“African fashion is not a trend,” asserts Aisha Ayensu, the creator and creative director of Christie Brown. Ayensu founded her company in Accra, Ghana in 2008, fusing traditional designs like wax print and batiks with contemporary voluminous sleeve tops and corset dresses. We have been doing this for years; it was never a fad for us.
As part of a new exhibition at Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the influential UK arts and culture institution, Christie Brown is one of 45 brands and designers wanting to help shape and change the narrative surrounding African fashion. From a traditional silk Kente engagement dress created by Ghanaian fashion designer Kofi Ansah to Rwandan brand Moshions
The exhibition looks at African fashion dating back to the 1950s, a period in time when countries across the continent started to break away from colonial rule, and highlights the importance of traditional prints like Kente Cloth as a signifier of wealth and status. These modern interpretations of ceremonial attire, traditionally worn by royalty, were created using wool and viscose.
Thebe Magugu, Rich Mnisi, and Mmusomaxwell, three contemporary South African designers, as well as the West African brands Orange Culture, Lagos Space Programme, and Iamisigo, who participated in the curating of their own displays, are also featured.
With Chanel hosting a fashion show in Dakar, Senegal later this year, Birimian investing $5 million annually in African and diasporic brands, and the rise of designers like Thebe Magugu, a recent guest designer at AZ Factory, and Kenneth Ize, a finalist for the 2019 LVMH Prize, attention is growing on African fashion.
According to experts, African fashion is still underrepresented and poorly understood in the West, with its range frequently being condensed and pigeonholed. Few large multi-brand shops carry African fashion; some, who depend on small-scale production and work directly with ateliers, have found it impossible to scale production to satisfy demand from international retailers, making it difficult for brands to sell outside of local markets.
There are few materials that adequately reflect the development and subtleties of the fashion on the continent, and fashion curricula rarely acknowledge the breadth and history of African designers.
There was internal acknowledgement of a void in the V&A’s holdings, according to Christine Checinska, senior curator of African and African diaspora textiles and apparel, who joined the institution in the summer of 2020.
When she joined, her duties included expanding the institution’s collection of African fashion fabrics and creating the Africa Fashion show. Although we have always gathered artifacts from the continent, Africa and its diaspora were underrepresented in our collections compared to other parts of the world.
As a museum, I believe it was already acknowledged that the fashion scene had such an impact that the museum wanted to address it.
The work that went into curating and putting this exhibition together, according to Ayensu of Christie Brown, was significant because she initially questioned the V&A’s aims. Making ensuring that it stayed true to who we are as African companies, according to her, is really important.
“We weren’t watered down, and looking at African design through a European prism was not the goal. It was about observing the diverse range of our work and the represented brands.
The exhibition featured many of the designers’ voices, and Checinska says it is a special element she was eager to include. A quote from each designer was exhibited next to a description of their product. Adebayo Oke-lawal, the creator of Orange Culture, is quoted as saying, “Clothing should be flowing and have the potential to be worn by any and everyone.”
Omoyemi Akerele, creator and director of Lagos Fashion Week and Style House Files, said of the exhibition, “This exhibition is essential because for the very first time fashion from the continent will be examined from a broad perspective which spans decades.
“African dress is something that has always been here; it is a part of who we are… There is an entire ecosystem of models, make-up artists, photographers, and illustrators in addition to designers.
According to Erica De Greef, co-director of The African Fashion Research Institute, the industry has always disregarded African fashion.
“The two terms ‘Africa’ and ‘fashion’ were not found in a book, let alone on a page together, and much alone in an exhibition title together, 20 years ago when I started teaching fashion in South Africa.”
A move, in her opinion, is an effort to “reverse the coloniality of the museum” and marks a fundamental and important shift in the field.
The need to decolonize the curriculum remains.
The display serves as a reminder that additional research on African dress is required.
According to Frederica Brooksworth, executive director of the Council for International African Fashion Education, “There hasn’t been a lot of knowledge published on African fashion for people to use, and not many people have had the opportunity to learn about African fashion” (CIAFE).
“I do think that a lot of people’s minds will be opened and their perspective of African fashion will alter as a result of this exhibition.
And I believe that many institutions will come to appreciate the value of decolonizing the fashion curriculum.
The next step should be to analyze the subtleties of African dress, according to De Greef. The range of clothing on the continent was not thoroughly investigated. She claims that more depth and nuance are required. “There are still a lot of the cliches, and some of the choices are still pretty vivid and colorful…
But what’s going on in Rwanda is different from what’s going on in Tanzania and from what’s going on in Mozambique.
Greef contends that while fashion varies across the continent, some of these outfits transcend the boundaries of couture and streetwear and are difficult to classify.
The worth of “Made in Africa”
Others still see a chance to expand their internet presence and change the perception of “Made in Africa” by fortifying their online platforms. The founder of the Senegal-based company Tongoro, Sarah Diouf, claims that accessing African fashion for a very long time was extremely difficult.
We solely engage in e-commerce, and because of the difficulty in obtaining African fashion labels for a very long time, this business strategy has allowed us to flourish in the larger fashion arena.
She continues, “Changing the perception of “Made in Africa” is a long-term topic of endeavor.”
For Diouf, whose clothing is entirely sourced and made on the continent, there needs to be work done to refute the myth that “Made in Africa” products are not incredibly important and alluring to domestic and foreign consumers. We are able to create clothing that is equally as good as European or any other fashion.
According to Diouf, this has an impact on Tongoro’s pricing approach. She decided not to price her clothing beyond $230 in an effort to expand her company into international markets and increase African fashion’s appeal outside of the continent. “Anything linked to Africa did not have a favorable image for a very long time,” she claims.
It was extremely important to me to give people the option to shop for African fashion and to encourage them to do so, therefore in certain ways, the clothing had to be reasonably priced.
Merchants on Long (MOL), a South African concept store specializing in African fashion, is the sponsor of the V&A’s Africa Fashion show and says it intends to maintain momentum by presenting a number of pop-ups and events starting in September throughout the UK.
In order to connect foreign buyers with African businesses, the company’s chief executive Hanneli Rupert said it is opening its e-commerce to the UK market.
The retailer is eager to expand its clientele and stock some of the fashion houses represented at the exhibition, including Tongoro.
Along with capital, scaling manufacturing for “Made in Africa” brands can still be difficult for companies looking for new luxury partners. Tongoro began selling on Net-a-Porter this month, which Diouf describes as both an exciting development for the company and a struggle because “everything is handcrafted in Senegal and we haven’t reached industrial level production, so for us it was a barrier.”
The long-term objective, which remains the same after participating in the exhibition, is to “dynamise the local retail manufacturing in West Africa, starting with Senegal.”
Christie Brown’s Ayensu, who has tripled her capacity since 2020 but still feels that it is insufficient, echoes the attitude.
“We want to expand up our operations to be able to satisfy the rising demand,” she says.
“That’s one area and issue we want to conquer.” We did an excellent job of figuring out what the customer wanted… The focus currently is merely on having a sufficient supply of the product and a larger distribution. You need funding to accomplish that, too. According to Ayensu, her company consists of 40% online and 60% brick-and-mortar sales.
International expansion is not the only goal for many aspiring designers, though. The brand is reaching new audiences, according to South African designer Rich Mnisi, thanks to the international attention the exhibition has received. However, the objective is to maintain local market expansion.
Initially, Mnisi explains, “our clothes were made for a worldwide market, but we chose to just concentrate on South Africa, and it was the best decision ever.” “Like most great brands, they first established a strong foothold in the neighborhood; this is what we’ll do.”
There’s still work to be done. The show is undoubtedly a significant accomplishment, but Diouf notes that it is only the beginning. “My daily job in the atelier, teaching the tailors, and attempting to maintain and improve the quality that we have, so that the brand keeps expanding over time, is what matters most to me,” she said.
Content courtesy of Vogue Business & NFH