Some significant developments have taken place in African fashion over the last 5 years. The first of these has to do with perception: African fabrics and fashion items are no longer seen by western audiences and buyers solely as “traditional” wear (which was always just another way of saying what Africans made and wore lacked the finesse of western fashion).
Hand in hand with this has been the increasing use of African textiles and other craft and fashion elements by western designers, such as Louis Vuitton’s use of the Kenyan Shuke in its Spring/Summer 2012 collection.
Yet another has been the growing number of African fashion designers who showcase their work on catwalks outside Africa. We’ve written about some of these designers, brands like Mina Evans, Uzuri Couture and Wana Sambo, and if you follow African fashion blogs you will discover many more. Nonetheless, marketing on a global scale remains something of a stumbling block for most African brands. That and international distribution. Western fashion brands do not rely entirely on their respective local markets, and African designers shouldn’t have to, either. It’s how you grow your brand and the local industry, and create more jobs at home.
High fashion brands like Versace make their collections known every season, and consumers know exactly where to buy items from these collections, as well as from the mid-level brands that take their “inspiration” from high fashion. But when it comes to African brands, you might see some wonderful designs on a particular designer’s website, but if you happen to live outside of the country in which the clothes are produced, you’ll be hard pressed to find the clothes in any of your high street shops or usual fashion outlets.
This is where international organization Fashion 4 Development (F4D) thinks it can make a difference: by preparing African designers to work with western retailers, and bringing the two parties together.
We are usually quite skeptical about Africa-related NGOs, as are most Africans, as so many of them seem to exist more for the benefit the NGO workers themselves. Some people even believe many NGOs are outright cons, another way for Africa’s wealth to end up in somebody else’s pocket. Fashion 4 Development’s non-profit arm – World Fashion 4 Development (WF4D) – isn’t beyond such skepticism just yet, but so far it appears to be doing more good than harm.
The organization was founded by Bibi Russel, a former fashion model and humanitarian from Bangladesh who set up a system that helped to build an international reputation for the weavers and craftsmen in Bangladesh, and in doing so grew the industry and created jobs. She now “employs” around 150,000 local weavers and craftsmen/women.
That was where the idea was supposed to end, but In January 2011, Evie Evangelou saw the possibility of extending the idea to Africa, and set about doing so via the UN’s media affiliate South South News. It attracted the attention of many fashion insiders and diplomats, the result of which is that F4D is now running similar projects in Ghana, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The key westerners involved are Evie Evangelou (Global Chair), UN advocate Ray Chambers, Cesare Ragaglini, Permanent Representative of Italy to the UN and F4D’s Goodwill Ambassador, and Italian Vogue editor-in-chief Franca Sozanni.
“Discovered in Africa”
Last year, Franca Sozanni paid a visit to Ghana, Nigeria and Togo, along with Italian designer Robert Cavalli.
The visit drew attention of the general public as well as fashion industry people, but also raised eyebrows. Was this just another case of influential fashion personalities looking for “inspiration” in Africa?
The reasons for Franca Sozanni’s visit were that she was working on a special issue of Luomo Vogue called "Rebranding Africa" in collaboration with F4D’s chair Roberta Annan (May/june2012 issue). This turned out to be one of those well-meant exercises that unfortunately didn’t quite manage to avoid peddling the same stereotypes about the continent that most of us find really frustrating. Then again, Vogue Italia’s 2008 all-black edition and their 2011 “Tribute to Black Beauties” actually weren’t bad at all, despite our, and many other people’s, concerns about throwing crumbs to black models and designers so they’d shut up about not being featured the rest of the time. Our feeling is that Franca Sozanni’s heart is in the right place, but she is still finding her feet because Africa and black people in general have been a neglected and therefore unfamiliar audience for Vogue for so long, so she is still prone to gaffs. For instance, who these days still uses the term “Third World”? F4D does.
Anyway, the point of that troublesome “Rebranding Africa” issue was apparently to do a bit to make the continent more attractive to westerners for its creative industries. Typically, Africa is promoted to investors for its minerals wealth or land.
Another reason Sozanni paid those visits was because she was further developing F4D’s “Discovered in Africa” project, the part that links African designers to retailers in the west, both online and brick-and-mortar retailers. As far as we can tell, Roberto Cavalli came along to scout for talent.
As Franca found during her visit, there are many designers in Africa whose designs have global appeal. They just lack global name recognition and access to the same distribution channels as their European counterparts. So far, the first initiative has been a success. “Discovered In Africa” teamed up with Saks and online store Yoox to stock some selected African fashion brands alongside western brands that produce some of their clothes in Africa, and they sold out in two weeks (to non-African customers). Among the designers were Koshie O (Ghana), Kofie Ansah (Ghana) and Tiffany Amber (Nigeria). All selected designers can be found here.
Made in Africa
According to Franca Sozanni, many Africans still aren’t aware of the international value of what they produce, unlike the Chinese. But in spite this lack of awareness, there is the potential for Africa to mimic what China, Italy, Brazil and Romania have done, which was to organize and develop their textile industries in a way that had a knock-on effect on the design, branding and retailing side of their respective fashion industries.
The success of the Saks/Yoox experiment demonstrated that African fashion matches the quality of the brands usually sold by these outlets, and Franca also noted that African textile manufacturers and craftspeople work with unique techniques that bode well for continued production at this level of quality.
Evie Angelou, Franca Sozanni, Ray Chambers and Cesare Ragaglini held a press conference in June about “Discovered in Africa” and their specific plans. The press conference was initiated to announce their cooperation with the UN and to explain why retailers should get involved. There were very interesting points made, and you can watch the whole thing here.
As we mentioned above, Africa’s main problem, according to Sozanni, is distribution, but she also points out that there is potential for Africa to develop something akin to the “Made in Italy” stamp and reputation that is taken everywhere as a sign of style and craftsmanship. Organisation of the textile industries, maintaining and building on technical skills, and distribution via regular mid-high end retailers (where they can be stocked alongside other brands, which, besides volume sales will help build brand name recognition), these are key.
There are challenges, of course. For instance, not all selected designers are set up to supply western chains, or even have a website that is more than a Facebook page, so such designers need to be invested in, i.e. money. Money is also needed to buy the collections from African designers upfront. It costs €100,000 to buy the collections that were featured on the Yoox site. The cash has to come from somewhere. And most African designers don’t have showrooms in Europe. Asked about this during the press conference, Sozanni pointed out that having a showroom requires proper funding and until this is met, she will be the showroom.
F4D suggests that the African Union also eliminate taxes on raw materials coming from Europe to Africa. The point of this is to make Africa more attractive for international brands looking for where to shift some of their production. Taxes on raw materials coming in raises the overall cost of production.
F4D also intends to bring over Italian craftsmen to teach their African counterparts the techniques they will need to produce clothes for international brands that get involved in the project. This isn’t just pie-in-the-sky thinking. Brand-owners like Roberto Cavalli, Donatella Versace, Llaria Fendi and Alberta Ferretti are already planning to place some of their production in Africa. It’s borrowing a leaf from China's book. China has been the world’s factory for decades. Initially it was mostly about low-end products, but a manufacturing ecosystem connected to global markets tends to develop a momentum that pushes skill levels and manufacturing know-how higher. The Chinese company that made your hi-fi was probably manufacturing cheap, throwaway calculators three decades ago.
What sort of African label “fits” F4D's model?
It’s worth noting that F4D also supports non-African brands, but they have to have some of their production in Africa, such as Italian label Le Collande di Betta.
The African brands also have to meet certain standards or fit certain requirements, one of the most important ones is to be amenable to global marketability. What this means is that an African brand has to have a look that’s at least partly inspired by western influences. Now, that will probably raise a lot of hackles, but the truth is that many African designers are already influenced to greater or lesser degrees by the west as well as by what they see around them, just as western designers are influenced by things they spot in Africa and elsewhere. And, frankly, it is as unrealistic to expect white Europeans to start wearing Nigerian Gele-style head wraps and wrappers as it is to imagine that Nigerians are suddenly going to go nuts for Scottish kilts. And no one is saying designers must only produce western-influenced designs.
One of the outstanding brands that met these requirements is above-mentioned Ghanaian label Koshie O, founded by Nina Baksmaty and spotted by Roberto Cavalli and Franca Sozanni during their visit. This led to a showcase of Nina's collections at an invite-only event held by Vogue Italia in New York. This in turn allowed her to start building a network that made it possible for her to collaborate with American celebrities like Eva Marcille, Mya and Destiny’s child member Michelle Williams on her spring/summer collection, “The Koshie O. Woman”, as well as on the campaign to launch it.
Here’s Nina explaining the benefits of the F4D for her label.
It’s early days yet, but F4D seem to be taking the right steps, and the benefits to African designers and craftspeople are already very real. We don’t imagine the ride is going to be without hiccups, but for a change what’s going on here is merely building on what craftspeople and designers are already doing, which is an improvement on the old NGO practice of going in and disrupting people's lives by telling them they need change what they’re doing because their practices or products are completely wrong. If this is how the African crafts and fashion industries become suppliers to the world, that wouldn’t be a bad result at all.
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