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Out of Africa
...the countries are revelling in their increasing prosperity
‘Africa’ has been a buzzword in the fashion community for years. The championing of African aesthetics and techniques by Western designers and the growing success of African designers in their own right mimics the broader changes taking place in the continent as a whole. This is a new Africa, an increasingly prosperous continent, which is shaking off the images of poverty, famine and war that had previously dominated the continent’s coverage. Today’s African fashion, whilst hugely diverse, is giving out a united message – Africa is vibrant, creative, and most of all, modern.
Western designers have long turned to Africa for inspiration. From bold prints to colour blocking, Afro-centric looks have appeared on the catwalks season upon season at brands as divergent as Donna Karen and L.A.M.B. The Spring/Summer 2012 shows were no different, with Burberry Prorsum showing Ankara print dresses and Michael Kors even naming his texture-heavy collection ‘Afriluxe’, a nod to the increasing prosperity of the continent. Aesthetically the appeal is obvious. It is a continent rich with inspirational traditions and costumes from the intricate beaded jewellery of South African Zulus to the rich jewel tones of the kaba ensembles of Western Africa.
More recently, there has been a move from Africa-inspired fashion to Africa-created items. Labels such as New York-based Suno utilise the rich resources Africa offers, whilst also seeking to provide help in return. Founded by Max Osterweis and Erin Beatty, the motivation for the brand was the threat posed to the Kenyan economy by post-election violence, which is why the clothing is produced in Kenya and made from vintage Kenyan textiles. A similar business style is employed by jewellery label MADE, which sells chunky gold pieces all manufactured by disadvantaged communities in East Africa.
This Western fascination with Africa has not been without its stumbling blocks. There have been some huge cultural faux pas that have uncomfortably exposed the ignorance of some members of the fashion community. Frequently lampooned for racial insensitivity fashion-bible Vogue has been in the firing line for dumbing down African culture and not giving the continent’s true diversity and complexity due respect. The most recent scandal came from a trend piece singing the praises of ‘slave earrings’, described as ‘decorative traditions of the women of colour’. Criticism has also been levied at the continued under-use of ethnically diverse models, peaking when French Vogue deemed it appropriate to paint the face of Dutch-model Lara Stone black for an editorial shoot. But times are changing, and just as critics are increasingly keen to hold the industry to account for such blunders, so too are African creatives keen to make a name for themselves in their own right, rather than relying on patronage from existing fashion giants.
Recent years have seen an increasingly vocal crop of fresh young talent arrive on the fashion scene, proud of their African roots and savvy about today’s opportunities. Pivotal to their success has been the establishment of showcases such as Cape Town Fashion Week and Joburg Fashion Week, as well as the new international African Fashion Week, which ran for the first time in Lagos in 2011 and featured over 50 designers.
The new model of African designer is epitomised by Nigerian-designer Maki Oh. A stand out star at the London shows, her flowing gowns celebrated her heritage by using the traditional Nigerian dyeing method Adire, and won her the Emerging Designer of the Year Africa award. Amusingly the inspiration behind her designs was French artist Henri Matisse's fascination with African Art. The message seemed clear – the years where African fashion was nothing more than a visual inspiration to designers were over. Maki Oh was playing with this Western fascination, taking the vogue for African aesthetics and turning it on its head.
Maki Oh’s confidence is shared by rising South African knitwear star Laduma Ngxokolo whose psychedelic yarns showed at Vauxhall Fashion Scout in the Spring/Summer 2012 shows. What marks Ngxokolo out from his design predecessors is not his aesthetics but instead his focus on the consumer - his ability not just to create but also to sell. He is an example of the modern African designer cum businessman, whose use of the press and online media are as crucial to his success as his raw talent. It’s the kind of business model that propelled Ozwald Boateng, a British born designer of Ghanaian descent, to global fame. His sharp Savile row cut, combined with a bulging contact book of celebrities and journalists, epitomized the new style of African fashion – a combination of creativity and PR cunning.
The success of Ngxokolo and Boateng relies on a new type of consumer, one for who fashion has become a genuine choice and interest. It is the changing economic climate of Africa, as much as dynamic creative vision, which has been the catalyst for the rise of African fashion. Central to this is the growing spending power amongst many African citizens. A recent report by the African Development Bank declared a third of Africans to now be ‘middle-class’, defined as having between $2 and $20 to spend a day. A decade ago that was only the case for a quarter of Africans. Whilst many African’s are still by no means affluent, this new income has meant that luxuries such as telephones and television or fashionable clothing are now within reach.
For Africa, fashion is a symbol of positive change. From improvements in governance to better access to technologies like mobile phones and e-tail stores, the countries are revelling in their increasing prosperity. With this fortune has come a newfound confidence, a growing pride to be African that was evident across every single designer showcasing at African Fashion Week. There is a spirit of hope and excitement in African fashion, which marks it out from European or American designs, which sometimes can’t help but reflect the doom and gloom of their countries current economic circumstances. As Western circumstances flounder, Africa’s new potential grows. No longer just a trend, Africa is here to stay.