Fashioning Africa: Commemorating the Pioneers of the Continent’s Fashion Industry
The African fashion industry has grown significantly over the last years. After decades of colonial rule, accompanied by powerful Western influence on every realm of culture, including dress, for many Africans, fashion became a visible expression of pride in African identity. This article will look at the first generation of professional fashion designers in Africa. These designers came of age as the struggle for African independence from colonial rule was coming to an end—a time when pride in national identity was a prominent element of political and cultural life in many African communities. This group of designers made no use of media or imagery that was associated with traditional African cultures at the time, but their works were still influenced by African cultures and histories.
The history of the African fashion industry could not be told without mentioning Nigerian designer Shade Thomas-Fahm. She is credited with setting the pace for the Nigerian fashion industry in the 1960s and 1970s. Thomas-Fahm was trained at Central Saint Martins in London, where she also worked as a model. As a pioneer in promoting Nigerian fabrics, her campaign for the use of made-in-Nigeria goods has spanned about five decades. In the 1960s, after her studies in England, she worked on manufacturing clothes using indigenous Nigerian fabrics, like aso-oke, ankara, okene, and akwete. Shade Thomas-Fahm has displayed her work around the world and has been featured in the Commonwealth Fashion Show. Her store, known as Shade’s Boutique, was the place to go for men and women of style in Lagos. Examples of her creations include the boubou (which she adapted into a style for women from the men’s flowing agbada robe) and the hassle-free pre-fitted gele (head wrap). Her twist on the iro and buba led to the zipped wrapper skirt. “At the time, Nigerian women wore imported dresses; they thought African wear was their mother’s thing. But I was young and my dreams were tall,” she said. Her line of fashion-forward ankara jumpsuits, aso-oke dresses, beaded shoes, and embroidered culottes proved she was a creative visionary way ahead of her time.
Seidnally Sidhamed (Alphadi)
Niger designer Seidnally Sidhamed, better known as Alphadi, co-founded the Federation Africaine des Creatures. His award-winning designs reference nomadic tribes. Born in Timbuktu (Mali) in 1957, Alphadi is a graduate of the Paris Atelier Chardon Savard School of Fashion and Design. The Alphadi line, which has since extended into sportswear and perfume, has Complexe Alphadi boutiques in Niamey, Ivory Coast, and Paris. He has been described as the “Magician of the Desert” and recognised by some of the greatest names in fashion, including Yves Saint Laurent, Paco Rabanne, and Takada Kenzo. His creations combine cutting-edge fashion and traditional African styles.
Considered as “the Upholder of African Fashion,” Alphadi wants the world to realise that “Africa is not just poverty, fighting and disease; Africa is also art and design.” To make his dream come true, this fierce promoter of African fashion founded FIMA (Festival International de la Mode Africaine) in 1998. The festival takes place biennially, bringing African and European fashion designers together on one platform to meet, learn, and share their knowledge and skill.
With his battle cry, “Give Africa a chance to create,” he makes it clear in each of his interviews and stage speeches that he is committed to the betterment of African fashion in Africa. He believes that with a little support from the decisions makers, African clothes makers can do miracles inland and abroad. He strongly feels that it is necessary to consider and implement the whole development policy of the textile industry in Africa, which in turn will boost the weak African economy. Alphadi has established a fashion school in Niger, which is currently assisting more than 150 African designers to sharpen their skills.
Another designer whose influence on the African fashion industry cannot be denied is Chris Seydou, born Seydou Nourou Doumbia, on May 18, 1949, in Kati, a small town situated around a military base 40 kilometres north of Bamako, the capital of Mali. He was a pioneer in promoting African fashion designers on the international stage. Seydou was well known for his adaptation of African textiles, including Mali’s bogolan fabric, to haute couture. His bell-bottom pants, motorcycle jackets, and tight miniskirts made of distinctively African fabrics caused a stir in Mali and drew attention to his work abroad. Seydou’s designs have been published in numerous French, German, Ivorian, Senegalese, and Malian fashion magazines. He showed his designs in Europe as well as Africa and worked with internationally renowned designers, most notably Paco Rabanne.
Because his mother worked as an embroiderer, Seydou was familiar with the tools of the clothing trade from an early age. His mother had copies of European fashion magazines, which greatly impressed him; the photographs of elegant women in beautiful clothes fascinated him. He left school to pursue his interest in fashion at 15. In 1968, Seydou relocated to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso (then called Upper Volta). The following year, he moved to the cosmopolitan city of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. He changed his name when he embarked on his professional career, adopting the name “Chris” as a tribute to Christian Dior, whose work had been a great influence on his early development. He kept the name “Seydou” to preserve part of the name his family had given him, thus creating a professional name combining the European and African influences that are apparent in his work.
Abidjan was at the forefront of African fashion design in 1969, and Seydou found great success in the city, designing clothing for many of Abidjan’s wealthy and influential women. Seydou then spent seven years in Paris, beginning in 1972, where he studied European couture. He met other African artists and designers in Paris, with whom he organised the Fédération Africaine de Prêt à Porter (African Federation of Ready-to-Wear Designers), an association that seeks to promote African designers on the international market. Seydou was also one of the three founders of the Fédération Internationale de la Mode Africaine (International Federation of African Fashion), which continues to provide an important forum for African designers.
One of the renowned fashion designers who helped to change the face of the Ghanaian fashion scene was Kofi Ansah, also known as the enfant terrible of Ghanaian fashion. Designer Kofi Ansah propelled Ghana on to the catwalks of haute couture. He first made headlines on his graduation from the Chelsea School of Art in London and received the ultimate endorsement when he made a beaded top for Princess Anne. Born in 1951 into an artistic family, he believed he inherited his creative talents from his parents. His father, who was a photographer and classical musician, encouraged him to pursue his interest in art and design. After graduating in 1979 with first-class honours in fashion design and distinction in design technology, he started work in London and was soon making waves on the UK fashion scene. However, in 1992, he went back home to Ghana, where he was to make an even greater impact. His company, Artdress, was a house of concepts that developed fashion as art, from clothes to accessories (like beads, belts, bags, broaches) and hairstyles.
Ansah attracted and trained many young people and was especially proud to point out successful people who had been under his tutelage. When Ghana celebrated 50 years of independence in 2007, Ansah designed the official anniversary cloth, and when Ghana hosted the African Nations Cup football competition the following year, he designed the costumes for the performers at the opening and closing ceremonies.
Faith Katunga is a Milan-based Malawian digital communications specialist, author and African fashion curator. She obtained an M.A in fashion culture and management from the University of Bologna. Katunga explores the dynamism of African fashion on the continent and the diaspora. Her passion for travel coupled with her experiences as an expat in Italy, as well as her love for culture, fashion, events and the city of Milan led to the creation of her blog BaoHub Collective (A foreign girl's unsolicited report of events in Milan).
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