Fashion in Africa is breaking away from its traditional forms, making way for a new generation of African designers. These days, their innovative clothing is seen everywhere: in the street, in shops and on catwalks, on the continent as well as in the rest of the world.
Over the past ten years, a number of successful Fashion Weeks in African countries have received global recognition. Today even the trend-setting western fashion industry is being inspired by African haute couture. In an article headlined ‘AfroCentric’, the British edition of Vogue magazine has described fashion coming out of Africa as ‘traditional references that continue to inspire.’
Many new designers
“Africa as the origin of fashion design is becoming more important,” says Roger Gerards, creative director at Vlisco, a Dutch fashion brand that is a household name in West and Central Africa. The textile company was founded in 1846 and is renowned for its striking prints and bold colours. This season’s collection is called Funky Grooves. The rise of African fashion is a challenging development, says Gerards: “There are so many new designers now, it’s difficult for the industry to keep track.”
African luxury labels
A label with a less long and prestigious history than Vlisco’s is Ayoiroha. Founder of the label, Ayo Okpa-Iroha, a young fashion designer living in Lagos, Nigeria. She is very much in touch with the changes in her country.“
If you look closely there’s a huge uprise in dressing. Nigerians are very flamboyant people. An average Nigerian is a fashionist, a stylish person. [Fashion is] now a million-dollar industry and it’s growing,” she says.
Africa is not a country
Aarten believes that the art of African fashion is not fully recognised yet. “It became known as ‘African fashion’, but Ethiopian fashion is not the same as Nigerian fashion or Somali or Ghanaian fashion.”
Okpa-Iroha shares Aarten’s view. She says that the image of the African fashion industry is determined by the idea that ‘Africa is a country’. “People should bear in mind that each country and even each tribe has its own culture and style.”
That said, there are common denominators in African fashion that should be exploited, she says. “African dressing has always been very loud. Maybe to some extent it’s [even] louder now. Africans wear a lot of colours; we [designers] are putting these colours together.”
Fashion is for the carefree
Gerards says there’s a simple explanation for the recent developments in the African industry. ”Fashion is a very good instrument in judging the state of affairs of the economy or an era. When fashion becomes important, it means that people have the freedom to choose their identity, the freedom to show their wealth. If you have time for fashion, it means that you don’t have other problems.”
At the same time, Gerards is not blind to the fact that there are still many problems to be solved on the African continent, the issue of personal freedom being a very important one. “The only thing that counts in life is for people to coexist,” he says, adding that every country has its positive and negative sides. “In Africa it’s just more extreme - a poor person might buy just a single piece of Vlisco in a lifetime, whereas others buy 20 Vlisco items a season.”