With growing infrastructure and middle/upper class, Africa’s fashion footprint is gaining steam. Africa is going to be a hub for industry and enterprise in a way that fashion will not be able to ignore. With increasing spending power and internet connectivity, Africa is a compelling, perhaps urgent, entrant into the global fashion conversation.
Africa was always most prone to cultural appropriation because it was so removed from the conversation. Its culture inspires mainstream fashion through romanticized and idyllic fantasies. African-inspired fashion was typically the ideations of third-party observation, cultivating stereotypical narratives of tribalism. But, as Africa becomes increasingly connected through infrastructure and technology, local fashion can better position itself to not only join the conversation but to lead it.
Africa has seen progressive pivots in recent years
Expanding middle class
The continent’s middle class is expanding exponentially, creating a market that has flexible spending power. As more countries switch from agricultural-led economies to industrial ones, locals are finding a sense of financial reliability. This has brought luxury and leisure items to their financial prioritization. Early adopters to the continent would be wise to gain footing as this economic trend ramps up.
As the rest of the world was entrenched in economic crisis, Africa hosted 6 of the top 10 thriving global economies in 2010. At a rate like this, African consumers will have a spending power of an estimated $1.4 trillion by 2020.
African infrastructure, though still fragmented, is rapidly developing connectivity (both in transportation and internet sectors) by large percentages. This development will facilitate platforms and systems with which to connect companies to middlemen to consumers.
City centers are becoming better equipped to handle global commerce. Infrastructure still leaves something to be desired, especially in an industry that relies heavily on easy shipping, but there are measurable leaps to bridge these gaps. 46,000 miles of new roads developed in the last decade. Additionally, there is a Trans-African highway project underway.
Regarding the internet, Africa is forecast to double connectivity for its inhabitants in two years. The millennial generation has more access to global connectivity than any prior to them. And they are more aware of fashion, art and culture.
Awareness is perhaps an understatement. Not only are they aware. They are apart of it. Their communities are closer and closer to become a forefront player in the global market they were formerly left out of.
And as the continent cuts the commercial red tape plaguing trade in year’s past, many Africa-based designers are finding global access, both with shipping and in discovery. This increased discovery morphs mom-and-pop tailors into revered fashion houses.
In 2014, Beyonce’s stylist found an outfit by Kisua, a South African label, and the item sold out in record time.
Africa has a strong preexisting foundation
Africa has rich, inherent traits that would add depth and character to perhaps what is typically a fairly homogeneous narrative
Africa’s inherent sustainability and craftsmanship.
Meanwhile, as Africa further develops infrastructure and industrialization, the world is trending heavily towards what African fashion already has woven into its core. Sustainability.
Artisanal designs, slow crafting, ethical practices and environmentally friendly production is in high demand right now. And as the rest of the world races to meet this new demand, by deemphasizing efficiency and solidified processes, Africa is already there. The artisans in Africa inherently produce garments with a story. The sustainability movement needs Africa’s shining example.
Brands abroad have already set their sights towards Africa for their own sustainable and ethical goals: Suno, Maiyet, Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood, Stella Jean, Brother Vellies and Edun all have operations that source resources, skills or both from the continent.
The native resources
Africa’s rich natural resources are nothing new. Foreign countries have been tapping the continent for resources for centuries.
China dominates the African textile industry right now. Europe and Asia export their own equipment to Africa. The African governments accommodate these foreign companies in such a way that makes native resources more expensive for the locals.
For example, cotton is the second largest export in Tanzania. But the country exports the raw cotton, where foreign markets process it into textiles. Then Tanzania imports the finished goods, where their citizens can purchase their own resource at triple the price.
But now local societies have the tools necessary to utilize their own resources for more than just exports.
But despite all of these advancements, Africa is still bound by foreign, antiquated stereotypes.
It’s not all tribal and safari
Africa’s modern heritage is worthy of a larger stage. Though rich in colors, prints and shape, Africa is not all tribalism and safari. There are fresh that still weave in traditional African culture with new ideas.
African designers are dressing the Beyonce and Michele Obama. And the designs, if the aforementioned is not hint enough, are modern and marketable.
Who better to tell this story than the designers who live it? They can far surpass the sporadic cultural reference (or appropriation) if they simply tell their own stories. The world doesn’t need a watered-down iteration of tribal dress courtesy of Valentino or African Garb a la Louis Vuitton.
African designers have the tools necessary to be taken seriously on the same scale. And we would all benefit from direct engagement and growth with those indigenous to those themes rather than to leave it up to foreign interpretation.
Empowerment exceeds charity
Western designers certainly tap into Africa for their resources and aesthetics, even nobly employing native artisans. Though this is beneficial for these individuals, it doesn’t make the product their own to share. These artisans are still sewing a label on the back of each item that reads a different name than their own.
Although parts of Africa still benefit from third-party charity, as does every part of the world, we need to shake the assumption that the continent is in constant need of a lifeline. There are vibrant and growing economies that are hosting some of the best progress the world has seen in years.
And as noble as charity is, there is a stigma around the assumption that Africa is comprised of nations that need our hand-me-downs. We need to look at Africa as economic equals. True empowerment does not come from charity. Without a doubt, it’s helpful and necessary. But empowerment takes this initiative further by placing control in domestic hands.
Empowerment is not solely about support, but equipping another to stand on their own. It is acknowledgment and acceptance that certain needs do not disqualify nations from participation alongside major industry players. It is not China, Europe or America installing factories on an emerging market’s terrain and employing the people for cheaper labor. Empowerment is paving your own way with your own resources for your own goals.
What is on the horizon for Africa’s Fashion industry
African fashion for Africans first
Africa needs a to make fashion for Africans, on a grander scale. With still-limited connectivity, African designers have trouble finding a platform for discovery in their own homeland. It is not just about empowering the creatives there to make clothing in Africa for the rest of the world. The people of Africa should be the forefront target market for African-made clothing.
Several opinions support African-made for Africans:
To sustain emerging systems and industries, there needs to be some element of structure. As the continent is still in the midst of developing technology and transportation, there are other systems more within reach that can streamline cooperative markets and cohesive commerce. It may take several years, decades even to put the whole continent “on the grid.” It would be futile for potential trailblazers to sit by and wait for governments to provide the structure they seek.
Several fashion weeks, fashion funds, and organizations have popped up across the continent. Organizations akin to Mercedes Benz Fashion Weeks, CFDA or BAFTA can streamline events and industry standards. It will not only bolster platforms for the designers, but also accessibility and familiarity for potential consumers, both local and abroad.
An organization would serve as a liaison for powerful relationships. Additionally, industry officials can elevate the needs of the textile industry from a political, economic and education standpoint.
Interest-based media and specialty content are not nearly as prevalent in Africa as it is elsewhere. There is not much of a local editorial opinion to bridge the gap from designer to consumer. As Africa is increasingly online, there will be a larger space to represent fashion. The internet will democratize entry and creation of major media platforms.
Fashion is not yet an industry that is taken seriously in terms of education.
Right now since clothing is largely artisanal, it seems like an idle trade—one of little growth or economic potential. But there are a myriad of jobs within the fashion industry that span the field of fashion (buyers, editors, etc.) Likely due to lack of awareness, these options are absent from school subjects.
But fashion is one of the largest industries in the world. At the end of the day, all 7.5 billion of us get dressed in some way, shape or form the morning. Treating fashion as a profession rather than a passive trade will not only empower their citizens to choose a creative distinction for their career path but would also express the value of the industry to the governments that can support it.
Talent in Africa is not the question. It is the ability to propel these talents to a grander stage.
Shop Africa now:
Maki Oh-Designer based in Africa
Brother Vellies-Production based in Africa
Edun-Production based in Africa
Loin Cloths and Ashes
Grey Velvet, ADA and Zebra