When my dear friend and founder of African Fashion Foundation (AFF) Roberta Annan sent me the briefest of messages about an upcoming retreat convening the continent’s creative intelligentsia—with a strategic focus on fashion development post the ‘COVID era’—I didn’t have to think twice before agreeing to attend. For over a decade, Roberta and I have shared an almost mirrored vision on the necessity to cultivate, protect and prioritize what I have always believed to be an African superpower: Creative & Cultural Industries (CCI). Within that vision sits a burgeoning fashion fury that cuts across the world’s youngest continent; a talent that expresses itself from a place of distinctive identity, with plenty to offer vis-a-vis global commercial opportunities.
With many of such fashion and other creative stakeholders in attendance, the retreat took place from May 19 to 22, 2021 in the Ghanaian capital of Accra—a bustling hub of design genius in many of its fine forms, from visual arts and architecture, to music, fashion and film. AFF succeeded in providing a crucial platform for industry insiders to forge stronger partnerships across the continent, discussing and finding solutions to the undeniable challenges that face us, as we build and scale an ecosystem essential in heralding Africa’s global economic position.
During four days of intensive talks, presentations, and AFF’s launch of the ‘Recycle, Rework, Reuse’ project as part of a commitment to regional sustainability, attending industry players from all over the continent took a deep dive (for the first time, and together) into what must be addressed in the acceleration of Africa’s creative economies.
Here are five essential takeaways paving the way forward that we gleaned from the industry’s inaugural meeting of minds:
Capitalizing on Creativity
Africa’s rich cultural assets continue to influence the entire planet, but if our CCI were more formalized and thus capitalized, they possess the potential to sincerely impact the continent’s combined economic power.
During the program, Annan did not shy away from indicating the importance of further investment in infrastructure as vital to our success as a creative economy. “Creativity is a tool for inclusive growth, and the only sector that is resilient, dynamic, youth-oriented, and female-empowering at once,” said Annan. “We all know of Africa’s abundant resources, as well as the continent’s huge population of young creative minds, firebrands, and innovators who are poised to make a difference. By investing in capacity-building in terms of talent and community development, infrastructure, tapping into our traditional craftsmanship, and leveraging on innovative production techniques—whilst bearing in mind the essence of our own sustainability—we will be able to achieve so much more as a continent in terms of creating more job opportunities across the value chain, and contribute to economic growth.”
“In the context of development, achieving success will be dependent on an enhanced ecosystem. Until we mobilize resources towards building relevant structures and support mechanisms, our efforts will be thrown to the wind,” Annan concluded.
“Creativity is a tool for inclusive growth, and the only sector that is resilient, dynamic, youth-oriented, and female-empowering at once”
Debonair Afrik's Nuel Bans discussing African creativity. Photo: Courtesy of AFF
AFF's Roberta Annan. Photo: Courtesy of AFF
Adama Paris on forging links with the diaspora. Photo: Courtesy of AFF
DIGITALLY BRIDGING GAPS Within the Continent
Industrie Africa founder Nisha Kanabar, whose innovative use of e-commerce and other tech tools to re-ignite both content and sales within Africa’s fashion industry, believes that while most markets have the geographical advantage of national homogenization—operating under an umbrella of cohesive government, policy, language, logistics, and even culture, the continent does not. Africa, as a continent comprised of 54 vastly different, independent, creative economies, each with a different consumer mindset, is one of the most complex regions to navigate in the world.
“As a fashion industry, it’s clear we’re lacking in infrastructure—whether that pertains to channels of distribution, access to information from a customer or business perspective, or fashion skill development for the young generation,” said Kanabar. “What if we stop being dependent on physical infrastructure, and start creating digital infrastructures and platforms to bridge or at least narrow these real world regional gaps?” she challenged, adding, “Think e-commerce’s role in shifting the African luxury mindset, or online informational portals as democratic, entry-level education channels. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of this potential, and unlock the power of collective collaboration.”
looking beyond ‘Africa RISING’
Orange Culture’s Adebayo Oke-Lawal, one of Nigeria’s most respected designers and founder of Orange Mentorship (an education platform for young designers), reiterated shared concerns about IP protection, western misconceptions, existing colonial perceptions, and a general disregard for the ongoing hurdles of the average African designer.
“So many have held on so tightly to this colonial mentality of how to receive and perceive clothing, specifically clothing made in Africa,” he asserted. “We are then judged with this odd and non-familiar ‘white gaze’, full of preconceived notions on how we should price and position, with no understanding of the quality and value of our items and designs. We as African designers put in much more precious human time, effort, and money into creating our garments,” he added.
Oke-Lawal believes that ‘Africa Rising’ is another problematic label placed upon us by those who don’t know any better. “[The phrase] glamorizes our movements without recognizing challenges—totally reducing our very turbulent issues, which are different to those of our global counterparts,” he said. “As African designers, we are far from typical. The realities of our economy and supply chain must be understood and improved...There is lack of government support, lack of funding, lack of infrastructure, and a severe lack of education,” he added.
Oke-Lawal turns to a documentary by Industry Retreat co-host Arieta Mujay called ‘Fashioning in West Africa’ as an example of the ways in which we can highlight our stories with an independent transparency. “There is so much power in our history, and our methods, and it must be better archived for generations to come,” he concluded.
Educating the next generation
According to Frederica Brooksworth—founder of Fashion Scholar, a digital knowledge hub dedicated to providing educational content to aspiring fashion professionals—Africa’s fashion education system generally focuses on design and garment construction, at the expense of paying attention to business education. “Advancements in e-commerce have presented a great opportunity for designers to sell their products to consumers—within their country, other parts of Africa, and across the world. But, without knowledge of marketing, operations, supply chain, logistics, public/buyer relations, and communications, creating these profit opportunities cannot take place,” she said.
“Fashion education on the continent must focus on tailoring curricula to our unique environment, and making it more accessible,” Brooksworth continued. “This means shifting the way we teach with the integration of EdTech. Establishing a standard is what we must achieve here and now, by developing educational institutions that not only meet the business demands of a global fashion industry but also attract governmental and private funding.”
“Who could possibly deliver Africa’s message better than those who dedicate their lives to the art of her motherly roar?”
Recognizing Africa's Innate Luxury Ethos
As I have always endeavored to make clear, in my words and in my works, high fashion in Africa is an ancient tradition; a historically vibrant means of presentation, where wealth has always been expressed through the intricacy and sensuality of sacred fabric. “Couture” practices aren't reserved for special occasions either, for the average middle-class family is bound to have their tailor on speed dial, ready to collaborate and create at any time, from celebratory gowns to office attire. These innate traits in artisanal craftsmanship are, of course, the epitome of luxury.
In exploring Africa’s position within global luxury, it was Bolaji Animashaun, lead consultant at NURU Lab, a creative agency specializing in building African brands and connecting them with a global audience, who spoke of the continent’s “abundance in prestigious practices [when it comes to] fashion and textiles, preserved over the years, employed by young contemporary designers, and now consumed by a growing global audience.”
She identified brands that preserve this ethos: “In Nigeria, hand woven fabrics are spun using age-old techniques, which Kenneth Ize uses to make beautiful yards of Aso oke (top cloth) scarves, suits, and other garments that are merchandised rightfully beside other international luxury brands,” she said. “In South Africa, textile design graduate Laduma experiments with a new craftsmanship technique, inspired by his Xhosa culture, to create exquisite knitwear garments in mohair, merino wool, and silk. In Mali, Aboubakar Forfana is devoted to preserving traditional West African dyeing techniques and textiles using organic indigo dye, cultivated on his farm, in conjunction with local farmers in Siby, Mali,” she added.
Fashion Scholar's Frederica Brooksworth. Photo: Courtesy of AFF
Kenneth Ize and Roberta Annan. Photo: Courtesy of AFF
Emmanuel Kwekunimo, Bolaji Animashaun and Arieta Mujay speak on Luxury in Africa. Photo: Courtesy of AFF
From identity and education, to finance, technology and digitization, the myriad of intellectual themes and spin-offs surrounding CCI still took us back to the core of it all: storytelling.
As creative and cultural leaders, we are natural ambassadors of this great continent. And, as social media continues to dominate the way in which humanity absorbs information, who could possibly deliver Africa’s message better than those who dedicate their lives to the art of her motherly roar?
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