The Business of Fashion: How Africa’s Fashion Can Help the Continent’s Economy

African fashionAfrican fashion in what sense?

I see this reaction in the eyes of anyone to whom I utter these two words. In their minds, they are reconciling two images: that of African refugees in tattered clothing, the traditional garb of many cultures represented, and these images juxtaposed against the ‘high-fashion’ image of internationally renowned supermodels Alek Wek and Liya Kebede. The gears turn behind their eyes as they try in earnest to cobble together a representation of those two elusive words, mysterious when the adjective and noun are combined: “African fashion.” What does it mean?  And what are its potentials?

Some may remember the African fashion “explosion” of the late 80s and early 90s spurred by the success for the film “Coming to America” (1988). The film’s fairy-tale version of African culture combined traditions from all corners of the continent and made an impression on viewers. These viewers - bedazzled by the majesty of African textiles - took this aesthetic, embraced and celebrated it. African prints and those imitating them were all over the street. Wearing a turban was the closest thing to looking like the aforementioned African models that did not involve getting a deep tan and facelift.

Since then, Western fashion houses have borrowed African motifs and incorporated them into their collections. The most recent example being Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2012 men’s collection which can effectively be described as “Jetsetting Massai warrior”. The prominent pattern is pulled directly from the traditional dress of the Massai. Our friends at note that Thakoon’s Fall 2011 women’s collection uses the same pattern. Then of course there is Rodarte with their 2011 Spring/Summer collection. It even seems Gwen Stefani has forsaken her beloved Harajuku Girls for a decidedly more Dark Continent vibe.

I recently talked about African Fashion Week New York (AFWNY) and this August, the celebration will continue in London, a city filled with tea, crumpets and more Africans in diaspora than any other city in Europe. The objective for this is two-fold:

Fold One: Be fabulous. AFW is an event showcasing the beauty of African designers, models and culture.

Fold Two: Call attention to the African textile industry and allow manufacturers to show their national fabrics, thereby creating a niche for themselves in the international market.

Africa has many natural resources but very few benefit from them. The textiles industry is a space where Africans who do not own oil reserves or copper mines can do international business. After being aided by the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the textile industry saw some success, but the expiration of the Multi-fibre Act (MFA) in 2005 proved to be a crushing blow for the industry. The MFA allowed countries like the United States to place quotas on imported goods so that domestic economy could remain competitive in the global marketplace. The dissolution of the MFA has allowed countries like China and India – two textile giants – to flood the markets of both the US and African countries with low-cost fabrics, often times imitating the patterns for which African designers were becoming recognized.

Things have since gotten better as evidenced by brands like EXTRASEED and the existence and scale of African Fashion week itself. Designers who refer to and incorporate African designs are raising the profile of the aesthetic around the world; a great help in building demand for African looks. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that the best way to support the industry is to buy African designs that use African textiles made by African people.

About Thomas Stone

Thomas Stone writes for "I obey Oscar Wilde's rule 'Brevity is the soul of wit"
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One Response to The Business of Fashion: How Africa’s Fashion Can Help the Continent’s Economy

  1. reeree says:

    yep i agree we should all buy from our own people and the designers should also make it reasonable for us to purchase

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