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As African designers gain prominence on the world stage, education needs to reflect the continent's advancements in the sector.

By Sandiso Ngubane 

Aug 19, 2022

Bubu Ogisi, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Christie Brown, Thebe Magugu, MaXhosa, Tokyo James. These are just a few of the African luxury fashion brand names and designers that have, over the years, achieved a certain level of prominence on the global stage. While this is no doubt moving the needle as far as the conversation about fashion from the continent is concerned, much of it remains ethnographic in nature.

As Birimian Ventures—the investment company focused on championing African luxury brands—and others move to support the sector, anticipating brands from the continent to scale in the near future, it's essential to consider how the narrative around African fashion is changing. But the change ought to consider the 'coloniality' that continues to define Africa's position on the world stage.

Lukhanyo Mdingi, 'Burkina' Collection, SS'23. Photo: via @lukhanyomdingi

Bubu Ogisi, 'I am not myself', AW'22. Photo: via @iamisigo

Thebe Magugu x AZ Factory, '22 Campaign. Photo: via @thebemagugu

Lisa Folawiyo, Collection 1, '22. Photo: via Lagos Fashion Week

Confronting ‘coloniality’

Walter Mignolo, the Argentine scholar recognized as a founder of the decoloniality school of thought, defines it as Western modernity, which is a hurdle to the advancement of colonized societies. His theories are necessary in any effort to eliminate or mitigate, the disproportionate legacy of European thought and culture in many aspects of African life. This calls for a thoughtful analysis of hegemony and its influence on the colonized—those Frantz Fanon referred to as 'the Wretched of the Earth'.

In fashion, as in other sectors, this decoloniality requires the empowerment of the historically marginalized and the decolonization of the curriculum at educational institutions, specifically.

"There are so many fashion weeks in Africa—South Africa, Lagos, Dakar—but fashion students, even on the continent, are still expected to [solely] analyze New York, London, and Paris, for example. Why?" asks Frederica Brooksworth, founder and executive director of the Council for International African Fashion Education (CIAFE). She is also director of Industrie Africa’s IA Connect platform, an upcoming hub dedicated to knowledge for Africa’s fashion industry community.

Her organization, CIAFE, is a non-profit dedicated to supporting the advancement of African fashion education on the continent, and in the diaspora. "Our focus is really on closing the gap—the skills gap—amongst youth on the continent because one thing that we recognize is that for our industry to grow, and for it to get to the levels that we need it to grow, we need to have a good, strong workforce," she explains. "That only comes through education, so we must focus on decolonizing the curriculum, not only in North America and Europe but also in Africa."

Winds of change

Efforts in this regard require a multi-pronged approach that extends from the engagement of museums, academia, and the media, in addition to the educational institutions themselves. It's something that is currently gaining traction across the globe, partly because of the efforts of organizations like CIAFE and the South African-based Institute for African Fashion Research (AFRI), but it's also because the decolonization movement has moved from academia into the mainstream, according to Brooksworth.

This is probably most prominently epitomized by the Victoria & Albert Museum's 'Africa Fashion' exhibition, currently underway in London, UK, showcasing, uncovering, and celebrating the continent's indispensable contribution to global fashion.

It's an exhibition the likes of the New York Times and The Guardian have described as long overdue and necessary as a new generation of African designers ascends to the world stage. But to address 'coloniality,' which scholar Walter Mignolo defines as modernity—in colonial terms—this is a conversation that Africans and African institutions themselves must lead.

The current crop of African designers have done well to represent African narratives in their work. The likes of Thebe Magugu, Loza Maleombho, Doreen Mashika, Akudo Iheakanwa of Shekudo, and others, have been quite intentional in exploiting their own heritage, and local resources, to create work that is modern, and comparable to their international counterparts.

In this regard, Dr. Erica De Greef, co-founder and director of the South African-based African Fashion Research Institute says these are designers who got a seat at the table without having to conform to the standards of American or European fashion. “I think that's the shift. Digital has allowed for a very different kind of gatekeeping,” she explains. “These designers are able to share and engage in dialogues that are much more dynamic than what their predecessors had an opportunity to present. In the digital realm, you have Thebe Magugu living next to Vivienne Westwood. The sort of gatekeeping that would have kept him or Rich Mnisi out—whether that be the museums, the media, or whether it’s purely geographic because we can’t be in London or New York to take part—digital has had a huge impact in changing that.”

Are educational institutions catching up? “There are more of these conversations happening,” Brooksworth says. “I think before, decolonizing was mainly spoken about in academia, and because of that, people didn’t take it on board. But now that the conversation is happening in the industry, and consumers are talking about it, and it’s being spoken about in the press; we’re finding that schools are now recognizing the importance of it as well.”

In May of 2021, for example, the London Metropolitan University’s Centre for Creative Arts, Culture & Engagement invited AFRI to a panel discussion on decoloniality, titled ‘The Making of African Fashion Studies’. 

Decoloniality in practice

De Greef, who is a former lecturer, says taking the concept of decoloniality on board means recognizing that we don’t have to erase the world as it is, but to acknowledge that other narratives exist. “Delinking is a concept that is part of the decoloniality school of thought. That and relinking. So, you can talk about designers being able to delink from coloniality, and relink to craft knowledge and indigenous histories.”

Furthermore, decoloniality entails making visible stories and histories that have been misrepresented or erased. “We need to bring into the present that which was erased. For one, the idea that African fashion didn't exist until today. We must also do away with stereotypes like: 'all African fashion is colorful and exotic.' It's about addressing the ethnographic sort of way of speaking about African fashion that results in othering."

Brooksworth adds: "People I know, who I've worked with in academia, are going through the V&A's Africa Fashion exhibition and learning. They are intrigued. Museums need to continue this because, if you look at the Met Gala, for instance, there's a different theme every year, but there's never been an African theme. Why don't we have fixed installations? You can go and see European, even Asian fashion, but African fashion is always left out, even though you see African artifacts in other parts of the same museums."

MaXhosa Africa at V&A's 'Africa Fashion' exhibition. Photo: Courtesy of V&A Museum

It's just one of the practices entrenched by coloniality. "I've had people who have gone to the exhibition saying: 'I didn't realize African fashion is not just prints'. Even with the prints, they vary, and people don't know this. They don't realize that kente is a Ghanaian print. It's not something we use all over the continent. Forget even West Africa. In Somalia, in Ethiopia, in Mozambique—everyone has their own different prints.

"According to De Greef, coloniality in South Africa specifically manifests itself in the country's many sprawling shopping malls in its largest cities, which primarily house foreign brands. "The fact that three-quarters of the Waterfront is foreign brands—how does that impact local brands? How does that impact the economy and the perceptions of ordinary people in terms of aspiration? The impact is huge!"

"This is why platforms like Industrie Africa are important," she adds. "That's why exhibitions like the one at the V&A are important because it visualizes the alternative. To go back to the Waterfront example of coloniality—our earnings go to these Western brands, making them even wealthier. So, it continues that cycle of violence. So, once we've identified coloniality and we understand its impact, our role is to work in that space of creating alternatives.

"While these concepts can be taught at schools, both Brooksworth and De Greef emphasize that decolonizing education is merely a start in any endeavor to bring about change for the advancement of the continent's fashion industry at large. "I often think about the consumer and those who don't have the luxury of an education, or fashion school," Brooksworth says. "So, as much as we can decolonize our curriculum, we must also decolonize the fashion industry. Those who go to school will be mindful about certain things, but what about the masses who don't?"

She adds: “Let's be very real, the media is so important in this. We all get our information from the media, and people take what the media says as gospel. If the media went on a major crusade and said institutions need to decolonize the curriculum now. I guarantee you, people would actually listen.”

NKWO, Kenneth Ize and Awa Meité at V&A Museum's 'Africa Fashion' exhibition. Photo: Courtesy of  V&A Museum

Rich Mnisi at V&A Museum's 'Africa Fashion' exhibition. Photo: Courtesy of V&A Museum

Maison ArtC at V&A Museum's 'Africa Fashion' exhibition. Photo: Courtesy of V&A Museum

What a decolonized fashion future looks like

While the conversations have started happening, and now, more than ever, the necessary change seems to be within reach, at a very practical level, what does a decolonized fashion industry actually look like for Africa, and Africans? “I’d say empowerment,” De Greef offers. “Empowerment comes with dignity, autonomy and agency, so who is speaking and who is being heard becomes important. That’s a kind of conceptual reading. In practical terms, it is about pride and purchase. I’m buying Wanda Lephoto, or any other local brand, because I have pride in it. The money doesn’t go to Calvin Klein and Versace, it stays here. That pride starts to spread sideways in terms of employment and the sustainability of local brands.”