​fashion cities africa: flying the flag for modern african fashion

As the first major UK exhibition dedicated to contemporary African fashion opens in Brighton, curator Helen Jennings talks about the style and substance of the second largest continent in the world.

by Helen Jennings
29 April 2016, 2:47pm

Opening this week, Fashion Cities Africa (FCA) at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery explores the style of four major cities at the compass points of the continent -- Casablanca, Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Lagos. Each lends its own perspective to the burgeoning fashion landscape across Africa today. "In some cases the scene is more emergent, in others more established. Some designers are now major players in international fashion, while others are experimenting creatively in the interface between global fashion and local identities," says Helen Mears, keeper of world art at the museum. "The exhibition aims to provide a snapshot of these cities and an introduction to some of the stories behind the style." 

The museum's curatorial team has spent three years developing relationships with specialists, designers and other professionals in order to build FCA's multi-layered display of garments, textiles, art, photography, and film. "These are huge and incredibly diverse cities so I want visitors to be wowed, as we have been, by the dynamism of fashion practices within them," Mears adds.

Over the past decade the African fashion industry has experienced rapid growth thanks to Africa's broader economic, political, and cultural uplift and the influence of globalization and social media. Improved infrastructure, education, investment, and governance in major cities; a boom in tourism, technology, and manufacturing; and a swelling pride in homegrown innovation have helped the creative industries to blossom. Euromonitor calculates Sub Saharan Africa's apparel and footwear market to be worth £31 billion. Add to that the fact that around 70% of African's 1 billlion inhabitants are under 30 years old and it's safe to say that these millennial minds are becoming the creators shaping fashion's future.

The best designers reference global seasonal trends as well as their own artisanal heritage and offer a fresh take on ethical luxury. So as the West's fashion system threaten to unravel, early adopters are looking to African cities such as those in FCA, as well as other hotspots including Dakar, Accra, Cape Town and Brazzaville, for fresh talent, new ideas and fashion's next big things.

Journalist and author Hannah Azieb Pool consulted on the exhibition and edited the coffee table book that accompanies it. "While celebrating African designers and makers, I wanted to highlight the fact that there really is no such thing as 'African' fashion any more than there is 'European' fashion or 'North American' fashion. But there are vibrant African cities, each with different influences, inspirations and priorities, all reflected by their own designers," writes Paul in the introduction to the book. While she travelled to Joburg and Nairobi to document those cities, as a fellow FCA consultant, I took care of Lagos and Casablanca. In each city, she notes, we "found recurring themes, as designers, stylists and fashion writers told us about their joys and frustrations within the industry… Fashion is a pillar of identity, a way to take risks and contextualize a sense of place."

Lagos shines bright in terms of catwalk fashion that lives up to the Nigerian megacity's reputation for entrepreneurship and rambunctious energy. "Our designers cater to that zest for life that we all share. Our fashion is bold, audacious and wants to make as statement," says Tokini Peterside, a strategy consultant specializing in African luxury. Maki Oh by Amaka Osakwe turns indigo resist dyed adire into sensual silhouettes. Adebayo Oke-Lawal of Orange Culture gives a nomadic spin on menswear. Both have been shortlisted for the LVMH Prize and secured international stockists. Lisa Folawiyo is renowned for reinvented ankara with hand-stitched embellishments. And Bubu Ogisi of I.Am.Isigo offers androgynous style. "Everything is happening now. Lagos has found its voice," Ogosi says. "What drives us all is the stress of living here, which actually makes you more creative. There is beauty in the chaos."

Joburg possesses South Africa's most influential street style thanks its sartorial crew culture. I See A Different You are the frontrunners with their blog shining a new light on Soweto, which has landed them collaborations with Edun and Levi's. Khumbala create shoots that are odes to their grandparents' style. The Sartists are reinventing retro sportswear through their work with Adidas. And the Boys of Soweto keep it thoroughly dapper. Meanwhile the city's mature fashion industry has given rise to household names such as KLûK CGDT (for evening glamour), Thula Sindi (for impeccable tailoring) and Marianne Fassler (for Afrocentric prints).

Nairobi's style revolves heavily around Mitumba -- the practice of second-hand clothes shopping in the city's huge markets. Brother and sister bloggers Velma Rossa and Papa Petit, better known as 2ManySiblings, have turned it into an art form. "Our mission has evolved from us simply documenting our personal style and how we interact with the environment to being ambassadors and voices for transitional contemporary Africa," the pair says of their impact. They now run their own Thrift Social markets (coming soon to Brighton for a special FCA edition) and were recently invited to the US to speak at Yale and co-host a party with Everyday People.

Stylist Sunny Dolat heads up fashion at the multi-disciplinary Nest Collective. Their fashion film To Catch A Dream features looks by the of Nairobi's best designers including Ann McCreath, Ami Doshi Shah, Adèle Dejak, Katungulu Mwendwa, and Kepha Maina. "Fashion in Kenya is popping so we want eyes to be open to the beautiful things being made here. It's an exciting time with a lot of young talent moving away from prints and creating a minimalist sensibility," Dolat says.

Casablanca's budding fashion scene reflects the city's geographical and spiritual intersection between the Orient and the Occident. "We absorb from Europe, Africa, and the Arab world while retaining our own roots. You can choose which culture you identify with and express that through the way you dress," says Moroccan journalist Mouna Belgrini. By far the biggest segment of the industry caters to the demand for caftans with Zhor Raïs and Zineb Joundy the established masters. But younger designers are breaking new ground. Ghitta Laskrouif enjoys upscaling vintage fabrics. Yassine Morabite's Zazlouz t-shirts are printed with illustrations of Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss given Berber makeovers. And Amine Bendriouich's counter culture designs are worn by Skrillex and Massive Attack. "When I started out in 2007 I was taking a stand against the clichés of camels, teacups, and caftans. People thought I was crazy. Now there's been an evolution and there is a contemporary fashion scene here," Bendriouich reflects. "Soon we'll have brands from Morocco recognized for their excellence internationally. This is my hope." And that of FCA, too.


Fashion Cities Africa is at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery from April 30, 2016 to January 8, 2017.
The Fashion Cities Africa book is published by Intellect - out now.
Photography Sarah Waiswa

Fashion Cities Africa
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