African fashion has dramatically changed over the past few years.
Until recently, wearing African fabrics was associated with rural living or even with poverty. Now it is just the opposite.
Ablan Joyce Nouaho, managing director of Legendary Gold Limited and organizer of the Africa Fashion Reception and Nigeria Fashion Week said, “For the first time since the 1980s, Africans all over the world have … proudly embraced and integrated in their daily life their own fashion culture.”
Wearing African-designed clothes is now seen as a sign of the times. It’s fashionable and reveals a high social status.
“Africans are now becoming more and more identified with their local brands,” writes Lilly Alfonso, a leading fashion designer from Malawi.
“We have celebrities and government figures wearing local brands. There is a sense of ‘Africaness’ … in their way of dress.”
Previously African fashion designers did not have a stage to showcase their pieces. Now fashion events are mushrooming in the main cities of the warm continent: South Africa’s fashion week in Johannesburg finished on April 8, a fashion weekend is coming up on May 17 and 18 in the Nigerian capital of Lagos, and later the Africa Fashion Reception is scheduled for July 3–5 in Abuja, Nigeria.
A whole new breed of talented African designers—more than a thousand—has also emerged in the process. Their innovative approach to using different cuts on African fabrics has aroused the interest of both the young generation locally and fashion lovers abroad.
“The redefinition of African fashion opened doors to internationalization and recognition,” wrote Angola-born designer Ariane Fonseca, founder of Yhaniqua Lopes brand.
“You can find stores in America and Europe commercializing African clothes, which was not common in the past,” She added.
The latest collections of H&M, Givenchy, Tory Burch, Stella McCartney, Burberry Prorsum, and Anna Sui, just to name a few, feature African prints, vibrant colors, beads and metal plates.
Celebrities like Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Gwen Steffani, Rihanna, and Naomi Campbell show off with their gowns cut by African designers like Maki Oh and Deola Segoe. Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o is the star of the Miu Miu spring and summer collection.
“All eyes are on Africa,” wrote Tsholo Dikobe, a fashion insider and native of Botswana, who was featured in magazines like Elle, Vogue, and Marie Claire. “There’s a renaissance in African fashion.”
New technologies have also contributed to the surge of the African fashion industry, according to Kimathi, creative director of Jamhuri Wear, based in Nairobi, Kenya.
“The advent of the telecom industry has finally proven that Africa is an attractive investment destination; multinational companies have seen business booming.”
Internet, social media, and M-pesa mobile-phone based money in Kenya have created new opportunities for showcasing and discovering new designers from the continent, also for trade or for organizers to acquire sponsorships, for creating fashion shows and for marketing them.
“All this is helping to expose the long lie of Africa as a ‘dark continent,’” explained Kimathi.
But the way to international catwalks remains a bumpy one.
“Exposure is the biggest challenge, wrote Lilly Alfonso. “For an African designer to be known abroad and be invited to share the runways is the biggest achievement.”
“We have to promote ourselves, as we don’t have a council taking charge and opening these doors for us,” she said.
Alfonso said that Malawi does not have even one school offering fashion design courses. So want-to-be designers have to travel abroad to get educated. And that is the case across Africa, with the exception of South Africa and Nigeria.
“Tanzania is known for its recognized universities in Africa, but yet none of these universities offer a fashion program,” wrote Ally Rehmtullah via email. Rehmtullah is a prominent fashion designer based in the capital Dar-es-Salaam.
“If locals and government do not see the need of a fashion program, how could we convince the world of our abilities?”
Another big issue is the lack of quality textiles. Rehmtullah said that although cotton is the second largest exported product in Tanzania, there isn’t any cotton manufacturing industry in the country. As a result, raw cotton is harvested in Tanzania but then exported to other countries to be processed into fabrics, mostly to China, which is then imported back at three times the cost.