.AM.Isigo draws on everything for her designs from the movie Calamity Jane to the Wodaabe Fulani people of northern Nigeria. She says: “What drives us all is the stress of living here, which actually makes you more creative. There is beauty in the chaos!”

“Nigerians are the new sexy. With the spotlight being shone on our creative industry, we can grow and use it to do something positive. It’s time to step up and deliver,” says Hauwa Mukan, radio and TV producer and presenter. Chinedu Okeke, brand consultant and festival producer, adds: “I want to see our brands consumed in the mainstream internationally. That’s where they need to be.” And those ‘brands’ include fashion. Deola Sagoe and her daughters Teni, Aba and Tiwa, work together, and showed at New York Fashion Week in 2014. “When I started out, being a designer wasn’t cool, people dismissed you as a tailor,” says Deola. “Now I see so many designers thriving. Fashion is part of our culture. Nigerians appreciate beautiful things and are taking the industry seriously.”

The profile of contemporary Nigerian fashion began to be defined around 2008 with the launch of Arise magazine. For her label Jewel, Lisa Folawiyo reinvented ankara (Dutch wax cloth) as a luxuriously embellished fabric. This printed textile had been synonymous with West African style since its introduction in the early 19th century. Now a new generation of Lagos designers continue to push boundaries by digging into their culture to develop fresh takes on centuries-old crafts, fusing them with international influences. Maki Oh’s Apparel reinterprets adire, traditionally made by Yoruba women in southwest Nigeria, using indigo resist dyeing techniques. On Fridays, professionals are encouraged to ‘wear traditional’ to work. There’s noticeably more pride in African style, music and everything cultural, rather than adherence to Western brands that show you have travelled. In fact, many Nigerians are moving back home from abroad, including designers.

When Amanda Osakwe, founder of Maki Oh’s Apparel returned from the UK, she went to Nike Davies Okundaye to learn how to produce adire fabric. Specialising in creating textile art since the sixties, Okundaye now has the largest art gallery in West Africa, in Lagos. She has also established four further art centres across the country specialising in craft skills such as weaving, embroidery, dyeing and beadwork. Today, she exhibits across the world, is a women’s rights advocate, and inspires a new generation of Nigerian designers. “Now I teach women skills that will earn them money to feed and educate themselves”, she says. “They can make a living through textiles. People wear our fabrics to communicate. There are over 400 adire designs and each one has a meaning.”

Okundaye has played no small role in the fact that “new designers are going back to their roots to use traditional designs and organic fabrics in a contemporary way,” as she says. But she is “worried about our fabrics. The ase-oke loom is dying out. The government has to make new efforts to provide us with high-quality cotton.”

However, other style luminaries are recognising the need to protect and develop craft traditions. Design consultant Yegwa Ukpo and his wife founded the menswear store Stranger in 2013. It not only stocks clothes created by experimental Nigerian designers not readily available elsewhere, but also has an indigo dyeing pit. “Indigo holds such history and mystique for Lagosians”, he says. “So we are offering dyeing workshops and in the future, we want to introduce weaving workshops. It’s my goal to prove that it’s possible to make something contemporary on our looms, to bring crafts from our past and project them into the future. This country needs to import less and make more. It’s time to be proud of “made in Nigeria”, create sustainable jobs and support the economy.”

The Lagos fashion scene swings from reinterpretation of traditional crafts to an industry that also promotes e-commerce, sometimes embracing both. As strategy consultant Tokini Peterside says: “Lagos now has respected brands but they largely remain one-woman shops. For the industry to grow beyond that, they need significant investment”. Reni Folawiyo of Alára, Lagos’ first luxury concept store, designed by internationally acknowledged architect David Adjaye, has set the bar high, way beyond one-woman shops. “I want Alára to turn the tide of negative discourse around Africa, and begin to communicate a new story to a pan-African and global audience that redefines the beauty and possibilities of African luxury”.

Reni Folawiyo (Lagos) photographed by Lakin Ogunbanwo

Reni Folawiyo (Lagos) photographed by Lakin Ogunbanwo


High-end Nairobi labels also have a fresh take on using traditional fabrics, as well as on the tailoring heritage of the city. Smashing the clichéd stereotype that Africa doesn’t do luxury, Ami Doshi Shaha and Adèle Dejak are accessory and jewellery designers who source local materials to create bespoke pieces of high sophistication. Dejak, who specialises in dramatic jewellery, has shown at Milan Fashion Week, has collaborated with Salvatore Ferrragamo, and whose work has been featured in Vogue Italia. She says: Our whole ethos is to create beautiful products made in Africa, all hand-made. Jewellery isn’t just to be worn; it’s a decorative piece of art. Something hand-made in Africa can be bespoke or luxury. We’re not “curio”, catering for only an expat or international market. Our pieces are bought by Kenyans too. However, plagiarism is a big challenge; another problem is sourcing. “While in Uganda, Dejak was entranced by Ankole cow horn, a material she consistently uses for her jewellery. “It’s a natural art form, she says.

Anthony Mulli combines Masai beadwork with international seasonal trends to create bags that sell in New York as well as Nairobi. For his Katchy Kollections, he seeks out craftspeople, learns their skills, and encourages them to modernise their products for contemporary tastes, changing perceptions of African fashion. In this way, he maintains that Kenyans are keeping parts of their heritage alive, and leaving a legacy. “I will be able to know what my grandmother did, or my great-great grandmother.”

In Nairobi, there’s a style renaissance happening. “The creative industry is doing extremely well and that’s affecting the fashion scene,” says stylist Sunny Dolat, who runs Chico Leco, the Nest Collective fashion hub. “In Nairobi, you’ll find a whole bunch of fashion movements from bohemian, to minimalist, to people who are very grunge.”

“There’s a new breadth into how people are inspired and how they choose to dress,” says Velma Rossa, sister of Papa Petit, their organisation collectively called 2ManySiblings. It’s a curation space for art, photography and fashion, the latter thriving on thrift culture, instilled by their mother when they were children. “We love the flea markets of Nairobi, where we get most of our stuff, that and from local designers. We use social media to tell stories through positive imagery. It’s a new wave, a new era, exciting times, not only in fashion, but also in the creative field. It’s exploding!”

Styled by 2ManySiblings (Velma Rossa & Papa Petit), photographed by Sarah Waisa

Styled by 2ManySiblings (Velma Rossa & Papa Petit), photographed by Sarah Waisa

Mitumba – second-hand clothing is a key part of the Nairobi fashion scene. Gikomba Market stretches approximately 20 acres, where towering bales of used clothing from Europe and North America, as well as cheap Chinese imports, land daily. Somehow ‘the look’ gets put together – a vintage beaded bag with a ‘distressed’ leather jacket for example. In the midst of apparent chaos sit tailors ready and able to effect instant alterations.

But there are divided opinions about mitumba, a mixed relationship with what are essentially cast-off imports. Is it degrading or democratising style – enabling under-privileged people to pick up essentials, or Nairobi’s gilded youth to put together their own uniquely on-trend ensemble? Is it damaging to the local fashion industry, since many Kenyan designers are forced to aim at the exclusive luxe market?

A similar cloud of dilemma hovers over the use of traditional east African textiles such as kanga, a patterned cotton cloth printed with messages in Swahili; or kitenge, somewhat similar to kanga, but with a different style of pattern. And then there’s kikoy, a striped woven cotton fabric, historically with much more ‘down-home’, even ‘bush’ connotations. Roshni Shah of Haria’s Stamp Shop, whose family has been active in the garment industry since the 1920’s, says: “People are using African prints to pull off Western looks.” Kanga and kitenge are now the must-have fabrics for the new generation. In downtown Nairobi, a phalanx of talented tailors, almost all originally of south Asian origin, will cook up a style recipe for very little money. But curiously and interestingly – you – the customer must define the ingredients of the final garment. Does this narrow the sales potential for upcoming designers and modern textile development?

A few top-notch Nairobi labels such as Ann McCreath’s Kiko Romeo source local materials such as kanga, marrying them with superb Western-style tailoring, of course at a price. Ami Doshi Shah, of Kenyan-Indian heritage, founder of I Am I, produces intricate statement jewellery, reflective of her mixed heritage, along with European training in jewellery making. “My African heritage comes out in the scale, the materials and the proportions of things. In terms of the Indian side, it’s very much about the detail and the intricacy. I studied at the School of Jewellery, Birmingham in the UK, which is classically European. It’s given my jewellery a pared-down look, with simple lines.”

Sauti Sol photographed by Sarah Waiswa

Sauti Sol photographed by Sarah Waiswa

The video of the band Sauti Sol went viral when they danced with Barack Obama. They wear cutting-edge local designs, but they also share that: “Kenyans are very conservative because of how they were influenced by the British.” “A suit and tie is what goes,” says Nick Ondu, one of Nairobi’s most established menswear designers, who also operates on the international circuit. “But things are changing,” he says. “The flamboyance that, for example, Lagos or Accra might be known for, isn’t big here,” adds Sunny Dolat from The Nest. But hang out with the Nairobi happening scene, and you’ll see kanga, kitenge and kikoye worn with skinny jeans and trainers, sourced from second-hand clothing in the markets. Along with the realisation of the importance of investing in local designers and local brands –there’s a synergy of fashion energy in Nairobi.


  • The exhibition Fashion Cities Africa ends on January 8, 2017.
  • The eponymously named publication is the book for African fashionistas for 2017. ISBN 978-1-783-611-7.
  • Watch out in Omenka for Part Two of Fashion Cities Africa, covering the style scenes in Casablanca and Johannesburg.

Originally trained as a photographer, Juliet Highet lived in East & West Africa as well as India, subsequently also travelling to 52 countries. In Nigeria she began writing professionally and on her return to UK began editing books and magazines. Highet is widely published on travel, the arts, perfumery and much more. She is the author of Frankincense: Oman’s Gift to the World, and a specialist in contemporary Arab culture and its heritage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *