MILAN– The first time I heard the words “Africa” and “Couture” together in a sentence, was at the Sustainable Luxury Conference in Paris in April.
“The new COUTURE is in AFRICA,” Ethical Fashion Initiative head Simone Cipriani exclaimed, jolting the crowd of fashion journalists and key industry players to attention and forcing us all to ponder the potential an entire continent (that boasts a constellation of tribes, cultures and natural resources) might have on fashion’s current landscape.
In Italy, Africa’s Fashion renaissance has been evidenced by groups like EFI and Vogue, who have put African designers and the work of African artisans on the runways of Alta Roma . Through EFI’s efforts, we will also see four African men’s wear designers on show at Pitti Uomo in June. And with the emergence of fashion weeks in Lagos, Johannesburg and even Kigali, Rwanda, the world has been forced to rethink its preconceived notions of African fashion, which until recently was widely known primarily for its tribal and ceremonial garb.
Africa, especially West Africa, Cipriani explained, is full of small couture ateliers that cater to women who are accustomed to having their outfits tailor made. Unlike American women, who are top consumers of pret-a-porter and fast fashion, wealthy African women, especially West African women have their clothes made-to-measure or even bespoke.
“Their market is regional but they also appeal to the international African diaspora and that is a huge worldwide market,” Cipriani added.
In Kigali, for example, where the memory of genocide is still palpable, the fashion world is rapidly eclipsing the pains of civil war. Kigali’s fashion week’s attendance doubled its attendance in 2014 versus 2013.
The Made in Kigali atelier that makes whimsical African red carpet gowns, is the most successful in Rwanda, said John Bunyeshuli of Kigali Fashion Week, noting that the Kigali idea of couture is contemporary designs mixed with kitenge or traditional batik East African fabrics.
“Plenty of brands especially Rwandans from the diaspora have brought in lots of high street brands and ateliers that are run by local designers and tailors, Bunyeshuli said.
“The couture touch that we have gradually lost in favour of mass production and mass prestige (which means less artisanal work) is coming back through these African designers,” Cipriani said, noting that these local ateliers are contributing to fueling the creativity of African designers, many of whom have relocated to Europe or the states.
While designers like London-based, Nigerian-born Duro Olowu have become famous on the European fashion scene, talents like Olajumoke Ademilua of O’Milua and Loza Maléombho who have studied and worked abroad and are returning to Africa to produce their signature lines.
Senegalese-born Sophie Nzinga Sy of Sophie Zinga studied at Parsons and now travels between New York City and Senegal in order to produce and promote her brand. Pinpointed by industry insiders as an example of “African Couture,” Nzinga Sy is known for her signature textiles that involve tie dying French lace using Malian tie dye techniques. She often works with skilled artisans in Senegal and Mali and sources rare fabrics like “pagne tisse” from her native homeland.
“I always naturally infuse my Senegalese and African roots and culture in my designs — whether it is tie dye patchwork or Senegalese embroidery. Multiculturalism is part of who I am and it is through attending Parsons that I was able to hone my design skills and understand how to better articulate my aesthetic,” she said.
Like many of her African peers who have had the opportunity to study in the world’s top fashion institutions and have had the fortune to grace the pages of top consumer magazines, she regards the African continent as a key geographical area for expansion.
“In the next few years, I would like the brand to have a strong presence in Africa & North America… mainly in New York. I’d like to also create brand presence in markets like Dubai, Nigeria and South Africa,” Nzinga Sy said.