Africa has become a big brand, the beautiful bride of the world. Practically all facet of our existence has recorded one growth or the other. African fashion for instance has come a long way from the early days of simply using leaves and treated animal skin, fur and feathers to cover the body, performing just the basic function of protection.
The discovery that different plants could be used to decorate and colour animal skins, feathers and shells through the process of dyeing, changed the function of clothing from being purely for protection to decorative. Then around 2000 BC, Africans started to weave their cloth from locally grown cotton, copying the practice from the Indians, whom they traded with.
Apart from cotton, other fibres like raffia palm, jute, flax and silk, camel and sheep wool were also woven in the quest to create fashionable clothing. West Africa led the fashion revolution with its vibrant and colourful clothing like kente, aso-oke and dyed wax; East Africa achieved fame for its mud cloth; South Africa for its distinctive patterned cloth; and North Africa for its flowing tunics and kaftans.
However, there was no real fashion industry; what was obtainable during the colonial era around the continent was custom made clothing, made by self taught tailors using local and imported fabrics. As time passed, the need for a forum or platform where African designers could get to know each other and network with all the other stakeholders in the industry led to the organisation of the first fashion show in Africa – the South African Fashion Week in 1997, which was to serve as a rallying point for African fashion designers.
The fashion week served as a pointer to the world about the creativity and talent that is abundant on the continent. It marked the beginning of the rise of contemporary or ‘New African Fashion’, the bedrock of African fashion today.
Contemporary African fashion is a celebration of ‘Africanness’, the pride and beauty of African heritage fused with Western influences. It depicts how Africans have fought and are fighting through a myriad of negativity and cynicism to achieve international success. Coca-Cola is leading a campaign that celebrates the dynamic spirit that triumphs regardless of obstacles.
The beverage giant’s A Billion Reasons to believe in Africa’ campaign celebrates the unique African attitude – ‘Afritude’ – which is more than just an attitude but a way of life, a tradition of making the best of everything to succeed.
The creativity and determination of designers like David Tlale, helped put Africa on the world fashion map. Mixing the traditional and modern aesthetics of fashion, Tlale’s designs are pure fashion artistry, inspiringly African for a global audience.
He made history in 2011 when the Nelson Mandela Bridge was turned into a 284-metre long ramp with 92 models, including South African celebrities strutting up and down the runway in his ebullient Autumn/Winter ‘Made in the City’ collection. His collections have been shown at the world’s most famous fashion capitals including, New York, Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks.
According to Olufemi Ashipa, Brand Manager, Colas, Coca Cola Nigeria, Coca-Cola recognizes the uniquely African strength that thrives in the face of hardship. “Our campaign, tagged ‘A Billion Reasons to Believe in Africa’, is a celebration of our heritage and our collective determination to succeed no matter the obstacles,” he said.
‘The praise bestowed on African fashion today, is a result of the dogged determination of African fashion designers who showed the world that amazing things can come out of Africa. They are exceeding expectations as they establish Africa as the new fashion capital.’
Another young designer who is exceeding expectations and exhibiting true ‘Afritude’ is Lisa Folawiyo, the face behind the famous Jewel by Lisa brand. She stormed the Nigerian fashion scene with her introduction of embellished Ankara. For so long, African fabrics like the Ankara had been viewed as inferior and of low quality compared to Western ones.
But in less than five years of entering the industry, Lisa perfected the art of wearing Ankara, being the first to embellish it with sequins, Swarovski crystals, beads and other accessories, and creating an instant chic combination that has turned Jewel by Lisa into a coveted luxury brand.
Lisa’s story shows that it takes just a little bit daring, determination and belief to succeed. Her success has resulted in a huge clientele, leading to her owning stores in New York and South Africa. Some of her accomplishments include ‘African Designer of the Year’ at the 2011 African Fashion Awards and being a red carpet favourite for celebrities like Eku Edewor, Solange Knowles, Kendall Jenner, Genevieve Nnaji and many others. She has also featured in the New York Fashion Week which made her become a household name.
The image of Africa as a place where nothing good comes out from has gradually changed. The positive realities of the African continent and Nigeria are coming to the fore as African designers continue to tell the dynamic African story through fashion. There was a time when wearing African clothing was restricted to ceremonies and lavish occasions.
Today, Ankara is used in all manner of ways to give expression to the true Nigerian identity.
The successful propagation of Ankara, and by extension Nigerian designers, to the world is evident in the use of the fabric by western fashion houses. The growing craze for African prints has seen British luxury label brand, Burberry, and American fashion designer, Michael Kors, tapping into the continent as a source of idea for their collections; with Burberry going as far as imitating a print design of Jewel by Lisa’s 2009 design in their 2012 Spring Collection.
This development has also led to increased interest in African designers like Folake Folarin Coker of ‘Tiffany Amber,’ Ituen Basi, Gavin Rajah, -Mimi Plange, Darryl Jagga, Kofi Ansah and Lanre DaSilva Ajayi, to mention just a few. These designers have graced New York fashion ramps proudly showing the world their heritage.
The recognition of African designers however does not mean that they can be put into a box and simply labeled as designers who propagate African culture using fabric. The works of designers like Duro Olowu, Ade Bakare, Soares Anthony, Jimi King and so many others show that African fashion is not just ethnic fashion, it is creative and inspirational.
With the international world beaming a spotlight on African designers, the fashion industry has blossomed. People are forging on as designers, models, stylists, photographers, fashion journalists and the list goes on. This has also led to an increase in the number of fashion schools and fashion competitions like the Swahili Fashion week, South African Fashion Week, Cape Town Fashion Week, Lagos Fashion and Design Week, Arise Magazine Fashion Week and Dakar Fashion Week which help to showcase the works of African designers.
The future is very bright for the industry, though currently characterized by the haute couture and ready to wear segments, the high street segment is still growing as more structure, infrastructure and exposure is gotten. Though still growing, it has shown the world that there are billions of reason to believe in Africa and also serves as a reminder that we are the only ones who can tell our stories; no one will do it for us.