The multifaceted nature of African fashion is something that remains largely within the purview of insiders—editors, stylists and the like. These are people with an intimate knowledge of the fashion industry’s best-kept secrets—their go-to brands for that distinctive fashion statement, whether for themselves or the celebrities and private clients they service.
The brands they turn to are often burgeoning and craft labels with small collections. Their value lies in the exclusivity and intricacy of products grounded in sustainability, and innovative methods with stories that transcend mere aesthetics. From Mali, Nigeria, Burundi, Kenya, Mauritania and South Africa, here’s an insider’s guide to the African labels to know and shop today.
If chic minimalism is your speed, then you ought to be looking into adding at least a few pieces from Luke Radloff’s UNI FORM. The Johannesburg-based label elevates wardrobe classics and staples, transforming the ordinary—shirts, jackets, coats—into covetable pieces in ultra-contemporary silhouettes, seemingly effortlessly transcending outdated notions of what ‘African design’ could be.
The label name is a nod to the workers who built Johannesburg, according to Radloff, whose collections are inspired by his native city’s urban landscape with its famously art nouveau and post-modernist style architecture. Radloff himself brings to the label experience from all sides of the fashion industry, having previously worked in retail, design and communications before founding UNI FORM in 2019.
The brand collaborates with weavers in South Africa’s Karoo region—one of the country’s poorest. Fabrics are handwoven using 100% locally sourced fibres like mohair.
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The medieval Malian Empire is known to have been a hive of economic activity, controlling regional trade routes and acting as a middle-trader between North Africa via the Sahara, and the Niger river to the South. The landlocked West African country was one of the richest in the world not just economically, but also culturally, housing Timbuktu, which was, at the time, established as the scholarly centre of the continent.
This rich heritage is what the Bamako-based Awa Meité has to draw from. As far back as 1998, founder Awa Meité van Til founded Routes du Sud, an organisation dedicated to preserving and showcasing Malian craftsmanship in textile design.
Her dedication to this cause, and the empowerment of craft communities is central to her eponymous brand, which showcases unique handcrafted garments and accessories, weaving traditional techniques with contemporary silhouettes.
Awa is also a painter, and this much is quite evident in her print and textile design. The label is an all-round artistic display of the largely untapped potential for African storytelling through fashion, reviving forgotten history, and simultaneously converting this into an inheritance for those to whom these stories belong.
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Slow fashion, ethical practices, upcycling, and a circular economy are all at the centre of designer Louise Neoma Sommerlate’s approach to sustainable fashion. Her brand, Hamaji, gets its name from the coastal Swahili word for ‘nomad’ and started off as the Kenyan’s graduate project while she was studying fashion design at Fedisa, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Established in 2017 on her return home, Sommerlate’s label has come to be known for its easy-wearing pieces, their intricate embroidery, custom block prints, hand embellishments and natural dyeing—created in collaboration with local, small-scale craftspeople using locally sourced fabrics, much of which are diverted from landfills at markets. They are stitched at Mitumba Arts, a small collective in Nanyuki, a small market town in Kenya’s Laikipia County. The embroidery is done by a group of artisans in Nairobi’s Ngara slum, and Nigerian tradesmen supply the brand with trinkets—jewels and gems collected on travels between East and West Africa as well as the Middle East and Yemen.
It is a truly nomadic brand story for Hamaji, that translates into the trend-transcending pastel hues and free-flowing silhouettes that have come to define its aesthetic.
Originally founded by Mauritanian designer Kadiata Diallo, after moving to France to study fashion, Nïuku is a unisex brand subverting gender stereotypes, with masculine-inspired suiting as evident in their SS ’22 collection that boasts versatility, incorporating unique prints and a vibrant colour palette. The collections are handcrafted by local artisans using upcycled fabrics and traditional printing methods. Crafted from soft, breathable cotton and linen, it features feminine frocks alongside classically tailored jackets.
Having started the label as her graduate project in France, Diallo decided to return operations home to Mauritania in 2016, and has remained there since. Researching her heritage and stories about her grandmother—with whom she shares the same name—became the central theme of Diallo’s work. Prints are created by stitching and hand-dyeing, as well as woodblock printing and tie-dye, among other styles.
The name Nïuku comes from ‘Nïuku Djawal’, an expression the designer’s grandfather used to call her grandmother. It’s a name Diallo herself also inherited from the woman whose love for traditional craft—and the business she founded in this regard back in the 40s—continues to be an inspiration for the brand.
The high-end Nigerian brand Gozel Green is the brainchild of twin sisters Sylvia Enekwe-Ojei and Olivia Enekwe-Okoji. Influenced by their artistically inclined parents—a fashion graduate mother, and theatre practitioner father—the twins sought to create a brand targeted at women who appreciate contemporary fashion that brings together the classic and unexpected into singularly timeless collections. Their upbringing in the southeastern state of Enugu, Nigeria, inspired an appreciation for nature that is discernible through their use of color, but also their dedication to sustainable production, utilizing upcycling methods to minimize waste by incorporating into their work scraps of fabric that would otherwise be discarded.
In 2015, the duo was named finalists in the Fashion Focus platform for emerging brands at Lagos Fashion & Design Week. Fabric deconstruction, color blocking, lines and asymmetry are signature features of Gozel Green’s collections, which have garnered praise all over the world from the likes of Vogue Italia, Business of Fashion and Ebony Magazine, among others.
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From Burundi in East Africa comes the unique Margaux Wong brand with an ethos to embrace responsible innovation, using locally-sourced materials in all of their jewelry and accessories. Cow-horn, brass and other unconventional materials are used in an effort to elevate what they call “responsible luxury” to an artform, minimizing waste and partnering with local artisans in order to preserve traditional craft methods in the process.
Designer Margaux Rusita is originally from Guyana and brings to the label she founded Amazonian values of honoring, giving respect to and taking care of nature. Her design experience spans decades and three continents having previously worked for brands and designers in London, UK, before eventually founding Margaux Wong, and settling in Burundi with her husband and children.
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