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The Future of Fashion in Africa

Katungulu Mwendwa fashion brand

Katungulu Mwendwa fashion brand

In February 2020, just before coronavirus put a stop to events and travel, I had the fortune of attending Design Indaba in Cape Town, South Africa. The annual conference takes place over three days and nights, and features product designers, graphic artists, scientists, architects, performers, fashion designers, engineers, artists, chefs and future thinkers from all over the globe, but especially Africa.

This year, one of the Design Indaba speakers who stood out the most was Sunny Dolat (@sunnydolat), a Kenyan creative director, fashion stylist and production designer. Last summer with Nest Collective, the group he co-founded, Dolat curated a groundbreaking show of 46 fashion designers from across Africa at the N’Golà Biennale of Arts and Culture in São Tomé.

Sunny introduced me to Nisha Kanabar, CEO and founder of Industrie Africa, the continent’s first digital fashion showroom. On June 29, Nisha launched Industrie Africa’s online shopping portal that will bring African fashion talent to a global consumer audience. Both Sunny and Nisha have been pivotal in advancing the African fashion industry, on the continent itself as well as globally. This interview outlines their shared vision to showcase the bold creativity and untold nuances of fashion design across Africa. 

dress by designer Taibo Bacar,

IA S/S 20 collection featuring dress by Taibo Bacar, earrings by Pichulik, photographer Ulrich Knoblauch

Sunny, you often take a conceptual, artistic approach to fashion and Nisha your approach is from a creative business perspective. How are you both working to empower African design?

Sunny Dolat: For a long time, design from Africa always has a ‘moment’, a passing window that lasts no more than a couple of months before it passes and the continent has to wait another five to eight years to be seen as ‘hot’ again. In part of my work, I’ve always aimed to add the much needed nuances and facets to the global ideas on what design from Africa looks like.

The Global Northern lens on African design aesthetics has always been fixated on the tribal and ethnic elements (which serves the problematic stereotype of Africa as this wild and primitive place), choosing to ignore all the other design cultures found on the continent: minimalism, punk, whimsical, romanticism among others. This is the danger of refusing to see Africa in her entirety and to acknowledge the wide variety of Africannesses found in her 54 states and thousands of cultural influences. 

Nisha Kanabar: Since we launched, Industrie Africa has always been about addressing misconceptions and shattering stereotypical notions of African design, which historically has either fit into a very specific Western mould or speaks to what is objectified by tourists.

There’s a world of elevated, conscious African design that just needs to be propelled forward in the right way: with a curated language, a global infrastructure and powerful storytelling tools. Empowerment in this globalised world, for me, stems from putting our best digital foot forward as a continent and celebrating the rich diversity that we have to offer.

future of fashion in africa

Not African Enough by Sunny Dolat                                                                           Kapoeta fashion

There are so many different African fashion aesthetics. Can you each share a few of your highlights?

SD: You’re absolutely right, there’s a huge variety of fashion aesthetics found in Africa. In Kenya for instance, colours tend to be more subdued, with designers opting to focus on technical details. If you look at the work of designer Kenyan designer Katungulu Mwendwa, you see a focus on function and utility, whereas we see some deep exploratory innovation of textile in Nigeria, such as with Iamisigo, who with every season focuses on exploring two African textiles in the development of her collection, which is understandable when you consider Nigeria’s rich textile culture.

At the moment, I’m really enjoying the intersection between fashion and spirituality that we’re seeing in the work of designers such as Haus of Stone from Zimbabwe and Lafalaise Dion from Côte D’Ivoire, as well as designers tackling issues around sustainability such as NKWO from Nigeria and Awa Meite from Mali.

NK: It’s beautiful and drives what we do. At Industrie Africa, our aesthetic is born from this notion of everyday artisanship. I personally love when labels defy what is expected and reinterpret artisanal techniques and storied textiles to create a design code that’s entirely new – ideas that often derive from circumstantial limitations or a brand’s unique values. Nigeria’s NKWO is a great example of this; the brand creates new textiles from offcuts and practices textile waste reduction by utilising techniques such as fabric manipulation and origami.

IA S/S 20 collection, top and skirt Studio

IA S/S 20 collection, top and skirt Studio 189, shoes, Loza Maleombho, earrings, Sidai Designs, photographer Ulrich Knoblauch

From a practical perspective, what are some of the unique advantages and challenges within the manufacturing and supply chains in Africa?

NK: The advantages of regional production lie with small-scale production. If you invest in local craftsmanship and their communities, the authenticity and intricacy of the work is uniquely unmatched. Though governments are recently investing more into manufacturing and industrial development, most African countries generally have a relatively weak textile and garment manufacturing sector, so the reality is that that most brands struggle to scale this locally. Sourcing and cross-border trading become expensive and limiting, ultimately affecting a brand’s market price point and growth potential.

SD: One of the biggest advantages of producing on the African continent is that you have access to phenomenal materials and artisans. I think the challenge with supply chains and manufacturing here is the need to spread them between a few countries and the costs associated with that.

For example, Ethiopia is great for sourcing cotton and leather, but their current manufacturing offering can’t quite cater to more complex designer needs, so that manufacturing might need to be done somewhere like Kenya or Mauritius, for instance. This movement between countries can sometimes get really expensive and thus prohibitive, but with the establishment of the Continental Free Trade Area, this should be addressed soon.

Sunny, with your book Not African Enough and Nisha with Industrie Africa, you challenge the confines of what the world perceives to be African in fashion and design. How do you see this global perception evolving?

SD: The work many of us have been doing over the years is certainly starting to bear fruit. We’re starting to see the media speak about countries more specifically, as opposed to the ‘from Africa’ previously used. There’s still a lot more work to be done in terms of spotlighting the sectors and works of designers in less-covered African countries, such as Chad or Djibouti.

Even for those of us based here on the continent, we are aware of the existing divide between anglophone, francophone and lusophone Africa. These language-enforced divides hinder us from also seeing each other fully, so we are actively working to build stronger networks and foster collaborations between African designers.

NK: In the past few years alone, we’ve witnessed a major shift, where African fashion has made countless mainstream crossovers. The industry has adopted some heavyweight advocates and fashion’s biggest prizes (LVMH Prize, The Woolmark Prize) as well as historic institutions such as FHCM, La Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, have followed suit. For example their guest induction of Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi, or their announcement of stylist Jenke Ahmed Tailly as an ambassador for the African continent earlier this year.

It all coincides with an inward shift in the direction of creative and intellectual pan-Africanism and I think that’s no coincidence. The world has started to respect African design because African design has begun to respect itself.  

NKWO and Iamisigo fashion images

NKWO, S/S 20 collection                                                                                        Iamisigo, photographer Maganga Mwagogo

How do you see the work of African designers already influencing the rest of the global design community?

SD: Beyond recognitions in forms of awards, such as Thebe Magugu’s win of the 2019 LVMH award, it’s been amazing to see African design talent finally get invitations to the proverbial seat at the table, such as the recent announcement that Kenneth Ize will co-create a 2021 capsule for Karl Lagerfeld. I also think the cultural approach and community commitment of Maxhosa has been a huge inspiration for designers all across the world.

Nisha Kanabar: African designers have a voice and it’s beginning to be heard. Globally, the African fashion industry is slowly forming a singular and nuanced identity. It’s important to note that spaces of appropriation have boldly transformed into opportunities for collaboration.

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