African fashion has a voice, but whose tune is it singing?

Written by  Monday, 24 November 2014 12:30

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The African continent is blessed with ample natural resources, more so than anywhere else on earth. It is because of this that there remains a sharper focus on investing in the extractive industries. An understandable play. However, this focus often comes at the expense of Africa’s creative business potential. Even within cultural norms, young Africans are encouraged to follow careers in engineering, medicine, and accounting (the drill is now obvious), leaving the more creative and artistically-inclined professions deprioritised.

I’ve dedicated much of my life to advocating for the promotion, protection and renaissance of African artistry  its creativity, music, fashion, style, and every other element behind what truly is the genesis of African expression and image-based representation. What we wear isn’t just about looking good; what we wear is a silent (but very tumultuous) statement about one’s self, one’s heritage and one's way of life. In fact, fashion is one of the most poignant cultural storytellers of all time, innately descriptive of our nature, nurture, and state of being. Fashion is a grand ambassador that unaidedly speaks the most epic of universal languages, capable of influencing and positioning societies worldwide.

So, if fashion is a language, with a high-powered voice, whose tune is it singing in Africa?

Western worship

This question stems from my concern about a culture still buried in the archetypes of what I like to call 'western worship'. Many of us able to afford western brands still find ourselves leaning towards the purchase  and active promotion  of them, rather than investing in authentic pieces made in Africa by a talented local designer simply because of the perceived prestige derived from wearing a label from 'over there'.

What is particularly alarming about this imposed school of thought is today’s counter-embrace of African prints, so much so that a number of western fashion houses have come together to form some kind of counterfeit industry for African artisans. It’s a rather morbid environment when the copier benefits so much more than the actual creator.

What does ‘made in Africa’ mean anyway? And have like minds ever come together to thoroughly address this foundational element in development?

Why isn’t there an Africa-grown and Africa-based house or brand akin to Coco Chanel as of yet? Is it primarily because Africans wouldn’t buy into or support it?

Considering the rest of the world has its eyes firmly watching (and wanting) the motherland, why aren’t the children of that motherland behaving similarly? Whilst noting the multiple reasons rooted in politics, social reform, and poverty, let’s not forget the simple  and yet most influential  power of feeling. How does the average African feel about their own products?

Infiltrating cultures through commerce

Years of interaction, talks and observation, has left me with the opinion that the one crucial factor we’ve learned to misunderstand is the vital link between culture and commerce – a relationship superbly mastered by our American friends. They’ve developed the planet’s finest hegemonic systems, all sincerely and literally living off the following principle: infiltrate a culture, and own its economy. It’s an ecosystem of values so expertly executed that we rarely even notice just how much we’re being duped. They can enter a society and influence its cultural identity, hence influence consumer desires, hence influence spending habits, hence influence entire economies.

Evidently, it's very possible to make a people want to be less like themselves and a lot more like 'the other' (followed by selling them what’s required to help them achieve this ideal). In the fashion industry, this notion of self-inflicted colonialism can manifest itself not only in consumer and buyer favouritism of western brands, but also in designers themselves, shunning their local and cultural influences and producing collections that are, quite frankly, unfortunate cases of poor imitations of western brands.

An imbalanced influx of commercially-driven external interests into any society can easily erode its culture if there’s no organised presence to promote, protect and prioritise that culture. It worries me that the threats (and benefits) inherent in this addressed relationship remain misunderstood and are seemingly low on the social agenda across Africa. 

It’s too simplistic (and probably too late) to propose this as a solution in itself, but we must work harder at taking back ownership of our local economies. One way to actively do so is by looking, supporting and buying local again. Corporations will follow consumer choices and build towards their demand – so I say, rule, know, understand and take charge of your demand.

Perhaps it’s symptomatic of a lack of cultural confidence, or distraction, or both. Either way, the African fashion industry is in urgent need of more powerful thought leaders, strategists and operators who are bold in their development of all necessary foundations (psychologically, operationally, and practically, and with government backing) to establish a significant and independent fashion force. Just look at the rise of afrobeats and the rippling effects of this proud cultural roar, or look at my own advocacy works across Africa and Arabia and the exciting conversations and partnerships taking place internationally, and you will immediately know that I speak only of winning formulas.

Another example: Stella Jean. She’s a designing talent that triumphantly thrills. Africa and the Caribbean share deeply rooted connections, and this comes through superbly in all her creativity.


Stella epitomises her natural and nurtured inspirations and is truly emblematic of what’s happening across all major fashion hubs. African fashion – the colours, prints, tribalism, cuts and imagery – are in vogue.

Cultural intellectual property

With all that said, is the tide therefore changing? Western culture has forcibly influenced Africa for centuries, but (on the catwalk at least) African culture is starting to influence the west. This is indeed positive, but only if the benefits are equally spread. If western high street collections are obviously inspired by our creativity, is the source of inspiration respected? Financially? Are partnerships being created on equal ground? If they are not, if there is any level of commercial exploitation or disregard for cultural intellectual property, how can that be a good thing? It is tantamount to nothing but cultural thievery if there’s no recognition, no credit or no equal financial benefit. This is again why the African fashion industry must look within itself and build the necessary frameworks in order to stand on firm and organised pillars of unified strength so that we’re not left exposed to the kind of pilfering through which everyone else gains from African creativity except young African creatives. 

My mission, as those who follow me already know, is to advocate for and champion African creativity as an important and independent industry, in the same way that oil, gas or tourism are respected as valuable components to national identity and economic development. Most recently I was appointed global ambassador for Congo Fashion Week 2014 and I look forward to continuing to play my part in building, bridging and exposing Congolese fashion through a pan-African point of view at all times.

Despite this focus on the motherland, my initiatives continue to take me all over the world. Currently, I’m based out of Dubai  ideal as it geographically straddles Europe, Africa and Asia. In stark contrast to many African states, I have witnessed and proudly participated in the rapid and impressive growth of government-supported design development across the UAE, as well as many other parts of the Middle East's creative landscape. We’re seeing particularly commendable progress within Dubai’s fashion sphere (Fashion Forward and D3 come to mind instantly).

I hope to see similar platforms of prowess, education and advancement adopted and adapted throughout the African continent. Creativity needs support and facilitation from government entities, and, conversely, we (the creative population) have an obligation to be more vociferous and demanding in our lobbying for government support.

Reconnecting the Middle East and Africa

With the Middle East and Africa being neighbours, it remains within my (sincerely huge) vision to build closer, more trustful, and direct relationships with one another – free from the external voices that have historically and culturally driven social wedges between these two incessantly flourishing parts of the world. 

There are links aplenty to be explored; a recent example took place between Saudi Arabia and Kenya, where Saudi's Prince Fahad Al Saud met and exchanged with tech innovators in Nairobi.

At first glance, it may seem like an unlikely connection, but the prince’s background is embedded in creative technology and entrepreneurship  two very young and exciting elements of business currently booming in the Kenyan capital.

While there’s a lot of capital in the Middle East and lots of creativity in Africa, creativity is rising in the Middle East, just as capital is rising in Africa, so now is the time for us to come together, to talk to each other, to realise these neighbourly opportunities, and to genuinely open our arms and eyes to one another.

At the end of the day, if any success is to be sustained foundations must be solid, and that foundation is home. The very first place we should look into and fine tune is ourselves. We should explore ourselves as individuals and as societies, then identify and furnish an intrinsic sense of pride best suited to us. Once we know, with confidence and comfort who it is we truly are, this will by default display itself with abundance in the authenticity, union, organisation and prioritised protection of what we choose to create.

Rozan Ahmed

Founder, Bougi


Nancie Mwai  Kenya

Fashion blogger @ The Fashion Notebook


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Nancie MwaiI know people who religiously support African fashion brands, but then there are also those who would rather shell out $1,000 on a big label jacket than pay $100 for a jacket from an African label. The perception is that wearing these international brands gives you prestige. People even post pictures on Instagram of them opening the boxes of these premium brands!

A lot of our local designers in Kenya lament that people just aren’t buying their clothes. If they tell a customer that a particular dress costs 10,000 shillings [£70; $110 as of 25/11/2014] someone will complain and try to negotiate for 7,000 shillings. When the designer refuses, the customer says ‘Fine. I’ll just go and make it myself’. They’ll find the fabric in downtown Nairobi, find a tailor, and get a similar dress made for a fraction of the cost.

That said, I believe that a brand established somewhere in Africa can break through into that league of premium luxury international brands. Chanel, Gucci, Givenchy… they all started from somewhere. We must start thinking of the world as our client, and not just our country or continent. ‘African fashion’ has been reduced to kitenge and ankara, but I believe that African fashion is anything made in Africa. Plaid can be ‘African fashion’! If Luis Vuitton did a collection featuring African prints, it would still be Luis Vuitton. So it’s about us trying to embrace other trends, working with different prints and materials – not just concentrating on the African fabrics – and doing something different, like creating your own print.

It can be tough being a designer in Africa, so when you see an African designer doing well on the international scene, you know for sure that they must have worked really hard.

Nancie Mwai is the creative director and owner of the fashion blog She won the Best Fashion Blogger award from the Bloggers Association of Kenya in 2012 and 2013. The Guardian (UK) named her as one of the top 10 fashion bloggers in Africa, and Conde Nast's Lucky Magazine recognized her as one of their favorite blogs from around the world.

Her blog ‘The Fashion Notebook’ showcases fashion in different lights, comprising African and international designers and brands. Nancie appeared on the cover of True Love Magazine East Africa in 2012 as one of the young and talented women under 30 in Kenya, and was invited by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany to attend Berlin Fashion Week 2013.

Nancie has a degree in International Business Administration in Marketing, and seeks to inspire young and creative individuals.


Taibo Bacar  Mozambique

Fashion designer, Taibo Bacar 

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Taibo-BacarI am often asked what 'African fashion' is, or who represents it best. My work is associated with African prints, leading people to think that that’s what makes my work 'African' or 'Mozambican'. However, when talking about a European or an American designer, people don't ask what makes their work 'European' or 'American'. Conversely, when Jean Paul Gaultier was inspired by Africa and used African materials, could we say that he was doing African fashion?

I believe what makes us is our origins and cultural backgrounds. I make Mozambican fashion because there is something from my heritage in everything I design, whether I use western, eastern or African fabrics and materials. When we write we may use the same alphabet, but there are many different languages that come from it. The same principle is true with fashion.

Once we Africans understand that we have the same — or even greater — potential than the rest of the world, we will consume African created and made products with pride.

Taibo Bacar was born in Mozambique in 1985. The son of a seamstress, Bacar grew up around the sounds of sewing machines, fabrics and the design sketches that he drew for some of his mother’s clients. One day he decided to take a chance and follow his childhood passion, leaving the world of business and heading to Spain to take a course in design and pattern cutting. At that time there was no fashion industry training available in Mozambique.

In 2012 Taibo Bacar won the prize of emerging designer of the year - Africa. The brand has won many international awards since its inception in 2008, and was the first African brand to showcase at Milan Fashion Week. It is a brand that is slowly conquering the world, always remaining faithful to its roots and forever valuing the timeless products designed in Mozambique and Africa.

Main photo credit: Phlong Flores



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Last modified on Friday, 07 August 2015 20:51

Rozan Ahmed

Sudan United-Kingdom

Founder, Bougi | Commentator | Editor | Culture fiend | Renaissance Woman

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