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Key players in African fashion discuss the game-changing ideas that are steering the industry’s survival during the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Helen Jennings

Helen Jennings is the editorial director of Nataal, which is a global media platform celebrating global African creativity. Through its award-winning magazine and editorial website, Nataal is dedicated to supporting emerging talent and diverse storytelling.

Sept 16, 2020

It is well reported how devastating Covid-19 has been for the global fashion industry. With shop fronts closed, manufacturing halted, events cancelled and consumer demand crushed, the initial lockdown period caused a deep crisis. McKinsey’s The State of Fashion 2020 report predicts revenues will contract by up to 30 percent this year as financial and humanitarian hardships affect everyone along the value chain. This picture looks potentially bleaker for African fashion, which is more vulnerable given its relatively small market size (Euromonitor peg Sub-Saharan Africa having a $31 billion slice of the global $2.5 trillion pie) fragile supply chains, and reliance upon brick-and-mortar sales. While Covid-19 incidence rates across the continent have so far been lower than other parts of the world, governmental restrictions have often been severely implemented, severely impacting local economies.

“The lockdown meant less orders, increased costs, more health concerns and decreased tourism, which many informal artisanal economies rely upon,” says Abrima Erwiah, co-founder of Ghana-based brand Studio 189. But out of crisis comes clarity and Africa’s already resourceful designers were swift to come up with inventive initial responses. Like many others around the continent, Studio 189 quickly reorganized its production to make masks out of cotton off-cuts, thereby maintaining employment for their workers and supporting local healthcare facilities.

As the world tentatively comes out of lockdown, resilience and adaptability remain essential as the industry’s players make bold interventions in order to future-proof their businesses and meet changing consumer demands. And right now, this new thinking is most exhilarating in the digital sphere. A great number of virtual fashion talks, webinars and conferences have spurred solutions. Roberta Annan—businesswoman, philanthropist, and founder of African Fashion Foundation, an organisation supporting designers with capacity building—has been hosting African Fashion in Focus discussions on Zoom. Similarly, the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a program of the International Trade Centre, organized a brainstorming Hackathon and has just launched an accelerator program supporting five African designers: REIGN, Margaux Wong, Lukhanyo Mdingi, WUMAN and Jiamini.

Photo: Studio 189 at Lagos Fashion Week 2019

“When our designers were unable to travel due to Covid-19, we asked our industry professionals to mentor and train them using online platforms instead,” says EFI’s founder Simone Cipriani. “It was exciting to see the designers adapting to new ways of working with such ease and recognizing the benefits to their business in using these tools. The designers will now have their videos shown at Pitti Uomo in 2021.”

Lagos Fashion Week has also been very pro-active in moving to digital solutions and has organized several happenings including the Woven Threads presentation series and #StayAtHome roundtables. These discussions reinforced the importance of shared strategies and resources. Concepts discussed included establishing a pan African Fashion Council and fashion calendar. The 10th anniversary edition of Lagos Fashion Week will go ahead in October with this year’s approach chiming with most fashion weeks globally in its mix of virtual and real moments - what is being dubbed the “phygital” format. An online destination will have a shoppable showroom while an exhibition will celebrate the lineage of the event.

“Beyond fashion shows, the most important thing we have to focus on this season is how to ensure designers can survive considering economies might be facing a recession,” says Omoyemi Akerele, founder and executive director of Lagos Fashion Week and development agency Style House Files. “Fashion is predominantly seen as luxury and consequently not rated as essential in these current economic climes. It’s therefore crucial to figure out how to inject some liquidity into our creative industries. This can only be achieved by ensuring there’s an immediate retail direct to customer component to fashion week and a conversation with designers to ensure their collections are both creative and commercial.”  

Designer Aisha Ayensu, founder and creative director of Accra-based label Christie Brown, shares these sentiments and in June struck on the idea of pre-recording a one model SS‘20 fashion show for Instagram, which attracted 30,000 viewers. “As a team we had to think of a way to present the collection, create buzz, and ultimately inspire women to shop again,” Ayensu says. “We shot the runway over two days and the essence was to film the pieces in motion to give the semblance of an actual show. We sent virtual and physical invitations to clients to attend ‘the show’ and we found the conversion rate [from viewership] to sales was phenomenal.”

Going forward, it will be important to continue to innovate fashion’s digital space by escalating future tech including artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to create even more immersive experiences. Already we’re seeing virtual clothes with built-in QR codes allowing you to zoom in on the details, as well as virtual changing rooms and stylists, apps that take measurements for bespoke goods and CGI campaigns. The likes of Burberry, Balmain and Maison Margiela have heartily embraced this approach and avatar models such as Lil Miquela, Shudu Gram, Kimzulu and Noonoouri have huge followings. In the African space, New York-based Congolese designer Anifa Mvuemba made mainstream headlines in May when she hosted 3D models and garments on a virtual runway for her Hanifa womenswear show on Instagram Live. The figure-hugging, six-look Pink Label Congo capsule collection was an ode to her homeland.

These advances create stunning online content but there are significant cost implications involved, and they also lack the human touch. “3D activations have been exciting to see this season but I think it’s also important that we take into consideration our evolving community whose earning capacity can be threatened by the industry’s complete dependence on them,” says Akerele, referring to everyone in the ecosphere from producers, dressers and stylists to models and influencers. “The digital fashion experience can coexist with the human experience, which is something that can’t be replaced by codes or software—yet. It’s definitely time to invest in more innovation centers that can equip our people with the technical skills they need to be relevant for the creative industry’s new digital immersion.” 

Photo: Space Cowboy for Vogue Italia. Styled by Alexander-Julian Gibbson

Photo: SS‘20 Collection. Courtesy of Christie Brown

Photo:Shudu for Fenty Beauty. Via @shudu.gram

NYC-based creative content specialist Alexander-Julian Gibbson agrees there must be balance. “I think having to focus on digital experiences to keep the industry pushing has opened the door for new talent and interesting collaborations,” he says. “However there’s still joy in seeing the beauty in designs in person. I think there’s a luxury about it that African designers deserve. Digital should be embraced but not totally in lieu of in-person experiences.”

In Gibbson’s field of creative direction, photography, and publishing, he has also been inspired by neat solutions such as photographers shooting at-home diaries (for instance Stephen Tayo in Lagos for Farfetch) or shoots via video calling apps. Celebrities too turned the camera on themselves, including Naomi Campbell’s self-shot editorial for Essence magazine. “The challenges we face have helped me change the way I looked at telling stories, giving me the opportunity to connect with artists that I’ve admired to tell fashion stories through new mediums,” Gibbson adds.

Photo: SS‘21 Collection. Courtesy of IAMISIGO

In fashion education, the digital space has also proved invaluable. Dr. Erica De Greef, curator, academic and co-founder of the African Fashion Research Institute in South Africa, has been in touch with students all over the globe. “I have been able to access a much broader reach, particularly with voices coming from the continent, women, and people of color in the field. This has been really inspiring and positive,” says De Greef, who is currently developing a new online course titled “African Fashion? New Forms and Alternate Approaches”.

But in the country most affected by Covid-19 in Africa, and facing huge social and racial inequalities, De Greef also cautions that the internet is not a panacea. “Creatives in the townships have had to work way harder to pull together. Working with the founders of Khayelitsha Fashion Week and Zola Booi of the Fashion Entrepreneurship Training Program, we have had to rethink a host of issues including access to the internet and training spaces. The team have begun filming a weekly TV programme as a way to teach and follow a design programme. The focus has also shifted to working with existing materials through an upcycling scheme.”

Generating income is a primary focus now, heightening the urgency to expand e-commerce. African consumers have traditionally been reluctant to shop online due to international and inter-African shipping issues but the pandemic has increasingly pushed shopping habits away from cash transactions to digital and mobile money. Many young designers lack fully optimized e-commerce websites but thankfully a number of online retail destinations are blossoming to meet demand. The likes of Superbalist, The Folkore, Afrikea, Lago54 and Ditto Africa each have their own USP. And in the midst of the pandemic, Industrie Africa took its own pioneering move into e-commerce with its curation of Africa’s most coveted designers, in doing so helping to change the narrative around contemporary African creativity.  

Beyond state-of-the-art solutions, and in a way far more fundamental to the future, the pandemic has highlighted the necessity to live more ethically. As one of the biggest, and most polluting industries in the world, the apparel and textiles sector has been exposed for promoting over consumption with its voracious seasonal cycle and fast fashion model, which contributes to climate change, fills up landfills and dumps unwanted clothes on Africa.

Lockdown gave us pause to question mindless consumerism and shift toward environmental mindfulness and social cohesion. Fashion lovers are now drawn more than ever before to radical transparency and sustainable production. This has left many major brands floundering and making promises to change. Gucci for one has disassociated itself from the traditional calendar in favor of a seasonless approach. African designers on the other hand are all by and large already offering fashion that puts local inclusive growth and artisanal workforces ahead of shareholders. This means they are well placed to attract conscious consumers worldwide.

Photo: Sunny Dolat. Via @sunnydolat

Lockdown gave me time to reassess and research, to learn and re-learn, and dive more deeply into my SS‘21 collection,” says Bubu Ogisi of Lagos brand IAMISIGO. “We decided to meditate on what we have here in Nigeria by travelling to four states to find out about the orishas (deities) and gods of different tribes and the couture outfits worn by priests and priestesses. For me it was about going back to the intricate detailing and patterns of the past to reveal outstanding pieces that reflect how we communicate with the other world.” She worked with beaders and weavers to handmake the collection and will present it both as part of a group digital showroom and as a filmed presentation for social media.

Sunny Dolat, co-founder of The Nest Collective, Nairobi’s leading multidisciplinary arts network, and creative business incubator the HEVA Fund, has taken a similar approach to imagining new textiles by facilitating workshops with East African designers. “As Africans, we have been lucky to be born into a wealth of textile culture. I believe we have a duty to grow and add to this heritage. Many parts of Africa still have communities, albeit reduced, of spinners, weavers and dyers who carry this cultural memory in their hands. The work I'm exploring now seeks to marry this with contemporary insights, ideas and materials, which I believe could support many artisans across the continent.”

Perhaps it is this yin and yang–uniting futuristic innovations with fashion steeped in heritage; fusing virtual experiences with real life ones–that could be the magic formula taking the global African fashion community through the storm. There is no single solution and no crystal ball that can tell us how the pandemic will unfold, but through joined up thinking inspired by globe-spanning conversations, revolutionary technology and a stronger embrace of homegrown materials and crafts, old meets new as we join forces to face these uncertain times ahead together.