The Rise of the African Fashion Industry

Written by MCJStaff   // July 25, 2012   // 0 Comments

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The year brought a re-emergence of African motifs, prints and textiles onto the global stage. Fashion houses and designers such as Burberry and Vivian Westwood produced collections clearly influenced by the various cultures and landscapes found in Africa. Even the internationally most recognisable First Lady, Michelle Obama, was spotted and photographed on numerous occasions sporting the African-influenced designs of Nigerian designer Duro Oluwa. Western fashion publications took notice of the frenzy surrounding African influences in the fashion industry. Influential Vogue Magazine (US edition) in its Special Edition Best Dressed: Vogue’s Rising Style Stars of 2011(2) featured not one, but two African women known for their fondness of African inspired wear: Ethiopian Julia Sarr-Jamois, fashion editor of The Wonderland Magazine and Nigerian Oroma Elewa, editor of Pop Africana Magazine.

This CAI paper discusses some of the 2011 highlights of the African fashion industry, entrepreneurial Africans in the fashion industry and what to expect from the promising African fashion industry in 2012.

Authors and editors take African fashion to the books

Arise Magazine editor Helen Jennings has been applauded for her book New African Fashion. Since her tenure as editor at Arise Magazine, Jennings has had the privilege of being exposed to many emerging African talents, African street style and trends that have been largely ignored by western media outlets. Due to her experience and influence in the African fashion industry, Jennings embarked upon a project to produce a visually spectacular and comprehensive guide to the African fashion industry, which explores why African fashion is truly shining now. Jennings’ book shows the savvy creativity of African designers, how they look beyond clichés of African aesthetics and the ‘new’, with deep love for Africa’s cultural and social consciousness.(3)

The Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Vol. 1: Africa by academics Joanne B. Eicher and Doran Ross is another noteworthy 2011 publication that provides an anthropological encyclopaedia of African cloth and textiles. Founder and director of Africa Fashion Guide (an online resource for the African fashion and textile industry), Jacqueline Shaw, also published Fashion Africa – a Visual Overview of Contemporary African Fashion. This book is celebrated for appreciating “the fashion scene in Africa and the Diaspora through images, interviews, beautiful modern illustrations and critical analysis on sourcing, production as well as an ethical perspective.”(4)

The buzz in Africa

African fashion entrepreneurs who are based in Africa are using regional and continental expos to showcase and sell their brands. In 2011 alone, sixteen major events throughout Africa provided African-based designers and entrepreneurs with platforms to showcase their designs. South Africa took the lead by hosting three fashion weeks, two in Cape Town and one in Johannesburg, that involved designers from all over the continent. South Africa’s fashion week events have been highly publicised, but neighbouring countries Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe hosted their own fashion week events in order to accommodate and encourage the local talent and industry.

The East African fashion industry’s annual highlight is the Swahili Fashion Week, an event described as “a fast growing platform for fashion and accessory designers from Swahili speaking countries and the African continent to showcase their talent, market their creativity and network with clientele and international fashion industry.”(5) Nigeria also hosted two major fashion events, Nigeria Fashion Week and MTN’s Lagos Fashion and Design Week. MTN, Africa’s leading telecommunication company, collaborated with the fashion industry in Lagos to host this event, which brought together media agencies, industry agents, buyers and consumers to view the current collections of designers in Lagos.(6)

In addition to the buzz on the continent, African-inspired fashion and designers caused great excitement in New York City, considered to be one of the world’s fashion capitals. Arise Magazine, a formidable publication on African fashion and beauty founded in Nigeria, partnered with IMG Mercedes Benz New York Fashion Week to host African Fashion Week. The magazine also hosted an event in Lagos, Nigeria in March 2011, where more than 51 African designers partnered with 81 models, five music performances and three days of shows and events. A panel of judges selected the top seven designers from this event and they were invited to participate in the IMG Mercedes Benz New York Fashion Week event titled Made In Africa.(7) The five selected designers chosen to represent African talent at the New York showcase were Nigerian designers Lanre DaSilva-Ajayi, Tsemaye Binitie, duo Bunmi Olaye and Francis Udom of Bunmi Koko, Fati Asibelua and South African duo Malcolm Kluk and Christiaan Gabriel Du Toit of KLUK CGDT, all of whom received rave reviews from critics for their debuts in New York City.

Fashion events staged in various countries were not the only platform for African-based fashion designers and entrepreneurs to showcase their talents in 2011. The internet is becoming a solid promotion tool for African fashion, with Nigerian and South African fashion industry orientated websites definitely taking the lead. BellaNaija.com is a Nigerian website started up in 2006 and now considered one of the most recognised and popular websites that showcase African fashion, beauty, entrepreneurs and trends. In South Africa, Ifashion.co.za recently won the title of ‘Fashion communicator of the year’ at the African Fashion Awards held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2011. Ifashion aims to be “a marketing platform for all within the industry; from the student who wants to share her talent to the household names we have come to know and love. By increasing local and international awareness of South African clothing brands and talents we hope to inspire increased demand and brand loyalty.”(8) Social media sites like Facebook and Tumblr also prove popular mediums for African designers, artisans and brands based in various African countries, not only to promote their business but also as a means for interested consumers to enquire and buy.

Ethical designs and development

Both established and aspiring African designers are reaping the rewards of a reinvigorated fashion industry in Africa. Smaller and traditional African accessories and textile artisans, commonly associated with curios sold at tourist markets in Africa, are finding their own niche in the industry by joining efforts with established companies in the west. These collaborations are termed ‘ethical fashion,’ a term used to describe “the design, production and retail and purchasing of items. It covers a range of issues such as pay and working conditions, fair trade, sustainable production, the environment and animal welfare.”(9)

Most consumers in the west were introduced to the concept of ethical fashion with GAP and U2 front man Bono’s product RED, whereby companies using the red band donated some of their profits to charities fighting disease in Africa. Like other debates on philanthropy and aid in Africa, this initiative has been heavily criticised, and space has been created for excitement about new social entrepreneurship partnerships in ethical fashion, introduced by companies such as ASOS, Indego Africa and SUNO. Indego Africa has been praised for its innovative partnering of African textile and accessories artisans in Rwanda, with American clothing and lifestyle brand Nicole Miller. Unlike past ethical fashion initiatives that involve African women, “Indego African, a nonprofit social enterprise, connects for-profit cooperatives of women artisans in Rwanda with export markets for their goods and provides training to help them run their businesses more effectively.”(10) In this model of collaborative effort created by Indego Africa, Rwandan women are equal partners in a joint for-profit venture.

Similarly, ASOS.com, the largest online shopping retailer in the UK, collaborated with French designer, Jessica Ogden, in 2011 to create a Made in Africa collection. This collection is exclusively designed, sourced and purchased by artisan community groups in Kenya to support the work of SOKO, a workshop dedicated to developing sustainable solutions to economic challenges that Kenyan communities face.(11) ASOS.com claims that the company will match every purchase made by customers to improve the SOKO workshop in Kenya by providing local Kenyan artisans with training and skills to improve their own artistry and businesses. SUNO, a New York based women’s wear brand founded by Max Osterweis and Erin Betty, launched their first collection in 2009 in Kenya. “Using vintage Kenyan textiles that Osterweis had been collecting for years” they produced their first small collection in Kenya.(12) The company hopes to train and encourage artisans in the Kenyan fashion industry to create and own their own sustainable brands.

2012: Another exciting year for the fashion industry in Africa

2012 promises to be another exciting and interesting year for the African fashion industry. Numerous events are already lined up, for example the Vauxhall Fashion Scout/Ubuntu International Project, scheduled to take place during London Fashion Week in February and promising to provide promotion opportunities to African designers. The biggest continental fashion event in Africa in 2012 will be the The Hub of Africa Fashion Week 2012 in April in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The objective of this event is promoted as being to “unite the industry through fashion by featuring designers and fashion industry players in Africa, as well as providing an open platform that promotes trade development and conscious environmental fashion that will create a new platform for a cleaner future” and to “promote sustainable development by encouraging young people who have a keen interest in fashion to make good use of their talents, which serves to build the fashion industry in Africa.”(13)

To further encourage the progress made by the fashion industry in Africa, Vogue Italia’s editor, Franca Sozzani, recently embarked on a tour of three west African nations: Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. Sozzani is a staunch advocate of diversity in the fashion industry and publishes the annual ‘Black Issue’ for Vogue Italia, which features only black models. Many African media outlets have praised Sozzani’s recent trip to the three West African nations and one Ghanaian blog proudly stated that…

With all things Africa being the “new black” in global fashion, once again Vogue Italia’s Editor in Chief, Franca Sozzani dared to do what her counterparts Black, White or other alike do not do. Franca Sozzani recently took an explorational mentoring tour of Africa to see for herself what the buzz about the so called “New African Fashion” was all about, so she can hopefully represent it properly & in its authentic full spectrum outside of European & American embellishment & aesthetic.(14)

The African Fashion industry is indeed making strides in developing its own industry. May 2012 bring more growth, new initiatives and bountiful hope to the continent through the fashion industry.


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