By: Anwuli Okeke
Over the past few years, the African fashion industry has undergone a number of significant developments: African fabrics have become popular among Western audiences and fashion designers, African designs once perceived as “backward”, have now evolved into a rapidly developing industry exerting considerable impact on global trends, Africa-inspired designs are now displayed on catwalks in fashion shows in Paris, London and Milan and in recent times, African fashion has enjoyed massive media presence, which means the world is now aware of the industry and the capabilities of its designers.
Looking inward, the Swahili Fashion Week in Dar es Salaam is an annual highlight for designers from East and Central Africa, and Cape Town, Lagos, Nairobi and Dakar are the continent’s new fashion hubs. In addition, H&M is building a factory in Ethiopia and PVH is looking at Kenya for the production of its brands, including Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.
Clearly, African fashion and industry are on the rise.
It’s said that the French owe their chic to King Louis XIV whose reign began in 1643. The ‘Sun King’, recognizing the importance of luxury goods to the economy, brought a number of artistic industries, including the textile trade, under the control of the French court, making France the destination for the highest quality fabrics and materials. Thus, when haute couture (fitting clothing to a specific client) became the trend in the late 19th century, seamstresses and tailors needing access to high-quality fabrics, had to establish their shops in France. This in turn brought anyone seeking quality fashion to France, creating and supporting an industry that provided opportunities to many and which burgeoned into a veritable sector of the French economy. In time, France became known as the worldwide arbiter of style; a reputation it holds till today.
Could the same trend be occurring in Africa? As foreign designers turn to the continent for inspiration, a fresh look, cheaper labor and a rapidly growing consumer base, could Africa evolve into the next high fashion destination while creating opportunities for many?
The evolution of African fashion – from simple designs sewn and worn locally to contemporary designs sought globally – is akin to the evolution of the continent – lack of connectivity and basic infrastructure giving way to the growth in mobile penetration, globalization and the rise of the middle class. The multiple colors and patterns of African fabrics, sewn together into a single piece of clothing – a shirt, a skirt, a pair of shorts, a blazer or even a hat – can be said to portray how each African tribe, culture, language, custom and people knit together to form a continent that is holistic yet uniquely individualistic; with the colors of each multi-patterned fabric showcasing the vibrancy of the people as well as the depth of the continent’s diversity.
As African designers make their mark on the global scene, the reputation of African fashion continues to grow and strengthen. Stylistically innovative and technically elegant, these fashions are showing the world that with the right investment, African designers can create looks that transcend borders. These designers are grounded in tradition yet exposed to international trends and tastes allowing them forge a look that’s contemporary yet uniquely African, appealing to both local demand and international tastes; thus attracting a clientele that’s both domestic and foreign.
Fashion is big business. According to Data from Euromonitor International, the combined apparel and footwear market in Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated at US $31 billion. Yet the continent is only just starting to recognize the fashion industry’s potential to support development, create jobs, integrate countries, connect societies and rebrand identities.
The industry’s ability to stimulate and encourage economic development is often overlooked. By allowing anyone with an eye for fashion the opportunity to generate an income both locally and –via the internet – internationally, fashion spurs economic development. It encourages economic development by creating employment opportunities for tailors, seamstresses, textile artists, aspiring models, and support staff necessary for the operation of large design studios and clothing lines.
Targeting the fashion industry means targeting the whole value chain – from smallholder farmers to the fashion designers. Through the local farmers providing the raw materials, the weavers who construct the fabrics, and the merchants who sell the fabrics, fashion is an industry that employs many people whose entire economic well being is contingent upon the design and sale of the final products. The necessity of clothing allows for fashion’s sustainability. This sustainability provides an opportunity for any ongoing investment and subsequent profit to go back into the community from which the raw materials used to create the fabrics are sourced, along with supporting any eco-friendly methods of cultivation practiced by African farmers.
Through fashion, Africa, a landmass of cultural heritage and diversity, has the opportunity to diversify its economies while rebranding its image and stimulating social and cultural development. What the industry now needs is the capacity to mass-produce fashions that are affordable to majority of consumers on the continent – as many potential jobs depend on creating this capacity. However, energy shortages which drive up production costs, poor logistics infrastructure, lack of transportation networks within and between countries and rigorous customs procedures erode the advantages of lower labor costs and impede the creation of jobs. Financial aid, in the form of loans, is also needed for aspiring designers.
Despite these challenges, Africa’s fashion industry remains on the rise, attracting talented minds and long-term investment.
Similar to how King Louis XIV of France initiated the changes that ultimately branded France as the world’s fashion capital, so too are African governments needed as the catalyst and support system contributing to cementing the continent’s place on the global fashion scene. With several governments starting to take a closer look at the opportunities fashion has to offer, its hopefully only a matter of time before the African fashion industry becomes an active contributor to several African economies.