Saturday 1st of April 2023

Nairobi, Kenya

Has Black Lives Matter really helped African brands?

The first week of June 2020 was memorable for AAKS designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi. She woke up to hundreds of orders via her brand’s online store a volume of sales unprecedented in the handbag line’s six-year history.

“I knew the Black Lives Matter protests were happening, but I was wondering, ‘why are people shopping?’,” she recalls. “Then I realised a lot of people were sharing lists of Black-owned businesses online. From June to December [the sales] never stopped.”

For AAKS, based in Ghana, direct sales online grew by 700 per cent in 2020 alone. From her home workshop in the city of Kumasi in the south of the country, the designer is preparing orders that have been placed by major international retailers over the past nine months.

Afriyie-Kumi initially felt under immense pressure when faced with the expectations of her new clients. “The majority expected me to operate like a major retailer,” Afriyie-Kumi says. “I’m a small business. It’s a challenge meeting the orders. I had the worry that they might cancel the orders.”

The process of completing one of Afriyie-Kumi’s handcrafted bags can take from 10 to 14 days. AAKS bags are handcrafted in raffia from palm tree leaves. The harvested leaves are left to dry in the sun before being soaked in vegetable dyes to create the striking colours so characteristic of the brand’s designs. Artisans in northern Ghana hand-weave the raffia; in the finishing process, leather linings, buckles, handles and straps are applied.

Fortunately for the AAKS designer, her new clients are firmly aligned with the sustainable and artisanal ethos of the brand. “Companies are so understanding once I explain the nature of our operations,” she says.

AAKS is one of many African brands that have become highly prized in the aftermath of last year’s anti-racism protests in the West. Calls to end racial and social injustice catalysed a global Black economic empowerment movement that has boosted Black businesses around the world.

South African brand Maxhosa Africa likewise experienced a surge in demand, with sales growing by 400 per cent in June 2000. The luxury knitwear line was featured on Beyonce’s Black Parade, a platform on the singer’s website to promote Black-owned brands. Its online store promptly sold out of stock.

Maxhosa’s knitwear, for both men and women, features colourful patterns in silk, mohair and wool thread that appear to have been dipped in a rainbow. They reference traditional beadwork and symbolism from designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s Xhosa heritage.

However, despite the positive interest, Ngxokolo says he is unenthusiastic about servicing the influx of requests from international retail platforms. “Unfortunately, they only place orders in very small quantities,” he explains. “Processing a very small order costs more than the revenue that you’re going to generate from that order.

I personally feel that some outlets want to be on trend, or they want some form of credibility or want to leverage demand I’ve created. It’s not really worth it.”

Ngxokolo says longer-lasting and lucrative opportunities are needed to promote meaningful change. “If you think back five years ago or even three years ago [about] boutiques that placed Black brands, do they still stock them to this day? No, they don’t.”

African Fashion Foundation creative consultant Arieta Mujay-Barg is also a touch sceptical about increased interest in African brands. “Of course, it’s a bit of a trend,” she says. Mujay-Barg has witnessed a revolving door of African creatives over the years. She urges caution: “This whole thing happened last year  let’s wait and see the figures.”

One of the most high-profile initiatives promoting Black economic empowerment is the 15 Percent Pledge, founded by Canadian designer Aurora James. The Pledge has called on major retailers to commit a minimum of 15 per cent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses to reflect the size of the African American demographic in the US.

The Pledge has evolved into a nonprofit headed by racial justice activist LaToya Williams-Belfort. ‘We didn’t get to this moment overnight,” Williams-Belfort says. “It’s been years of systemic injustice to get here.

So it will take time and work for companies to take the pledge… Eighteen companies have taken the pledge since June and are making progress to hit their benchmarks and goals, while others are at varying stages of discussions with the organisation.”

Meanwhile, retailers are creating or reevaluating their internal diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. This includes major global luxury platform Net-a-Porter, which says its buyers are in the process of improving access for, and visibility of, Black-owned brands.

Mujay-Barg says social media has played a central role as a conduit for African creatives who have taken control of their narratives to deliver their aesthetic story directly to trend-spotting gatekeepers of the industry.

Fashion designer Phyllis Taylor highlights how social media influencers’ approval has driven transformative growth for her made-in-Africa brand Sika. The influencers’ followers post images and videos of her collections on Instagram. Sales have grown by 150 per cent since June.

Within less than a year, Taylor has hired 30 people to boost the production team in Ghana to 50 artisans. She is ramping up output to fulfil substantial orders for 10 new wholesalers keen to stock her hand-dyed batik prints.

For all the good news, Taylor describes the expansion as an uncomfortable period of “forced growth… With all these deadlines and interest we have to work at a different pace  that hasn’t been easy. I’ve gone from [being] a retailer to a production house. I’m grateful for it, but it’s not what we set out to do”.

Taylor is among a number of African designers who are considering broadening their handcrafted offer to include some elements of machine-made product.

The dilemma is that these brands could lose part of their allure and be potentially obliged to abandon some of the sustainable practices that originally attracted eco-conscious consumers and wholesalers.

Growth can be difficult but it’s also exciting and potentially transformative. “Before it was about the big brands the Guccis, the Louis Vuittons but now people are craving something different,” Afriyie-Kumi says. “The Black Lives Matter movement has prompted a conversation.”

Written By  Ijeoma Ndukwe

Content courtesy of  Vogue Business & Nairobi fashion hub 


Black Lives Matters ( BLM ) in Italian Fashion campaign shows early tangible results

MILAN – A digital runway show by five Italian fashion designers of African origin opens Milan Fashion Week on Wednesday, one tangible result of a campaign launched last summer by the only Black Italian designer belonging to the Milan fashion chamber.

After some initial resistance and a slow start, designer Stella Jean credits the Italian National Fashion Chamber with “a lot of goodwill” in pushing through an enhanced collaboration with five young designers, including financing and partnerships with Italian suppliers.

“When you want to do something, you can do them immediately,’’ said Jean, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matters in Italian Fashion campaign. “I have been working hard to overcome this gradualism that is part of the mentality of a certain part of the Italian fashion world.”

She launched the campaign with designer Edward Buchanan and Afro Fashion Week Milano founder Michelle Ngomo after fashion houses expressed solidarity with the Black Lives Matters Movement on Instagram, demanding that they put action behind their social media pledges. Jean, who got her break when Giorgio Armani invited her to show in his theater in 2014, said putting the spotlight on Italians of African origin is important to combat one of the first obstacles the campaign ran up against: claims that there were no Black designers in Italy.

The collaboration with the Italian fashion council will continue in September, when five new designers from Italy’s minority communities will be featured during fashion week. And Jean also is creating an event featuring designers and artisans from Africa, with the goal of creating partnerships between Italian fashion houses that can learn sustainable production methods in exchange for training in the global fashion system.

“You speak about sustainability ad nauseam here, and what I see is anything but sustainable, believe me. In the countries where I work, people are working 99% sustainably, as a result of necessity, of restriction or desire,’’ Jean said.

Jean is also working on a database of African artisanal techniques, fabrics, motifs and other cultural references. The Italian-Haitian designer sees the move as a bulwark against cultural appropriation that does not economically benefit Africans and a way to prevent racist gaffes.

Valerie Steele, director of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum, said many of Jean’s ideas could be replicated in the United States and elsewhere.

Steele, who has some of Jean’s creations in the collection, recorded a conversation with the Italian designer for Black History Month, which will be released on FIT’s YouTube channel on Thursday to highlight Jean’s role in shaking up Italian fashion.

Steele said Black designers are also under-represented in the United States, despite the role Black culture has had on inspiring fashion there.

“When a few years ago we did an exhibition on Black fashion designers, which was an international show Stella was in, we were very shocked to realize that on the Vogue.com, something ridiculous, like 1% of the designers who were featured were Black,” Steele said.

Content courtesy of ABC News & Nairobi fashion hub 

A letter to the fashion industry: what you need to do to go beyond performative allyship

Model and activist Ashley Chew pens a public letter urging the industry to do better

She has graced countless magazine covers, posters, merchandise and even face masks. Her smile was always accompanied by short face-framing curls or deep polished waves. Headlines across the world ran images of the 26-year old African-American woman. Her name was Breonna Taylor.

In early summer 2020, our Instagram newsfeeds were flooded with black squares, captioned with statements such as “we stand with you” or “we love diversity”. Some companies embarrassingly posted nothing at all. The murder of George Floyd reached the fashion industry in the most complex of ways. It seemed trivial for us to post our new haircuts, DIY at-home spa treatments or sponsored content. I cringed at so many tone-deaf companies and even unfollowed their accounts.

Performative activism contributes to the problem, and what I mean by that is sharing an Instagram post about the importance of racial equality without diversifying staff, castings and content. It means nothing to talk the talk unless you are prepared to do the work, to act and do better. For two weeks straight I scrolled past black squares. After a while, I didn’t even care about them anymore. I wanted to know what was going to happen within you, the industry, afterwards, how you would go beyond Instagram statements and implement meaningful change.

In 2015, I started the #BlackModelsMatter movement. The hashtag is currently trending at 83,000 on Instagram. At the time, New York Fashion Week catwalks featured less than 10 per cent models of colour. In 2019, there was at least one model of colour in every single runway show and diversity now stands at 43 per cent.

Beyond the hashtag, I worked vigorously for the phrase not to become trendy – the fight for better Black representation in fashion is not a trend. I’ve spoken for The New York Times, Columbia University, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, magazine panels and even an event in Lagos, Nigeria. I served on The Model Alliance Advisory Board and have sat in with The Humans Of Fashion Foundation. I have poked microphones directly in designers’ faces backstage at Fashion Week asking what more can be done.

” Performative activism contributes to the problem ”

Performative activism does not go to these lengths. Performative activism posts a graphic online, and goes about their Zoom meetings while their African-American colleagues are on the receiving end heartbroken. Performative activism says, “we value diversity”, yet allows racism to manifest itself within meetings, editing, casting rooms, and on set. Allyship is not confined to a Black square on social media. Allyship requires honesty, responsibility and accountability.

As a working African-American model and visual artist, I have been well-equipped for racism; I have the choice about who I choose to champion. During New York Fashion Week, I don’t attend shows that do not cast Black models. On social media, I do not follow brands that don’t reflect society.

Your attention is your highest currency. Brands like Telfar, Fenty, Aerie, Pacifica, Christian Siriano, and Pyer Moss have my full support. These brands undoubtedly have shown diversity in race, age, gender and body positivity long before Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. If every company took similar initiatives, some rooms in the industry wouldn’t be so unbearable, unwelcoming, and uncomfortable.

” What good is using Black culture if Black people aren’t allowed in the room? ”

I still have hope for the future of fashion, but there must be accountability. As a society we are so pressured into making the next thing, buying more things, and being the next big thing. It is essential for us to care about the people that contribute to those exact things. “Never let them convince you that broken glass or property is violence,” said Marc Jacobs in response to the damage done to his Soho location in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests. “Property can be replaced, human lives cannot.”

I am relieved that activism is not taboo anymore. Activism can happen anytime, anywhere by anyone. Five years ago, I was a liability. People in this industry were afraid to exercise their freedom of speech in fear of being blacklisted or even fired. But what you, the fashion world, needs to know is this: caring about people shouldn’t be a liability. What good is using Black culture if Black people aren’t allowed in the room? There is no one better to tell Black stories than Black people. Black editors matter, Black designers matter, Black directors matter, Black models matter, Black creatives matter, Black lives matter.

This article originally appeared on Harpers Bazaar

Content courtesy of Harpers Bazaar & Nairobi fashion hub 

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