A number of African-born fashion creatives have helped buttress the continent’s reputation in the high fashion world
Africa, often perceived exclusively as a continent of destitution and pervasive civil conflicts, is quickly redefining its international image, particularly in the arena of high fashion. World-renowned designers and fashion experts from the West and beyond have taken notice of its potential as a purveyor of luxury products. Simultaneously, a new generation of creative talents from its diaspora has quickly propelled themselves to global prominence.
While global fashion houses have incorporated African prints and aesthetics into their collections for decades, the trend has often leaned more towards appropriation as opposed to investment. But, things have changed in recent years.
African fashion aficionados have showcased the continent’s emerging talents by launching fashion weeks from Lagos to London. Yes—Africa does house some of the poorest nations on the world. But, with consumer spending in the continent poised to reach $1.4 trillion in 2020—up from the $860 billion recorded in 2008, according to New York-based global management consulting firm McKinsey and Company—it’s safe to say that Africa is well on its way to competing with other prominent fashion markets.
For one, notable fashion brands have tapped the continent’s labor force to meet manufacturing goals while creating jobs. The United Nations-founded Ethical Fashion Africa Initiative to connects prominent high fashion designers like Stella Jean, Vivienne Westwood and Ilaria Venturini Fendi, and retailers like Macy’s with 7,000 artisans in Kenya, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mali. In turn, these artisans produce high-quality fashion textiles and accessories. The initiative’s ultimate aim is to empower African artisans, mainly women, with gainful employment opportunities in exchange for the production of high quality fashion goods.
A number of African-born fashion creatives have also helped buttress the continent’s reputation in the high fashion world. English-Nigerian fashion designer Duro Olowu, a known favorite of U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, quit the legal profession in 2004 to start a career in fashion design and has since aligned with U.S. retail giant JCPenney to create affordable women’s apparel with a global appeal.
Other designers such as Ghanaian-American Mimi Plange choose to abandon traditional African aesthetics in their lines altogether. Plange, who partnered with high-end shoe designer Manolo Blahnik in 2011 and is also a noted favorite of Ms. Obama, began her fashion line in 2007 and draws inspiration predominantly from the 17th century Victorian era. While Nigerian-German designer Bobby Kolade, winner of the Start Your Fashion Business Award 2013, is known for his use of Ugandan bark cloth, his design aesthetic is very much Western.
“[Kolade’s] debut collection challenges a common notion of ‘Germanness’: order, control, structure and discipline,” reads Kolade’s personal statement as it appears on the website for The Berlin Show Room—an organization that showcases Germany’s emerging fashion talent.
The push to globalize Africa’s fashion industry has even shifted to e-commerce. Named after the year when 17 African nations were freed from the shackles of colonization, online retailer Heritage 1960 operates with the distinct aim of challenging global perceptions of African fashion, lifestyle and design. Each week the site features a new designer, and regularly showcases a diverse array of contemporary styles from the continent.
“Africa offers so much more than kente cloth and wax prints… It’s time we move beyond the clichés and begin to acknowledge that fashion coming from the continent is as rich, varied and sophisticated as anything you’d find in the U.S., Europe or Asia,” says founder and creative director Enyinne Owunwanne on her company’s website. Owunwanne formed the company back in 2011 after quitting her job as a hedge fund operations analyst on Wall Street.
In the end, it appears as though the days when Africa’s role in the global fashion market was confined to a simple pattern or print in a collection are numbered. Its fashion industry—including its derivative talent scattered across the globe—is finally demanding center stage and the fashion world seems more than willing to oblige.
*This article was first published in April 14, 2014 in our newsletter.
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