African fashion is hot today – it’s one of the most innovative, exciting contemporary design scenes on the globe, from couture to street hip-hop style. Juliet Highet reviews a new book that focuses on four African cities at the centres of this revolution: Fashion Cities Africa*, edited by Hannah Azieb Pool.
In the last decade, there’s been a huge surge of interest in contemporary African art and design. Now, for the first time, the book Fashion Cities Africa celebrates the emergent or established fashion and style landscapes of four cities at the compass points of the African continent – Lagos, Nairobi, Casablanca and Johannesburg.
The book focuses on style selections by individual key players from each city, and how they reflect the social and political realities of those cities. This includes designers, stylists, photographers and bloggers. Their choices celebrate each city’s clothes, jewellery and accessories, evoking the vibe, the drama and creativity of the distinctive cities, as well as their craft heritages.
For far too long books on African design have been written by anthropologists and ethnographers. So now let’s hear the voices of those who create and wear it today. As the editor of this book, Eritrea-born Hannah Azieb Pool, says: “The book is not an academic text, nor is it a definitive guide to African fashion. But what I hope is that it provides a glorious snapshot of very different fashion landscapes.’
Lagos – Nigerian is the new sexy
“We are known for being rambunctious and flamboyant,” says Tokini Peterside, a strategy consultant specialising in African luxury products. “But here you have to stand out. Otherwise you drown in the noise and volume of people”.
For her designs, Bubu Ogisi of I.Am.Isigo draws on everything from the movie Calamity Jane to the Wodaabe Fulani people of northern Nigeria. She says: “What drives us all is the stress of living here, which actually makes you more creative. There is beauty in the chaos!”
“Nigerians are the new sexy. With the spotlight being shone on our creative industry, we can grow and use it to do something positive. It’s time to step up and deliver,” says Hauwa Mukan, radio and TV producer and presenter. Chinedu Okeke, brand consultant and festival producer, adds: “I want to see our brands consumed in the mainstream internationally. That’s where they need to be.” And those ‘brands’ include fashion.
The profile of contemporary Nigerian fashion began to be defined around 2008 with the launch of Arise magazine. For her label Jewel, Lisa Folawiyo reinvented ankara (Dutch wax cloth) as a luxuriously embellished fabric. This printed textile had been synonymous with West African style since its introduction in the early 19th century.
Maki Oh’s Apparel reinterprets adire, traditionally made by Yoruba women in southwest Nigeria, using indigo resist-dyeing techniques.On Fridays, Lagos professionals are encouraged to ‘wear traditional’ to work.
Other style luminaries are recognising the need to protect and develop craft traditions. Design consultant Yegwa Ukpo and his wife founded the menswear store Stranger in 2013. It not only stocks clothes created by experimental Nigerian designers not readily available elsewhere, Stranger also has an indigo dyeing pit.
“Indigo holds such history and mystique for Lagosians,” Ukpo says. “So we are offering dyeing workshops and in the future, we want to introduce weaving workshops. It’s my goal to prove that it’s possible to make something contemporary bringing crafts from our past, projecting them into the future. This country needs to import less and make more. It’s time to be proud of ‘Made in Nigeria’, create sustainable jobs and support the economy.”
Nairobi – synergy of fashion energy
High-end Nairobi labels also have a fresh take on using traditional fabrics, as well as on the tailoring heritage of the city. Smashing the clichéd stereotype that Africa doesn’t do luxury, Ami Doshi Shah and Adèle Dejak are accessory and jewellery designers who source local materials to create bespoke highly sophisticated pieces.
Dejak, who specialises in very dramatic jewellery, has shown at Milan Fashion Week, and her work has been featured in Vogue Italia. She says: “We’re not ‘curio’, catering for only an expat or international market. Our pieces are bought by Kenyans too.”
Anthony Mulli combines Maasai beadwork with international seasonal trends to create bags that sell in New York as well as Nairobi. For his Katchy Kollections, he seeks out craftspeople, learns their skills, and encourages them to modernise their products for contemporary tastes, changing perceptions of African fashion. In this way, he maintains that Kenyans are keeping parts of their heritage alive, and leaving a legacy.
Mitumba – second-hand clothing – is a key part of the Nairobi fashion scene. The Gikomba market stretches approximately 20 acres, where towering bales of used clothing from Europe and North America, as well as cheap Chinese imports, land daily. Somehow ‘the look’ gets pulled together – a vintage beaded bag with a ‘distressed’ leather jacket, for example. In the midst of apparent chaos sit tailors ready and able to effect instant alterations.
But there are divided opinions about mitumba, a mixed reaction to what are essentially cast-off imports. Is it degrading or democratising style – enabling under-privileged people to pick up essentials, or Nairobi’s gilded youth to put together their own uniquely on-trend ensemble? Is it damaging to the local fashion industry, since many Kenyan designers are forced to aim at the exclusive luxe market?
But hang out on the Nairobi happening scene, and you’ll see traditional textiles like kanga, kitenge and kikoye, once with ‘bush’ connotations, worn with skinny jeans and trainers from second-hand clothing in the markets. Along with the realisation of the importance of investing in local designers and local brands, there’s a synergy of fashion energy in Nairobi.
Casablanca – Souk meets street-wear
“Casablanca’s fashion scene is very calm, people are stylish and the culture is rich,” says stylist and blogger Louis Philippe de Gagoue. He has influenced street style with his look, which is eclectic, to say the least. “I mix up babouche slippers, Berber and Tuareg jewellery with clothes from other cultures.”
Architect Zineb Andress Arraki adds: “I wear my grandmother’s caftans with tattoos and short hair. My style is considered punk, but for me it’s about creating a future heritage.”
Journalist Mouna Belgrini elucidates: “Morocco is like a sponge. We absorb from Europe, Africa and the Arab world while retaining our own roots. It’s always been like that. You can choose which culture you identify with and express that through the way you dress.” Morocco has been at the crossroads of trade roots and empires for thousands of years, endowing Casablanca, its main port city and commercial hub, with a unique cosmopolitan design.
By the 1960s the first generation of fashion designers emerged, who appreciated that women leading modern lives could not and would not wear the large, thick, heavy traditional clothes such as the djellaba (hooded robe) that restricted their movement, and were too hot as well.
Amine Bendriouich launched his label ABCB, standing for Amine Bendriouich Couture & Bullshit, characterised by a souk- meets-streetwear look. In 2014 he went into the Sahara and sought out local craftswomen, who make carpets and embroideries. From this he created figure-hugging black dresses covered with embroidery in vivid, psychedelic colours. He says: “I’m making a stand against the hegemony of the caftan, which had become self-exoticised.”
Johannesburg – political and design lightning
“There’s always been a relationship between race, politics and fashion and nowhere is this truer than in Joburg,” says Milisuthando Bongela, who blogs under the name Miss Milli B. This juxtaposition is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago and it’s dynamic – few cities crackle with political and design lightning like Joburg.
Apartheid may ostensibly be over, but the mood of the city is still sometimes one about to simmer over. “It’s sad, but it’s great for creativity. There’s something that is alluring, creatively speaking, about it,” says Nkhensani Nkosi, founder of lifestyle label Stoned Cherrie. “It’s hot here, as in it’s boiling, there’s always something going on.”
There are two rival fashion weeks, giving designers a great platform and which have played a key role in highlighting the energy of the scene. Lucilla Booyzen, founder and director of South African Fashion Week (SAFW), says: “Jo’burg is a vibrant city, there’s a love of glamour, but also a willingness to experiment, to mix things up; a boldness that shines whether people are wearing high street or Hermès.”
Yolanda Sangweni, founder of Afripop, says: “My style is super funky, stolen from my Mum and aunties, super-African and non-conforming.” But actor and activist Standive Kooroge tells a more global tale: “My style is a reflection of my life experiences and travel – a traditional Zulu influence and a vintage Western tapestry; I’m an African global citizen.” NA
*Fashion Cities Africa is published by the University of Chicago Press (ISBN: 978-1-783-611-7).