There was a time when the influence of Africa on mainstream fashion amounted to the occasional appropriated ‘ethnic’ print in a western designer’s collection. But a new breed of consumers are embracing designers from Africa and its diaspora, and African designers and tastemakers are feeding into the global fashion dialogue.
There is currently a boom in homegrown African labels stocked in stores in London, New York and Tokyo, and both London and New York now play host to an annual African Fashion Week, showcasing authentic designs from the continent. The recent creation of the non-profit Africa Fashion Fund is another step towards broadening opportunities for African designers on the international stage, offering financial support and development opportunities for promising emerging designers from Africa through production and manufacturing assistance, grants and scholarships.
Online outlets such as Lalibella offer an opportunity to buy directly-sourced African fashion items, with all proceeds going to improve education facilities in Ethiopia.
Where once consumers settled for ersatz African clothing approximated by Western high fashion, now they are looking for the real deal. ‘The global consumer today is hyper-aware,’ says Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, owner of the internationally distributed Ethiopian shoe label soleRebels. ‘They want authentic and innovative ideas delivered from the authors of those ideas.’
These global African designers are garnering the seal of celebrity approval, too: witness the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o sporting several dazzling print dresses by Nigerian brand Maki Oh on her ‘homecoming tour’ of Kenya; US First Lady Michelle Obama rocking a colourful print skirt by Ghanaian label Osei-Duro; and superstar singer Beyoncé stepping out in a coat and skirt by Ghana’s Kisua label.
Samuel Mensah, the entrepreneur behind Kisua, sees African designers gaining control of their cultural property. ‘It was a good thing to see international designers putting African fashion on the map. Now we’re starting to see Africa taking ownership of its own cultural assets,’ he says. ‘African designers are being noticed. They are stocked in international stores.’
In part, this trend is perhaps driven by a perceived yearning among the many in the global African Disapora to display a sense of African identity. Huffington Post blogger Chayet Chienin notes a boom in designs that proudly display affiliation with African cities and countries, including the French label Africa Is The Future and New York T-shirt brand Caven Etomi. ‘Africans belonging to today’s Diaspora,’ writes Chienin, ‘are undergoing a real return to the roots.’
Whatever the reason, African fashion is on the rise. In May the market-research firm Euromonitor valued sub-Saharan Africa’s clothing and footwear market at $31 billion, and with international distribution growing, and discretionary incomes rising within the continent, too, and many believe this figure is set to increase.
One such voice is the Nigerian designer Deloa Sagoe, who has been contributing to African fashion for 25 years. She has argued the African fashion industry has potential for massive growth. ‘Just in Africa there is a huge market, without even going to Europe… and the US, there is a huge market there,’ she argues.
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