African designers making their mark on international fashion scene
The slogan of the moment might very well be: “Africa is the new chic.” There are plenty of clues: the success of Thebe Magugu, the first African designer to win the LVMH Prize in 2019, who is now preparing to be the first designer to create a collection for AZ Factory following the death of Alber Elbaz; the book ‘Swinging Africa, le continent mode’ by Emmanuelle Courrèges, published in France in November 2021 by Flammarion; the new Révélations biennial art exhibition scheduled in Paris on June 9-12 2022, which will be followed by ‘Africa Fashion’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (from July 2022 to April 2023), a major exhibition devoted to African designers, from the immediate post-WW2 period to the present day. Clearly, Africa is on the agenda all over the world.
“It's all happening on the African fashion scene,” said French journalist Emmanuelle Courrèges, who grew up in West Africa and founded Lago54, a platform for promoting and showcasing African fashion, and also works as press officer for Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi. “Little by little, a number of players and now also investors are realising that not only there is great potential [in Africa], but also a need to make space for voices that are imagining the future. Nelly Wandji and I arrived very early on, eight years ago with Moonlook and five with Lago54, at a time when African fashion only interested a handful of people. We broke new ground, helping create what is happening today,” she added.
Africa’s evolution has been on the radar of financial analysts for some time. “In recent years, economic diversification has made it possible for a middle class to emerge in Africa, thereby stimulating demand for consumer products, services, and luxury brands,” wrote consulting firm Deloitte in its study ‘Consumption in Africa, the market of the 21st century’, published in June 2015. “The rise in consumer demand, combined with an annual growth rate close to 8%, is expected to increase Africa’s GDP by approximately $1.1 trillion by 2019. Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Mozambique are among the fastest growing markets, and large economies such as Nigeria, South Africa, Morocco, and Egypt continue to perform well. Africa’s opportunity for consumption growth rests on five key factors: the rise of the middle class, population growth, the predominant presence of younger generations, fast urbanisation, and the rapid adoption of digital technology,” added Deloitte.
More than ever in 2022, Africa’s star is shining bright. “Finally, the continent it taking back control of its image and narrative,” said Laureen Kouassi-Olsson, founder and CEO of Birimian, an investment firm that specialises in providing financial, strategic and operational support to luxury and premium brands of African heritage. “[Africa] is a land of opportunity, where brands have understood contemporary challenges but are fostering their own values, inspired by history and craftsmanship. With Birimian, I’m demonstrating that African fashion is on the map and can be profitable,” she added. Barely a year after being set up, Birimian has forged a partnership with the French Fashion Institute (IFM) to create a collective programme supporting African designers at every stage in their development. And the latest edition of the Première Classe Tuileries trade show in Paris welcomed seven of the collective's labels: Christie Brown, Kente Gentlemen, Mille Collines, Rich Mnisi, Shekudo, This Is Us and Umòja. “The feed-back we received was positive. The buyers present [at the show] made it clear to us they needed to see new things, and they did place some orders,” said Kouassi-Olsson. Further proof of the current interest in Africa is the fact that Birimian has recently teamed up with Trail, an independent European private equity firm whose portfolio includes 12 companies, among them Wella, APM Monaco and PR agency Mazarine, specialised in luxury and premium brands. The goals for Birimian and its African labels are to develop an industrial approach producing greater added value, to promote operational synergies and also, for Birimian, to open a Parisian branch based at Trail’s offices.
Sneakers by Umòja at the Première Classe Tuileries show - Crédit : Kim Weber.
All of this is proof that Africa can be a creative force. “The fashion sector in the West is becoming more saturated every day. And the fact that top fashion labels are constantly drawing from their archives, replicating 1980s and 90s looks, says a lot about fashion design's struggle with renewing itself,” said Courrèges. She added that “African designers are a breath of fresh air. Their products resonate with markets from the north of the world because they offer what I call ‘the same, but different’. The same, with silhouettes we are familiar with and reassured by, and different, because of their uniqueness. African designers are storytellers. They are not only introducing new fabrics and highly valuable craftsmanship, they are also telling new stories. They are taking us on board with them. Until now, only major labels would speak of fine craftsmanship. Western fashion is discovering that African designers too are experts in fine craftsmanship, and they are wonderfully adept at matching their artisanal skills with directional styles.”
With its young, connected population, Africa is also nurturing an e-tail boom tapping local consumers. At the start of the year, Ivorian start-up Afrikrea carried out a funding round worth €5.4 million, and took advantage of it to change its name to Anka (which means ‘ours’ in the Bambara and Dioula languages). Anka's goal is to become the one-stop e-marketplace solution enabling its users not only to sell and ship their products worldwide, but also to receive money via international, African or local payment systems, while also expanding its own mobile-based services to an array of retail channels. Nowadays, Anka sells in 47 of Africa’s 54 countries, and has fulfilled transactions worth more than €30.9 million in 174 countries worldwide. Over 80% of Anka’s vendors are women who have increased their incomes by 50% on average since they joined the marketplace’s community.
Similarly to Anka, Jendaya, which means ‘grateful’ in Shona, the Bantu language spoken in Zimbabwe, took advantage of the last Paris fashion week to make a name for itself. Jendaya is a fashion e-tailer aiming to bring together leading luxury labels and the most cutting-edge designers on the African fashion scene. Its purpose it to enable brands to reach a more inclusive clientèle (African-Americans, Africans, people of the African diaspora and even Latinos) by offering dedicated content.
In parallel, other Africa-focused initiatives are emerging. For example, Fashionomics Africa, an e-marketplace run by the African Development Bank and its partners, has launched a new sustainable fashion competition with a $6,000 prize. While the mission of UN-linked Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) is to help African-based designers set up in business. Working as an incubator, EFI aims to generate business opportunities while showcasing creativity and talent in a variety of sectors including art, photography, film and music. EFI works with private industry to strengthen Africa’s culture sector and boost the continent's cultural exports.
Is Africa the new market and continent to pursue and invest in? “Yes, I believe so,” said Courrèges, whose Lago54 platform has taken a new direction via a series of special projects, and in May will unveil its new concept, a collaboration with six African labels and a major fashion e-tailer. Courrèges explained that “there are two reasons why I’m sure of this: firstly, the fresh zest that African designers are bringing to an overloaded world. Secondly, there is a growing willingness by Africans and members of the African diaspora, wherever they are, to buy African and support their designers. It’s a mix of pride and engagement, with the desire to participate in an economic effort in favour of African creative industries. Knowing also that Africa’s middle class is growing, and that its people, along with the elites, act as consumption influencers, all of this makes me think that we are at the start of something that will grow much larger.”
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