African fashion has taken vast strides forward in recent years as the world wakes up to the incredible talent and opportunities that exist in this space. However, this growth and exposure has happened despite the ongoing challenges facing creative education on the continent. While there are many institutions doing good work across the continent, there are attitudinal and financial barriers to entry, a lack of governmental support and little regulation. It’s an area often overlooked amongst the glittering headlines celebrating the creativity that fuels the industry. Yet without this foundation more firmly established to nurture the next generation of designers and entrepreneurs, the industry cannot reach its full potential. Here we garner the views of a chorus of stakeholders and change-makers to determine the opportunities that are–and will–make a difference.
THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE
A report published this month by the newly-established Council for International African Fashion Education (CIAFE) examines this issue. It finds that there are over 500 fashion schools around Africa but the network is fragmented and unregulated. Curriculums focus overwhelmingly on design, neglecting other areas such as retail, manufacturing, distribution and marketing. Most schools don’t have recognized accreditation and many lack a sufficient digital presence. Therefore, graduates are too-often inadequately prepared to enter the industry.
“What we lack is a formal structure that connects education with industry. At the moment the sector is not regulated and students don’t have resources,” says CIAFE founder Frederica Brooksworth, a UK and Ghana-based academic and London College of Fashion and Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design lecturer who also runs the resource hub Fashion Scholar. She’s established CIAFE to forge a network through research, mentoring, teacher training and facilitating intra-Africa exchanges. For her, what powers all of this is EdTech (Educational Technology). By utilizing myriad forms of digital teaching from YouTube tutorials to Whatsapp groups, you can negate geographical barriers to movement and keep resources up to date. “Ed Tech is limitless. You can keep curriculums agile, open up communication and access materials for both teachers and students.”
CHANGING THE GAZE
CIAFE is also committed to “decolonizing fashion education”, which is an area Brooksworth has been collaborating on with the Cape Town-based African Fashion Research Institute. Co-founded by academic and former fashion curator-at-large of Zeitz MOCAA Erica de Greef and multidisciplinary artist and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation fellow Lesiba Mabitsela, it aims to innovate critical thinking, build archives and develop digital education.
De Greef advocates taking a methodical and ground-breaking approach to decolonizing education. It’s not enough to simply tinker with the syllabus, it will take a shift in the dominant gaze. “Firstly, one needs to recognize ‘coloniality’, for example, the dominance of the Western suit as a symbol of acceptable masculinity,” she explains. “Secondly, we need to understand how this Western dominance in fashion impacts creative and cultural production on the continent, such as in the erasures of local fashion histories and vernaculars. And, lastly, is the need to offer alternatives. This is where fashion education and design praxis can play a very important role in articulating and inserting different aesthetics, positionalities, histories and concepts.”
Michael Reid at SAFW 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Eunice Driver
The African Fashion Research Institute has been busy developing numerous online courses, lectures and masterclasses around inclusive and diverse participation with partners including Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography, The Royal Academy in London, Accra International School of Advertising and Design and Berlin’s AMD Akademie Mode & Design. Independently, their course entitled 'African Fashion (?)' is a seven-week series challenging outmoded stereotypes. “Digital learning has allowed us to build Afrocentric communities in ways unimaginable before the pandemic invited the great global pivot to online educational exchanges,” de Greef adds. “Using a disruptive approach to learning, we are engaging key concepts that contribute towards a developing wider discourse around African fashion in the present moment, as well as imagining its futures.”
Rozan Ahmed, a communications expert, strategic advisor and activist, has mentored designers across Africa and Arabia for over a decade. Among her initiatives is Africanism, a creative think tank that is planning a retreat in Kenya for February 2022, and The Magic Drive, a mobile concept allowing the fashion community to give back and empower the youth by hosting fashion shows in schools and orphanages. Her pioneering activations are driven by her belief that creative education in Africa must address indigenous needs rather than be judged through a Western lens. “As we continue to establish our position in the world as a superpower, we have to consider locality,” Ahmed says. “Who is controlling your imagination, is it your immediate vicinity, or is it a city thousands of miles away? We must learn and grow with our neighbours and have better collective integration. That’s a fundamental aspect of our re-education.”
“As we continue to establish our position in the world as a superpower, we have to consider locality, who is controlling your imagination, is it your immediate vicinity, or is it a city thousands of miles away?”
FASHION WEEKS FACE FORWARD
In the African fashion capitals, it’s the fashion weeks that have stepped up to address knowledge gaps. South Africa has a more advanced creative education framework than anywhere else on the continent with several accredited institutions such as STADIO in Joburg and Elizabeth Galloway in Stellenbosch. However, there is still much work to be done. “We have enormous talent here and the universities do deliver outstanding graduates,” says South African Fashion Week (SAFW) founder Lucilla Booyzen, citing Thebe Magugu, Rich Mnisi and Lukhanyo Mdingi as three success stories who all studied locally. “But there are discrepancies between syllabuses and the world view of fashion is not taught.”
Rich Mnisi FW ‘20. Photo: Courtesy of Rich Mnisi
Booyzen was a school teacher before starting SAFW over 20 years ago and has instigated numerous initiatives over the years aimed at helping designers learn the business of fashion. This month sees the launch of Fashion Bridges - I Ponti Della Moda in collaboration with South Africa’s Embassy of Italy and Polimoda in Florence. The program is pairing three South African graduates with three from Polimoda to create a sustainable collection to be shown at Milan Fashion Week in September and SAFW in October. “It’s an exchange program that will uplift all of the designers. They will learn so much from each other,” Booyzen adds.
This type of best practice is echoed at Lagos Fashion Week, which likewise acts both as a showcase and incubator. It currently runs the Fashion Focus year-long designer mentorship and Fashion Focus Fund competition awarding finance. Meanwhile, Style House Files and Lagos Fashion Week (LFW) founder Omoyemi Akerele’s fashion business development advisory, has established the training hub SHF Prism. This year’s courses included a partnership with Liberty Fairs to deliver live webinars preparing brands to launch in the US, and a pattern making class.
Nigerian educational facilities such as Yaba Tech and OSC College of Fashion also play a role, as does The Assembly, which looks at professional development. Programs include The Creative Class, a five-week entrepreneurship accelerator, and Project Unleash, which is a six-month exchange with Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design. “We want to release the untapped potential that exists in entrepreneurship,” says The Assembly founder Yoanna ‘Pepper’ Chikezie. “It's important for us to foster talent by creating a safe space to learn from experts and experienced peers.”
DESIGNERS BECOME MENTORS
Completing this virtuous circle are the designers themselves. Take the story of Lagos-based Adebayo Oke-Lawal of Orange Culture, one which is typical of many now renowned African designers. His family did not support him pursuing a creative education and so he studied finance before teaching himself the trade. He received early support from LFW’s Fashion Focus and has since gone on to international acclaim. He’s now in a position to give back with Orange Mentorship, which grants aspiring minds access to industry leaders via Instagram Live sessions.
“I talk to young people who don’t know about the supply chain and think fashion is all fun and exciting. So, this idea lets them hear from big names who share their know-how,” Oke-Lawal explains. One such speaker was Andrea Iyamah who was so inspired by her own decade-long entrepreneurial journey that she set up SEED Ambition, a platform offering classes and resources for creative businesses. “It’s not one person’s job. Every participant in this industry needs to contribute to its growth,” Oke-Lawal adds.
The themes of community and collaboration run through every approach to improving creative education and this extends to how big business and nonprofits are joining forces across the globe. A main player in this field is the African Fashion Foundation (AFF), a non-governmental organization founded by Roberta Annan. In the past decade it has progressed the careers of 24 designers and disbursed over $1.3 million in grants. “One of our core values is to cultivate and empower local African communities in partnership with established players through entrepreneurship, skills training programs and educational developmental opportunities,” says Annan. “We seek to equip individuals and companies within Africa’s creative industries with relevant resources to reach their full potential and inspire diversity in the global luxury and creative market.”
AFF’s initiatives include Scouting for Africa with Vogue Italia and the recent Industry Retreat that brought key players together to share ideas. Annan is also behind the Impact Fund For African Creatives (IFFAC), an investment vehicle in partnership with Annan Capital Partners that will unveil its support of three creative businesses this September, as well as co-founder of Semblance World, a new immersive virtual platform allowing luxury brands to create events, virtual runways and showrooms, 3D digital model collections and educational tools.
Similarly inspiring work is being done by the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a program of the International Trade Centre, which has just announced the six recipients of its latest EFI Designer Accelerator—Atelier V.O, Kente Gentlemen, Laurenceairline, Maöta Studio, Ohiri and Oudy K. The two-year scheme comprises masterclasses and mentorship to get these businesses investment-ready. EFI founder Simone Cipriani says: “The ultimate objective of the Accelerator is to guide and empower all fashion players to own the skills and knowledge in becoming leading actors across their communities and countries, engaged in the creative and production value chains, exercising and operating the 100% Made in Africa paradigm. A new generation of African creatives in charge.”
Aristide Loua of Abidjan-based Kente Gentlemen looks forward to the challenge: “My introduction to fashion was quite intimate, personal, and rather intuitive. I started the adventure without any formal training, mentorship or experience working in the industry. But the passion was there, and now it’s time to take it to a greater height.”
Kente Gentlemen. Photo: Courtesy of Kente Gentlemen
Woven Worldwide training. Photo: Courtesy of Woven Worldwide
Backstage at The Magic Drive fashion show. Photo: Courtesy of The Magic Drive
Fashion’s megabrands are playing an increasing role as part of private/public partnerships, too. For example, Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton has joined UNICEF for Generation Unlimited, a program in Ghana donating $380,000 to education. Abloh will also lead a live stream masterclass. Meanwhile the Gucci Design Fellowship worked with Radford University College in Accra, Design Academy of Fashion in Cape Town, Mcensal School of Fashion Design in Nairobi and UNILAG in Lagos to find graduates to join the brand in Rome for a 12-month learning experience. Birimian, the investment firm focussing on African luxury and heritage brands, has partnered with Institut Français de la Mode and WSN for IFM-Birimian Accelerator x Africa. It will support 10-15 designers a year with funding and advice to enable their ability to compete internationally.
Retail specialist Viola Labi agrees that international involvement is crucial but cautions against the idea that money solves all the issues. She was a returnee to Ghana from Canada three years ago where she first consulted for Versace to train staff at the brand’s Accra store at The Galleria Mall, and then established Woven Worldwide, a social enterprise working with artisan weavers in Bolgatanga to create design items for global clients. “Everything stems from investment but conglomerates need to understand the communities they are entering into. I’ve found from doing practical training that before you engage with the product, you have to engage with the people, such as understanding what the gender norms are. If your message is tone deaf then it won’t fit.”
MANY HANDS MAKE TRANSFORMATIVE WORK
As all of the initiatives and perspectives discussed here, and many more like them, illustrate, it requires a fully holistic approach to ensuring creative education on the continent is fit for the abundant ground swell of young people who need it. There is no single solution or magic wand. Instead, we’re seeing activations across the board, from big to small, both private and public, in real life and virtual, to bridge the knowledge and skills gaps, alter mindsets and ensure a unified approach. No small feat but one that African fashion community is stepping up to address. As Cipriani concludes, it’s vital that we build alliances between government bodies, institutions, industry players, academia, capital funding and media in order to provide a fertile starting ground within the continent: “All actors on the continent should understand the urgency of coming together to help fund initiatives, scholarships and study exchange programs, reaching out to the immense talent waiting to be discovered and supported.”
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