African fashion has had a long history of influencing fashion trends globally. Luxury fashion brands such as Burberry, Valentino, Moschino, Matthew Williamson, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Marc Jacob, Stella McCartney; as well as British Highstreet fashion retailers like Primark, H&M, Topshop, Zara, Mango, Monsoon and others have all taken inspiration from the continent at one point or another. 3 of the yearly 4 seasons have always had the presence of African-inspired fashion, art and design within these brand collections. Many of their pieces look like they were either made in Africa or at least inspired by its creativity and culture.
The creative, and daring nature of Africa’s unusual textiles, intricate patterns, distinctive motifs, bold prints, and vibrant colours make it appealing to the world. For many decades, the mainstream fashion industry referred to it as exotic, tribal or ethnic with no consideration for its local producers. Many homegrown talents received little to no attention from the Western mainstream audience for years. Over the last decade or so though, technological advancements, the emergence of globalization, and the continent’s early adoption of cutting-edge platforms via social media triggered not just local, but also the global appeal of its grassroots producers. So, what changed?
We credit the change to the open-mindedness of the global fashion industry with its multicultural and multi-vocal point of view. It enabled some African designers to capture Eurocentric (Contemporary) consumers, due to their ability to fuse their diverse indigenous aesthetics with the ever-changing modern styles. In essence, they demonstrated that Africa can also do luxury fashion. This has provided them with opportunities to showcase at international runways in London, Paris, New York, and Milan as well as stock in high-end stockists from around the world.
In 2016, McKinsey & Business of Fashion (BoF) conducted a joint report which revealed that the global fashion industry was worth $2.4 Trillion; while Euromonitor reported that the Sub-Saharan African Apparel and Footwear industry was worth $31 Billion. This result is impressive for Africa considering its producers are stifled by poor infrastructure, transportation, distribution network and lack of formal education and/or capital. The continent’s cultural Intellectual Property (IP) (fashion, music, art, design, literature, cuisine, etc.) are being now rediscovered for its value, job and wealth creation opportunities plus its ability to create socio-economic impact makes it a strategic option.
Although kudos to the handful of African designers making waves, it’s still a struggle for others to grasp the international attention they deserve. If you search for African fashion on any of the digital platforms such as Google, Facebook and Instagram, you’ll be bombarded with endless pages of Ankara popularly known as “Wax Print”. We find it extremely irritating and problematic that when people think of African fashion, they automatically think “Ankara”.
The so-called African Print originated from Indonesian Batik. However, over the years Africa has adopted it as its own due to its heavy market penetration by Dutch Textile Company like Vlisco Group . Vlisco is the market leader in the design, manufacturing, and distribution of African Prints. The African Diaspora community also wear Ankara to show homage to their African roots.
Ankara has done more damage to the growth of the African fashion industry than good. It has not only restricted the development of other African textiles, motifs, and prints like Aso Oke from Nigeria, Kente from Ghana; but also stifled the creativity of artisans, designers, and brands.
There are also many designers from the continent who do not use print in their collection but still take inspiration from other elements of the culture. Imagine a continent with 54 countries, 3,000 tribes and between 1,500 and 2,000 languages – there is no difficulty in finding a source of inspiration. So, why is Africa then perceived through a very simplistic narrative? We wonder why many designers from the continent dislike being tagged as African fashion brands. They have learned that it may restrict their market appeal. These are some of the many reasons the industry is not growing at the rate it deserves and many homegrown talents are stifled through it.
WGSN, the world leader in consumer and fashion trend forecasting, credited the continent as “the birthplace of Human Creativity” and believe it will play a bigger part in the world’s development in the future. Many African designers have proven time and time again that the continent’s producers can also do premium and high-end fashion. Even though many are self-taught, through making mistakes, they have learned how things shouldn’t be done, unfortunately with huge financial losses.
We strongly believe that we need to start utilizing made in Africa Textiles as well as showcasing, supporting and patronizing African fashion designers Home and Abroad. We are not only contributing to the growth of the community but also creating jobs and also prolonging heritage artistry.
There seems to still be lots of misconception around what African fashion is and what it isn’t. BIDHAAR is on a mission to change the narrative around what African fashion and design are through authentic storytelling. Keep up with us on social media by following the hashtag #BeyondAnkara.
In your opinion, what does African fashion mean to you? Let’s discuss.
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