Africa has always inspired global style, as the archives of every international fashion house attests. But right now, thanks to the continent’s growing creative confidence and the international glare upon it, its best design talents are offering the industry something new – their own take on sustainable luxury.
While Africa can’t yet compete with mature markets in terms of manufacturing on a large scale, where it can shine is by elevating its vast artisanal heritage to develop fresh approaches to handmade craftsmanship for discerning consumers worldwide.
In my view, it’s about redefining luxury through an appreciation of ethically made, beautiful objects that tell their own authentic stories. This is an area where Africa excels. As the world shrinks and resources dwindle, the industry is looking for original sources of unique goods. The continent’s diverse aesthetics and history of sophisticated dress practices naturally lends itself to this demand. So get the product and narrative right at the top of Africa’s fashion food chain and, as elsewhere, that will set the bar for the rest to follow.
With around 70 per cent of Africans under 30 years old, millennials are becoming the creators and consumers driving African luxury forward. Internationally minded yet proudly African, they are interested in defining their identities through a local lens and want heritage-led style that speaks to them. This current definition of African luxury takes pride in ‘Made In Africa’ and values the artisanal, ethical and handmade.
A prime example is Maki Oh by Amaka Osakwe, who has become one of the biggest success stories of Nigeria’s burgeoning fashion scene since launching in 2010. At that time, while most of her local contemporaries used Dutch wax prints, she focused on evolving indigenous textiles, most notably indigo resist-dyed adire, to create directional, sensual womenswear that spoke to seasonal trends. In her hands, adire has become a silky, luxurious fabric caressed with inky symbols that imbue her looks with secret symbols and rich narratives.
Also in Lagos is menswear talent Kenneth Ize, who is dedicating to elevating aso oke – a traditional hand-loomed Yoruba fabric that translates as ‘top cloth’ – through his eponymous label. The young designer, who is also a finalist in the 2019 LVMH prize, works with artisans across Nigeria to develop his own experimental takes on the woven fabric using luxury yarns and presents his simply tailored, effortlessly easy collections both at home and in Paris.
In South Africa, I applaud Laduma Ngxokolo for promoting local mohair and merino wool with his line maXhosa Africa. Inspired by the clothing associated with Xhosa initiation ceremonies and beautiful beadwork, his colourful knitwear embodies his slogan ‘My heritage, my inheritance’.
In Ghana, Studio One Eighty Nine uses luxury fashion as an agent of change. The social initiative, set up by marketing executive Abrima Erwiah and actress Rosario Dawson, works closely with artisans across West Africa for its batik and bogolanfini fabrics, recycled glass beads, vegetable dyed leather and engraved brass jewellery. The duo recently won the CFDA Lexus Sustainable Fashion Award.
Also representing ethical luxury in Ghana is AAKS by Akosua Afriyie-Kumi. The London-trained, Kumasi-based designer has taken the seemingly lowly raffia basket as her starting point for building one of the most successful and accessible accessories labels to come out of the continent with stockists including Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters. She sources her raw materials in the south of the country and works with her 30 expert female weavers in the north who twist, dye and craft her seasonal collections to perfection. AAKS shoppers, buckets and totes come in warm hues and are completed with high quality leather fastenings.
Let’s not forget North Africa’s contribution to craftsmanship, too. Morocco is renowned for its exquisite embroideries, textiles, braiding and silver work and in fashion terms the art of caftan couture has kept many of these skills alive. Each caftan will pass through many hands, each one specialised in different craft. However, most contemporary designers no longer wish to be confined to one garment.
Noureddine Amir was arguably the first Moroccan designer to make a name for himself globally with his own unique style. He sources natural, local materials such as wool, raffia, canvas and silk, which he then manipulates to form new textures, or dyes with henna, indigo or pomegranate peel, and then moulds into one-of-a-kind pieces reminiscent of Amazigh architecture.
His sculptural dresses have been exhibited at Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech and shown at Haute Couture Fashion Week in Paris. Wildly different yet no less Moroccan-inspired is Artsi Ifrach. He seeks out vintage pieces then works with seamstresses in the Marrakech medina to transform them into brave and theatrical garments festooned with neon embroideries. In doing so, the ancient becomes the future.
Many designers on the continent have told me about their struggles to find reliable workshops and tailors and consistent sources of materials. And across the continent the lack of basic infrastructure provisions such as electricity, transport and internet connectivity are huge challenges to productivity and production.
But this is an area is where collaboration should come in. Different scenes around the continent are disjointed. If knowledge and resources are pooled
and a regional – and eventually pan-African – approach is adopted, there could be accelerated growth.
While it’s important to look outward for expansion, African luxury must also work hard to win over the homegrown market too. Africa has swelling numbers of high net worth individuals and an influential middle class who represent a significant consumer base. The challenge is that often they prize international brands over their own.
High-end stores such as Cape Town’s Merchants On Long and Maison Mara, Alara and Temple Muse in Lagos, Elle Lekko in Accra and Designing Africa Collective in Nairobi are creating retail environments aspirational enough to change this mind-set, as are upscale e-commerce enterprises such as Ichyulu, Onchek, Ditto Africa and The Folklore. And the change can’t come soon enough as multi-national brands increasingly expand their retail footprint with outposts in new malls across the continent.
The old fashion capitals can no longer rest on their haunches believing that little matters beyond their borders. A rising continent of 1 billion people is not a trend. It’s fashion’s last and potentially most glorious frontier.
Let’s learn from the mistakes of fast fashion in Asia and integrate Africa’s wealth of talent and techniques into the global luxury fashion system with the respect it deserves.