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African fashion labels speak a global language

Celebrities & international customers give continental designers a boost

 ‘It is up to the continent’s design leaders and consumers to take a proud and proactive approach. Our offering shouldn’t be calling out appropriation but rather to add our own voice.”

Every fan at the Global Citizen concert held at Soweto’s FNB Stadium last December and live streamed to a massive global audience, no doubt came to support the ideals of ubuntu embodied by global statesman Nelson Mandela.

While the festival’s objective to tackle world poverty was noble, it was entertainment power couple Beyonce and Jay-Z however who set Mzansi alight as the performance of the two heavyweights appearing together for the first time in South Africa fired up the crowds.

The music, choreography and production was faultless and when Beyonce stepped onto the stage for their finale wearing a flamboyant bejeweled emerald Quiteria and George gown, it was local and continental fashion that registered the biggest milestone as the couple closed their set with Jay-Z’s cover of Alphaville’s Forever Young.

 Beyonce and Jay-Z perform during the Global Citizen Festiva(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100)

The design duo, Quiteria Kekana and George Malelu collaborated with actress and businesswoman Enhle Mbali to create the breathtaking gown for the star. The duo was inspired by their Metamorphosis collection showcased at Africa Fashion Week last year.

“We are sitting on a goldmine, it’s up to us to strike and do something about it,” Maphumulo gushed about local fashion being on the brink of a global revolution.

Beyonce’s stylist, Zerina Akers also sprinkled her wardrobe during the visit with outfits from local and continental designers as the star was also spotted in a rhundzu multi-coloured blouse, and crocodile half- pleat skirt ensemble by Rich Mnisi and Mmusomaxwell’s daytime blouse and shorts ensemble from their 2016 Spring/Summer collection. Fans flooding her instagram account also discovered her love for Senegalese designer Sarah Diouf’s Tongoro label’s elegant and flowy everyday wear. Besides Beyonce’s endorsement, African fashion has been gaining traction with other internationals stars including Naomi Campbell, Kourtney Kardashian, Kenny Latimore, and Lyn Whitfield dressed who have all been dressed by local designers.

Local fashion talent was also the talk of the world after its domination in Wakanda, the fictitious universe in the award winning movie, Black Panther. The box office hit paid grand homage to the isicholo (isiZulu hat) worn by matriarch Queen Ramonda played by Angela Basset. Costume designer Ruth E Carter appropriated elements of east African beads, gold isiNdebele neck braces, multicolored Basotho blankets, and Maasai textures, with the cast adorned in stunning African beauty marks on their faces. Carter told several US publications during the film premiers how she “deep dived into Africa” in her research for various influences ranging from the Tuareg, Zulu, Maasai, Himba and Dinka people to elevate traditional African fashion in a “modernistic way.” In a few frames of the box office hit, African fashion from South Africa, Namibia, to Kenya, South Sudan and Niger are richly represented.

From Basotho blankets’ intricate patterns, bold Maasai cloths, isizulu beads, regal kente wraps to Ndebele colorful geometric patterns incubated by iconic artist Ester Mahlangu, stylists and fashion houses from around the world keep looking into Africa for its rich and unique patterns and prints.

To make any notable mark on international fashion, it is imperative that local and continental labels frequent international runaways. Fashion columnist, and Palse label owner Paledi Segapo says over the years South African labels including Thula Sindi, David Tlale, Gert Johan-Coetzee, Chuulap, Thebe Magugu, Quiteria and George, Rich Mnisi, Marianne Fassler, Spero Villioti, Clive Rundle and Maxhosa have raised our flag high in various collaborations and showcases that introduced their collections to overseas markets.

 

Despite obstacles such as the financial resource needed to show internationally, the lack of manufacturing and retailing muscle, some of these labels have utilized the Arise Fashion Week platform led by businesswoman and fashion mogul, Precious Motsepe to make steady inroads throughout Africa and endear themselves to international buyers.

Segapo notes some of Mzansi’s top labels who consistently invested in continental and international showcases are now reaping rewards. 

“Last year at Arise Fashion Week Nigeria labels such as Quiteria and George, Rich Mnisi and Thebe Magugu thrilled audiences in Lagos,” Segapo recalls. The highlight of the week was supermodel Campbell walking two shows and bespoke couture designer Ozwald Boateng showing off his collection. Segapo says other labels such as Maxhosa by Laduma Ngxokolo and Chulaap by Chu have their increased the brands’ worth after these showing outside South Africa.

“Fashion Weeks are not about generating immediate sales, but more about marketing your brand, amplifying its visibility and enticing new customers to buy into your brand. Designers showcasing overseas do so to grow their market,” he says.

Founder of AFARA, Allana Foster-Finley believes the next important step for “fashion in Africa to catch the wave,” is by fostering relations with international buyers through smart collaborations. Foster-Finley offers this advice in a chapter titled Women & Migrations: African Fashions’ Global Takeover she contributes in a book called XXX.

‘Brands like Oxosi (named Africa’s answer to Moda Operandi by Vogue) and Chulaap, whose creator interprets the African aesthetic in his unique Thai way, are a route to the market platform based in North America.

 As a shareholder in Kisua, a contemporary brand inspired by the continent, which retails globally, (the label) has done collaborative capsule collections with Italian e-tailor giant, Yoox, which exposed it to a whole new market. Europe now contributes to 40% of its online sales.”

 

Segapo agrees pointing out that the level of collaboration between African labels and their international counterparts is still too insignificant for our fashion’s growth.

 

“We don’t reach and penetrate the international market significantly when we do international collaborations. Gert (Johan-Coetzee) once collaborated with ice cream brand Magnum and that did not reach significant global sales, he also collaborated with MacDonalds, while Maxhosa label collaborated with Nivea, and my label had a partnership with Caterpillar.”

Segapo says African labels have a mountain to conquer to produce mass products for international markets due to lack of capacity in the manufacturing and retail chain. He adds partnerships between labels and retailers as popularized by H&M when they joined design houses such as Balmain, Chanel, and Versace is what is needed to boost international sales. The announcement in May by the retailer to rope in local designer, Palesa Mokubung and her Mantsho label is an exciting partnership to watch this year.

Foster-Finley proceeds to makes some sober observations on the raging debate on Africa’s appropriation killing local fashion. She acknowledges that appropriating African prints and patterns has been in existence “way before Yves Saint Laurent showed his iconic 1967 ‘African’ collection.” While Zara recently got some flak when they “stole” Maxhosa’s sock designs and fashion pundits were angry when Louis Vuitton showed collections inspired by the Basotho blanket and Masaai shuka print, Foster-Finley points out that the burning issue is whether global brands “are appropriating to the benefit or detriment of the African design industry.”

 “I believe that Africa should no longer be defensive about appropriation or the origins of inspiration—that this only puts us on the back foot.

With so much interest in African design codes and energy, it is up to the continent’s design leaders and consumers to take a proud and proactive approach. Our offering to the global discourse shouldn’t be calling out appropriation but rather to add our own voice. The appropriation of African fashion must be treated like any other cultural exchange or creative collaboration—give credit, and consider royalties,” she says.

Segapo says while we may not drive massive international sales in fashion, it is worthy to celebrate the fact that the continent continues to be a big source of inspiration with African prints, patterns and accessories the hottest trends right now.