More Than a Trend: The Ascent of the African Fashion Industry
African fashion is just as diverse and dynamic as the continent itself; historically and culturally, African fashion has never been monolithic but varies across regions and countries, and even within a single country. African fashion takes many forms, including haute couture and ready-to-wear designs, as well as stylish creations of local seamstresses or tailors. Even though the appreciation of fashion trends is certainly an urban phenomenon, fashion also plays a significant role in rural life. Furthermore, African fashion remains essential to African diaspora communities around the world. African fashion designers celebrate and transform their cultural heritage into runway fashion emphasising the use of local textiles and African themes.
Over the past two decades, there have been some significant developments in the African fashion industry. Whether one is reading a fashion magazine or scrolling down social media pages, it has become quite the norm to come across images of African models or young people dressed in garments made from African fabrics, a clear indication of the shifting perception of African fashion. Western audiences and buyers who viewed African fabrics and fashion solely as “traditional” wear with no glamour value or fashion importance are gradually moving away from this point of view. Some of the key actors in the proliferation of African fashion have been the growing number of African designers who showcase their work on catwalks within and outside Africa. Leading designers like David Tlale, Kahindo Mateene, Sophie Zinga, and Maki Oh have had their collections showcased on the catwalks of New York Fashion Week. In Europe, Italy’s famous men’s fashion show Pitti Uomo, held in Florence, has had shows titled Generation Africa and Constellation Africa, wherein African brands like Orange Culture by Adebayo Oke-Lawal (Nigeria), Dent de Man by Alexis Temomanin (Ivory Coast), Projecto Mental by Shunnoz Fiel and Tekasala Ma’at Nzinga (Angola), and Maxhosa by Laduma Ngxokolo (South Africa) were spotlighted. In addition, some of the models were African asylum seekers. Pitti Uomo’s organisers decided to include the asylum seekers as models to make a strong political point and show that migrants are a valuable resource.
However, despite the growing international recognition of African fashion designers, marketing on a global scale remains something of a stumbling block for most African brands. According to an article published by African Business Magazine’s website, “Africa only accounts for a small portion of the $1.5 trillion global fashion industry, with sub-Saharan Africa’s apparel and footwear market valued at $31bn according to Euromonitor. Although renewed creative ambition is vital to keeping African fashion on-trend, the challenges from weak supply chains, lack of international partners and substandard infrastructure need to be addressed promptly.” The article further notes that though “Made in Africa” may not yet have the same cachet as “Made in Italy” or “Made in France,” designers like Nigeria’s Adebayo Oke-Lawal are working hard to improve “Brand Africa.”
Oke-Lawal is the creative force behind menswear brand Orange Culture, which was nominated for an LVMH Prize (an award for young fashion designers) and was presented at the London Collections Men 2016. “I see the African fashion industry becoming a landmark for global media, major fashion buyers and other important fashion players,” says Oke-Lawal, speaking to African Business Magazine. “The fashion industry in Africa is proving itself to the world and showing that its voice is unstoppable, fresh and highly profitable. The world is taking notice.”
Maki Oh is another African fashion brand achieving acclaim worldwide. Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Michelle Obama have all worn the Nigerian label’s clothing. According to Finbarr Toesland, “It goes without saying that solid partnerships need to be built with international retailers, suppliers and consumers if brands ever hope to challenge the dominance of world-renowned labels like Dior and Prada.” Even relatively established African designers—those whose achievements rank high on the scale of international fashion success—find it difficult to get the attention of key industry figures. This highlights the importance of creating opportunities for collaboration.
Events like Fashion Week Nigeria and Africa Fashion Week are vital in not only promoting African designers but also in bringing together industry experts in one place to form new relationships and share ideas. “The Fashion Weeks across Africa, including Lagos Fashion and Design Week, have helped designers understand the importance of the fashion calendar and how to relate to international buyers and press,” says Oke-Lawal. “They are vital because they show that as an industry we are united, and I feel that’s the easiest way for us to form a strong presence globally – as a united front. It also shows that we are structured and understand the importance of consistency.” Oke-Lawal believes that far from being just an opportunity to showcase new designs, African Fashion Weeks have a significant business role too. “The experience exposes African designers to the reality of the fashion industry worldwide. It has helped us understand the importance of fashion, not only creatively, but also as a business,” adds Oke-Lawal.
Over the decades, international designers have created fashion’s fantasies of the African aesthetic, cherry-picking from cultures, terrains, and peoples. Thierry Mugler’s African fetish culminated in his Spring/Summer 1985 show in which Iman walked with a monkey perched on her shoulder and a black male model in a thong held a straw parasol over her. John Galliano’s first haute couture collection for Christian Dior in 1997 included a series of silhouettes inspired by East African people groups. Beaded hats, chokers, and corsets were worn with long, silk evening gowns. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s 2005 haute couture show featured models covered in red mud and wearing Afro wigs, feathered dresses, shields made from tortoise shells, and a bridal gown consisting of a huge white leather African Mask. The tribal trend reached its pinnacle in Spring/Summer 2009: Alexander McQueen’s kaleidoscopic prints hinted at savannah wildlife and landscapes. Tsumori Chisato’s feather dresses were inspired by African fauna. Louis Vuitton teamed grass skirts with wooden accessories. Junya Watanabe’s models wore towering headwear filled with sheaves of flowers. Vivienne Westwood tied and draped leopard-print and zebra-print fabrics around her models’ bodies. Also, Diane von Furstenberg, who has repeatedly returned to Africa in her collections since the 1970s, offered safari shirtdresses.
Meanwhile, across the African continent and its diaspora, intergenerational and transnational conversations are happening through the medium of fashion. Whether it’s bespoke caftans in Casablanca, contemporary beadwork in Nairobi, or loom-spun aso-oke (handwoven cloth) in Lagos, Africa’s designers are leading a renaissance that is as diverse as it is contemporary. Designers, stylists and bloggers alike are reimagining fabrics such as kanga (Kenya) and adire (Nigeria). For instance, Nairobi-based designer Anthony Mulli uses traditional beadwork to create unique contemporary pieces for his label Katchy Kollections. Likewise, the fashion-conscious African diaspora, with their love of all things Afrocentric, are influencing the wardrobes of those back home, who, a couple of years ago, would never have dreamed of wearing wax-print with their skinny jeans. This is where the real African fashion revolution is happening.
African designers continue to have mixed feelings about how Western designers adopt the visual language of Africa. Even though it keeps the continent in style, clichés are inevitable. Sudanese designer Omer Asim sums it up well: “European designers choose certain colours or materials without necessarily understanding their value. Now African designers are gaining recognition for using their heritage in a way that contributes to the evolution of their culture by creating contemporary versions of their traditional crafts.”
The styles of clothing created by African fashion designers are as varied as those produced by designers elsewhere; no intrinsically African style unites designers of diverse backgrounds, making sweeping generalisations about their work impossible. Yet, common themes and concerns traverse the work of many African designers. Many African designs reflect the connections—and in some cases, the tensions—between the indigenous style of dress and the styles of dress that dominate the international scene and command the attention of global media.
The work and careers of several African designers can be looked at in terms of two broad thematic approaches to sartorial innovation. The first, which represents the largest number of African professional designers, centres on bringing together distinctively indigenous African forms with garments that are associated with Western dress. Some incorporate local materials and styles to enhance garments that are non-local in conception, such as a man’s suit with lapels made of cloth produced locally, or a woman’s miniskirt adorned with beadwork in a style associated with indigenous dress. Other designs are based on indigenous garments, modified or transformed by the use of new fabrics, shapes, and styles of adornment. Just as a three-piece suit can be recreated in infinite styles, so too well-established African garments can be subjected to creative reinvention.
The history of fashion in Africa has been one of constant exchange and appropriation, a complex though ill-documented journey with different influences coming into play across time and space. Contrary to the accepted view of African traditions as monolithic and unchanging, the evolution of dress practices and sartorial acumen confirms fashion’s role as a potent visual expression of a continent in constant flux. African fashion aesthetics have travelled through empires, conflicts, slavery, migration, globalisation, and urbanisation to cater to new contexts and markets. Body adornment (including clothing and accessories, tattoos, scarification, body painting, and coiffures) has therefore fulfilled manifold roles. It has served as basic protection as well as a signifier of status, ambitions, beliefs, and ethnic affiliation. Today, rising from the sidelines and embracing past dress traditions while conforming to contemporary trends, African fashion is standing on its own two feet and showing the world that it is not bound to tradition alone and is certainly more than a trend.
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