What has made Africa a fashion phenomenon?

A multitude of traditions have inspired western brands over the years, but one continent in particular is riding a wave of creative autonomy right now

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 06: Models pose backstage during the Lisa Folawiyo Presentation at Laduree Soho on September 6, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)
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Africa has influenced western fashion for as long as it has existed. Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garcons and many others have been inspired by the continent's history, people and culture.

A multitude of African traditions have been used as a rich source of inspiration, punctuated by some particularly memorable misappropriations, from Christian Dior and Thierry Mugler to Louis Vuitton. Producers worldwide have capitalised on African symbolism to sell everything from cars to fashion. The difference now is the current outpouring of creative talents isn't from the big western brands "inspired" by Africa, but instead from African designers making inroads into the western arts scene.

The rise of African fashion

In the past few years, there has been a steady outpouring of creative talent from across the continent from photographers, furniture designers and fine artists, to jewellery and fashion designers. The continent has a burgeoning homegrown creative industry showcasing the diversity and talent of the region.

African fashion is riding a wave of creative output and recognition, gaining global press and an international clientele, this time with creative autonomy, after being ignored and copied for decades. It is riding a wave of hyper awareness of cultural appropriation and casual racial inappropriateness, which reached an all-time high in 2017. H&M's "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle" hoodie and Prada's Pradamalia blackface keychain are recent examples.

The current wave of African artists is punctuated by creative inspiration that is simply not possible in the West. La Sape is properly known as les Societe des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elegantes, or the Society of Tastemakers and Elegant People. Born in the poverty of the Congo, Les Sapeurs consider themselves to be the best-dressed and best-behaved gentlemen on the planet. They devote almost their entire income to purchasing fine clothing and accessories, ­believing they improve the morale of their neighbourhoods by setting an example of couture and courtesy.

Their adoption of the classic menswear suit symbolises a break with the country's colonial past, when they were forced to wear Mao-style tunics. Sapologie today serves as both a political statement, as well as something close to a religion, inspiring creativity in all those fortunate enough to witness it.

Digital resources

Designers such as Xuly Bet paved the way in the early 1990s, infusing their fashion with their Malian heritage. Others such as Ozwald Boateng shook up the traditional bespoke menswear tailoring industry that the United Kingdom is ­famous for, by opening a store on hallowed Savile Row in 1995, offering exquisitely tailored men's suits in eye-popping colours. The publication of Fashion Africa in 2011 helped popularise the new wave of African design.

Book Cover
‘Fashion Africa’ helped popularise a new wave of African fashion in 2011. 

The accompanying digital resource, the Africa Fashion Guide, is an information platform that helps create awareness of the full fashion and textile supply chain across Africa. The platform supports the creation of responsible fashion made in countries throughout the continent. It organises annual trips to meet manufacturers, artisans and other industry professionals, sharing relevant industry information and offering business consultancy to help grow businesses producing and sourcing locally.

The designers to know

Aboubakar Fofana is a world-renowned multidisciplinary artist, designer and master craftsman who works with textiles and natural dyes. He is known for reinvigorating and redefining West African indigo-dyeing techniques, with a focus on the preservation and reinterpretation of traditional textiles from the region. Fofana showcases his work around the world through workshops and exhibitions, and is in the process of developing a permaculture, with the intent of proliferating fermented indigo dyeing across Mali.

Nigerian fashion designer Lisa Folawiyo is one of Africa's most popular. She produces a chic, modern collection with a hint of tradition and lots of colour, and dresses celebrities including Lupita Nyong'o and Solange Knowles. She has had her collections shown on the runways of Lagos, Milan, New York and Paris. Folawiyo is known for featuring artisanal hand embellishments. She first made headlines by embellishing the local Ankara fabric and has built a brand based on the reinterpretation of tradition.

A design by Dent de Man. Courtesy Dent de Man
A design by Dent de Man. Courtesy Dent de Man

Dent de Man is a brash, colourful menswear brand that features classically tailored clothing infused with cutting-edge design. Named after a distinctive mountain close to the city of Man on the Ivory Coast, the collection blends sartorial elegance with traditional Javanese prints. Dent de Man's unexpected textile combinations, use of vintage fabrics and ancient printing techniques sets his collection apart. The brand works closely with Dutch print textile manufacturer Vlisco, allowing him to access its rich print archive that spans more than 100 years.

This is the power of Africa – the power to inspire, to revel in the pure joy of life and living – and the fashion world is far richer for it when it comes from the source rather than reinterpreted through western eyes.


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