Africa’s Fashion Revolution

Wearing African-designed clothes is now seen as a sign of the times. It’s fashionable and reveals a high social status.
Africa’s Fashion Revolution
(Courtesy of FashionGHANA.com/Apag Studios Photography by Apagnawen Annankra)
Kremena Krumova
Updated:

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.

Challenges

“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.

Poverty, global trade, and lack of marketing for large-scale distribution hinder the development and production of Africa fashion.

“African consumers will most likely never see a Thula Sindi or David Tlale dress unless it makes its way back to Africa through these thrifts or second-hand flea markets,” said Tsholo Dikobe.

So Africa needs to invest in education, textile processing factories, technological developments in fashion production, and promote talent to support the fashion industry and in turn, the economy.

For example, the value of the fashion industry’s contribution to the U.K. economy is $35 billion, an increase of 22 percent from 2009; that is 3.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, the British Fashion Council announced at London Fashion Week in February.

Also, clothing and textiles are among of the world’s largest industries. The global apparel market was valued at $1.7 trillion in 2012, employing 75 million people, according to Fashion United, the international fashion industry network.

“If African governments were to throw their support behind the fashion industry, the possibilities would be enormous,” said Dikobe.

Dare to Be Different!

African fashion is known for its exuberant colors, while Western fashion is famous for its clear cuts and limited nuisances.

But CoKo Diamond, Cameroonian fashion designer, based in Berlin, Germany, has managed to attract many Westerners into her clientele, who are not intimidated by the bright colors.

“Instead of modernizing the African styles, I tend to “Africanize” the Western styles to give them an African touch,” wrote CoKo Diamond via email. “So normally I start out with a Western design and bring in African elements in a subtle but sophisticated way.”

She also employs Western models to showcase her clothes.

“By doing so I create a more familiar image in their minds with which they identity themselves with, and this makes the Westerner more susceptible to the Afro-Mix design.”

“If I have to inspire Westerners to buy African clothes, I would probably say, ‘Dare to be different!’”

Legendary Gold Limited’s Managing Director Ablan Joyce Nouaho, is also one of those who encourages Westerners to jump into the opulence of African fashion, and to do so with a reason.

“Are you tired of seeing the same dull colors, textures, and clothes in the main fashion houses and shops? Do you want to look different than the average? Do you want to stand out in the crowd? Are you looking for a different shopping experience? Then, shop African fashion.

By doing so, you don’t only make a difference in the way you look but you also make a difference in Africa’s economy. You empower young African designers, seamstresses, models, tailors, pressers, cutters, and stylists. You impact the lives of rural women who produce some of those fabrics and accessories; you create jobs and contribute to the overall growth of Africa. In a few words, you contribute to a fairer and ethical world.”

Kremena Krumova is a Sweden-based Foreign Correspondent of Epoch Times. She writes about African, Asian and European politics, as well as humanitarian, anti-terrorism and human rights issues.
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