Helen Jennings: »African fashion offers the world something that feels truly fresh.«
Is there such a thing as African fashion?
There is no one overarching idea of African fashion of course. There is fashion from Africa and inspired by Africa and it goes without saying that the continent’s centuries-old sartorial flair and current scenes can not be glibly described. It’s important to dispels clichés about African fashion being summed up by a handful of signifiers - wax print, big beads etc. The best talents coming through now balance global seasonal trends with local textiles, dress practices and traditions, thereby offering the world something that feels truly fresh. Each of the major cities have their own burgeoning scenes and names to know and those connect to what’s happening in neighbouring countries and in the diaspora as interest in ‘African fashion’ rapidly unfolds. Right now Nigeria and South Africa certainly dominate but there’s lovely things happening in Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and beyond.
As you mentioned in your book, Picasso had an »African moment in 1907«. Did you have such a moment as well?
There wasn’t a single moment like Picasso! I've always been interested in global style and enjoyed discovering new scenes as a journalist. As such, I started to be drawn to the burgeoning fashion industry coming out of Africa. When I became editor of Arise magazine in 2008 it gave me the opportunity to delve headlong into it, travel extensively around the continent, meet creatives and get a first hand understanding of what drove their work. I was immediately taken by what I found – the energy, the diversity, the authenticity - and haven’t stopped exploring ever since.
What are the triggers of the New African fashion today?
Fashion is always looking for the next big thing and Africa is the last frontier in that regard with such a wealth of untapped talent now coming to the fore. There are many factors at play. African fashion – along with all other creative industries on the continent - has benefitted greatly from Africa’s much-documented cultural, economic, and technological ascension. Designers are taking advantage of improved conditions, education, and governance in order to be able to structure and grow their businesses more formally. This allows nascent scenes to build up around them including magazines, fashion weeks, model agencies, retail and so on. New media and social media then opens all this up for discovery around the globe.
African fashion is also helping to redefine luxury beyond outward displays of wealth and logos. As the world shrinks and resources dwindle, consumers are looking for new sources of hand made goods, which is something at which Africa has in abundance. In a similar vein, Africa is also feeding the growing demand for ethical and fair-trade fashion.
Africa speaks to the current mood in fashion that the old fashion systems and fashion weeks are becoming increasingly derailed and seasons meaningless. Fashion has become too fast and too disposable. Young innovators in Africa are forging their own fashion worlds and communities for new clued up consumers. Millennials demand meaningful consumption and over 70 per cent of Africa’s entire population is under 30 – so it’s a no brainer that the continent is ripe for fashion expansion now.
Has African fashion industry today become a system just like in the Western world? Or is it different?
It varies from country to country. Designers whose aim it is to reach international markets do stick to the main fashion calendar in terms of seasonal collections. There are bi-annual fashion weeks in South Africa, for example. But due to the climate, and the fact that region scenes are so much smaller, many designers will work to their clock, or cater to their immediate clientele’s needs on a more bespoke basis.
Where do you think will African fashion go tomorrow?
We're seeing a surge in menswear across African fashion, which echoes what's happening globally. Cape Town has its own dedicated menswear week, for example.
The other growth area will be in e-commerce. The cost of bricks and mortar stores are prohibitive and designers need to reach a broad consumer base so the way forward will be online – think Oxosi.
Africa is also going to become an important production hub – H&M is in Ethiopia while high end brands such as Edun and Maiyet work with artisan initiatives run by the likes of the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative. This is a great opportunity but also a worry as things could go the way of the Far East. I hope the industry has learnt its lessons and doesn’t just see Africa as a source of cheap labour.
Right now the scene is still evolving and still facing real challenges in terms of infrastructure and investment. In the future I hope African fashion will integrate itself fully into the international fashion industry and its designers, textiles and aesthetics be as known and appreciated as those from everywhere else.
Why is it that there are hardly any books about African fashion?
I don’t know! Mine was the first coffee table book on the contemporary scene and there have been a few fantastic books on similar themes since then, often connected to exhibitions such as Haute Africa, Making Africa and Fashion Cities Africa. Maybe New African Fashion needs a second edition! It would also be fantastic to turn Nataal into a book. All on the to-do list.
Which African fashion photographer or fashion designer is outstanding for you and why?
Lagos-based Amaka Osakwe of Maki Oh uses local textiles such as ase oke and adire to create her thoughtful, sensual Maki Oh range of womenswear and is becoming a rising star. Both Solange and Michele Obama are fans.
Joburg-based photographer and filmmaker Kristin-Lee Moolman explores the idea of creating a fictional mythology or place based on the synthesis of political, personal and visual experiences of living in South Africa. She is taking her heritage and her friends’ heritage, and turning them into a new world and view of beauty beyond the racial struggles of the country. She calls it “bubble gum pop with hint of black magic.” She exhibited with Nataal in New York and works with the likes of Dazed and L’Officiel Hommes.
What are the topics African fashion photographers and fashion designers are working on today?
There are many themes and approaches but certain strands come through. One is an appreciation of and interest in preserving local crafts and textiles and for making socially responsible fashion that benefits their local communities. Another is ways to use fashion to regain ownership of African narratives, turn the gaze inward and redefine new African identities. A third, related to that, is a fluid approach to representing gender. This is a global phenomenon now but takes on a unique perspective in countries where LGBTI rights and women’s rights are deeply hindered.
Is African fashion by any means political?
It can be. Every since XULY.Bët used his collections to comment upon the flood of second hand clothing from the west into the continent thereby ruining local textile industries, African designers have engaged their voices and catwalks to campaign for what’s important.
The event series „More Aphrike“ is funded by the TURN Fund of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, designed to encourage artistic cooperation between Germany and the African continent.