Irene Omiunu, founder of Fashion Illustration Africa, talks to Industrie Africa about creating opportunity, the value of the medium, and why it’s eternally relevant.

By Adedoyin Adeniji

Nov 4, 2020

Irene Omiunu wanted to find community. A fashion illustrator who had been at it for a few years, she wanted to find people who shared her background. She searched and struggled to find African fashion illustrators despite knowing they existed. A hashtag search for “African fashion illustrators” on Instagram only turns up a few hundred posts and many of the lists that highlight contemporary fashion illustrators do not highlight African fashion illustrators. Irene Omiunu took matters into her own hands: she founded the online platform Fashion Illustration Africa.

In the past, fashion illustration was integral to fashion beyond reflecting designers’ ideas prior to production. Illustrators attended fashion shows and sketched the patterns and cuts they saw helping to dictate trends, advertise, and interpret style and design. With photography’s boom in the early 20th century and the internet (and subsequently social media)’s growth in the 21st century, some fashion insiders wondered about whether the digital age would render fashion illustration irrelevant. It didn’t. Fashion illustration went digital as well and in a pandemic where the fashion industry has been forced to introspect and pare down on excesses, fashion illustration’s relevance in all aspects of design and art shines forth

 Photo: Artwork by Yega. Fashion Illustration Africa

Photo: Artwork by Leankid. Fashion Illustration Africa

Photo: Artwork by Papa Oppong. Fashion Illustration Africa

 Photo: Artwork by Yega. Fashion Illustration Africa

Photo: Artwork by Leankid. Fashion Illustration Africa

Photo: Artwork by Papa Oppong. Fashion Illustration Africa

Although these questions about the fashion industry and fashion illustration are viewed through a Western lens, they are still relevant to the African fashion industry which has historically struggled to raise capital, and had to prioritize more sustainable ways of creating and designing. Through their unique lens, fashion illustrators in the African fashion industry help to promote African design and the patterns and prints the continent’s fashion has come to be associated with; designers flesh out ideas while incurring less costs; Africa’s fashion consumers see themselves in art as fashion illustration historically mostly showcased Europeans.

As Africa’s fashion industry grows, fashion illustrators are still yet to be properly acknowledged as integral. They struggle to find opportunities that pay fairly and policies and platforms that really showcase how important a tool illustration is to fashion and design. It is this desire to create opportunities that champion African fashion illustrators that inspired British-Nigerian Illustrator, Irene Omiunu to found the digital platform dedicated to fashion illustration in Africa, Fashion Illustration Africa, which features a database of FIA accredited artists ready to be commissioned. Speaking to Industrie Africa, Omiunu says, “There is no community for African fashion illustrators. We have luxury fashion houses in Africa but many aren’t really hiring fashion illustrators and when they even do, illustrators are not paid their worth cause there is no set standard or data specifically for African illustrators.”

Photo: Artwork by Gigi Thanawongrat. Via @handmadebygigi

During her research to find African fashion illustrators, she noticed that many of them who had gotten international acclaim and press had Western affiliation by virtue of their locations. She explains to Industrie Africa that she recognizes how her location being the UK has helped her negotiate better career options. She isn’t wrong to feel that location changes things for fashion illustrators wishing to work on the African fashion scene or even on the fashion scene at large.

Gigi Thanawongrat, a Thailand-based illustrator, currently receives 25% of her illustration commissions from African businesses. She says that she has been fortunate to have her clients find her via Instagram. Thanawongrat, who explains that some of her challenges include time frame (turn over rate), doesn’t quite face the same challenges that fashion illustrators based in Africa face—which include obscurity and being severely undervalued.

Competitions like GTBank’s Sketch2Fame and DFA’s Wearable Art Challenge are helping to promote African fashion illustrators and their work but they are barely enough. Nigerian Illustrator, Viera Amber, who won both challenges in 2019 and 2020 respectively, says, “Africans will say ‘oh look! such a beautiful piece of art. How much?’ after which I tell them the price and they say, ‘is it not just drawing?’ It’s a big challenge.” She goes on to explain that this undermining of illustrator’s work has led to “weak” policies regarding artists’ rights in Africa. “It’s pretty easy for anyone to steal your work and walk freely with it. Your only way to resolve that would be a digital call out—with hopes that you win the ‘argument’ especially if they’ve got a huge fanbase,” shares Amber.

Although South African Illustrator Phathu Nembilwi isn’t just a fashion illustrator, the challenges she faces are similar. 

Nembilwi echoes, “some challenges we illustrators face are exposure, competition, capital exploitation to name a few. Some of these can be addressed by more African brands being exposed to different platforms and knowing where to find artists.”

llustrators use platforms like Behance, Upwork and Instagram to promote their work. But if African businesses aren’t using these platforms save Instagram and “fashion illustration is not yet a recognized career path in Africa” as artist Adesola Lasisi shares, then African artists aren’t really encouraged to go into digital illustration.

Photo: Artwork by Yega. Fashion Illustration Africa

Lasisi explains that on average, African businesses might offer N15000 ($40) for an illustrated piece. For this reason, some illustrators branch out into different forms of illustrations and some even go into merchandising and commercializing their art by releasing items such as phone covers, pillow cases etc. This move could affect the illustrator’s work as being regarded as fine art and worthy of luxury prices as the art world is notoriously elitist.

Contemporary designers like Rendoll Lagos are already tapping in and creating jobs for African fashion illustrators by using fashion illustration in all aspects of design—backend and frontend. In the recently concluded Make, Believe 2020 competition hosted by Orange Mentorship and The Folklore, African designers looking for global retail opportunities were encouraged to apply by showcasing sketches and illustrations of their designs. Initiatives like this help to show how relevant fashion illustration is to the industry.

Platforms like Fashion Illustration Africa can help drive this push further. The platform provides African fashion illustrators socio-economic opportunities, access to discounted courses in order to improve skill, and fosters partnerships between designers and illustrators. “I hope that this platform will help put African artists on the same global stage as their peers,” says FIA founder Omiunu. “I want to help create conditions where African fashion illustrators can be more selective about the kind of work they do. Africans (African art) are frequently the object; I’m hoping this platform will also make us subjects of our stories.”