Haute and cool

Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo

Forget the leopard print kitsch, african fashion now has designs on global luxury.

If you need proof that Africa is firmly on the international fashion map, just glance around the globe. Only a few miles away, as I type these words in London, is Woven Threads, an exhibition by Lagos Fashion and Design Week, showcasing the synergy between Nigeria’s garment heritage and its blossoming fashion industry. Meanwhile, 3,116 miles away, there is a week-long virtual think tank entitled Made in Africa – Fashion Africa: Open for Business Globally.

And in Rome last November, the International Herald Tribune Luxury Conference explored African fashion for the first time in its 12-year history. “What is the fashion connection between Africa and Italy?” asked Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune. Her answer: the skill of human hands.

“Italy’s craftsmanship is legendary and by far the most powerful in Europe,” said Menkes. “In Kenya, women work on traditional embroidery patterns inherited from Masai ancestors or intricate crochet work handed down from mother to daughter, creating luxury products for designers such as Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood. The gulf between rural, native craft and sophisticated high fashion is narrowing, as consumers look deeper into the meaning of luxury in the 21st century. An African/Italian collaboration – with European knowhow harnessed to traditional handwork – could produce an intriguing new take on genuinely global luxury.”

Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani is another firm believer in the potential for Africa to develop something akin to the prestigious “Made in Italy” stamp. He is an ambassador for Fashion 4 Development (F4D), a non-profit organisation linking African designers and western retailers in Ghana, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda.

F4D’s project Discovered In Africa teamed up with Saks and online store Yoox to stock select African fashion brands alongside western competitors sourcing clothes in Africa. They sold out in two weeks – to non-Africans. Among the designers were Koshie O (Ghana), Kofie Ansah (Ghana) Lemlem (Ethiopia) and Tiffany Amber (Nigeria).

More support for African artisans and designers comes from Nest, another non-profit organisation, which seeks to promote the union between heritage and luxury. Rebecca Van Bergen, executive director of African Craft, says: “Most of our partners are actually within the luxury space and I think that there is some consumer education that needs to happen about the fact that African countries can produce luxury goods. The skill coming out of African countries is not low-level, fair trade, ‘kitschy’ stuff.”

Kitsch is, in fact, the last adjective that comes to mind when you behold the intricate work of Lisa Folawiyo. She is a leading Nigerian designer who made her mark in global fashion with her Jewel by Lisa label, renowned for its traditional Ankara designs, the boldly printed West African fabric. It is featured at Ndani, the Nigerian fashion pop-up store developed by Omoyemi Akerele of Style House Files, in collaboration with Guaranty Trust Bank and Selfridges, – one of London’s leading luxury department stores – to create a financially viable model for creative growth in the Nigerian fashion industry. Another featured label is Eki Orleans, created by Hazel Eki Aggrey-Orleans, whose design aesthetic has been strongly influenced by her German/Nigerian roots.

“With a strong resurgence of prints, patterns and Africana in recent collections from more established international brands, it felt right this year to demonstrate the power and originality of Africa itself, and ultimately offer our customers the opportunity to discover new ways to experience luxury fashion,” says Judd Crane, Selfridges’ director of women’s wear.

Folawiyo says: “For me, it is important to create from what I have and who I am, whether it is modern, whether it is more global, whether it is seen as Nigerian. It just happens that I am this Nigerian girl, and in everything you see from me you have to see Nigeria.” The story is the same elsewhere. In Nairobi, designer Jeffrey Kimathi uses fibres of the baobab tree for his luxury Jamhuri Wear luggage range. And New Yorkbased Loza Maléombho’s background – she is Brazilian-born and Côte-d’Ivoire raised – finds a rich fusion in her designs, embodying cross-cultural street chic. She uses traditional kente cloth and Indian linen to create women’s wear with universal appeal.

Originality and tradition are key elements in the rise of African fashion, according to Dr Precious Moloi Motsepe, influential founder of Africa Fashion International, which stages Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Africa Fashion weeks. “The unique signature of [new] African designs is that they are contemporary, they are global and yet they are infused with the continent – that is what brings [out] the African ness in the designs,” she says.

With these four fashion weeks and a ZAR20-billion-per-annum (US$2.5bn) industry creating 200,000 jobs, South Africa is a pacesetter for other African nations in using local labour and resources, creating employment and building an industry from the ground up. The rest of Africa is taking note. Last year saw more than 20 major annual fashion events on the calendar with The Hub of Africa Fashion Week in Addis Ababa, Swahili Fashion Week in Tanzania as well as newcomers on the scene such Ghana Fashion and Design Week held in Accra in October 2012.

There are equally diverse and dynamic initiatives from Africa Fashion Week New York to Africa Fashion Week London, as well as newcomers Africa Fashion Week LA, held in October 2012, and Africa Fashion Day Berlin, which launched in January 2013.

Now in its third year, and aiming to showcase 100 African designers to an international audience, Africa Fashion Week London creates a platform for emerging fashion talent. Alongside established names such as Adebayo Jones, renowned for his opulent evening and bridal wear, are newcomers such as Senegal’s Bull Doff blending fabric, traditional weaving and plastic material – more commonly called Mbithie Mbithie – into eclectic designs.

“We were expecting 500 people in our first year, and almost 5,000 people turned up,” Nigerian entrepreneur Ronke Ademiluyi says of Africa Fashion Week London. It now expects more than 20,000 people in its third year this August.

These initiatives across the continent and far beyond present fine examples of ‘If you build it, they will come’. Despite a number of challenges, African fashion is on the rise and attracting international buyers in huge numbers. Gone are the days of re-imaginings of Africa by international fashion houses in leopard print and feather accents; here is a new generation of Africans reclaiming and representing New African Fashion.

About the author:

Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo is editor-in-chief of FAB magazine


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