UN-backed project seeks to capitalise on continent’s global appeal by giving designers access to western markets.

Some significant developments have taken place in African fashion over the last five years. The first of these has to do with perception: African fabrics and fashion are no longer seen by western audiences and buyers solely as “traditional” wear (which was always just another way of saying what Africans made and wore lacked the finesse of western fashion).

Hand in hand with this has been the increasing use of African textiles and other craft and fashion elements by western designers, such as Louis Vuitton’s use of the Kenyan Shuke in its Spring/Summer 2012 collection.

Yet another has been the growing number of African fashion designers who showcase their work on catwalks outside Africa. We’ve written about some of these, brands such as Mina EvansUzuri Couture and Wana Sambo, and if you follow African fashion blogs you will discover many more.

Nonetheless, marketing on a global scale remains something of a stumbling block for most African brands. That and international distribution. Western fashion brands do not rely entirely on their local markets, and African designers shouldn’t have to either. This is where international organisation Fashion 4 Development(F4D) thinks it can make a difference: by preparing African designers to work with western retailers, and bringing the two together.

We are usually quite skeptical about Africa-related NGOs, as are most Africans, as so many of them seem to exist more for the benefit of the NGO workers themselves. Some people even believe many NGOs are outright cons, another way for Africa’s wealth to end up in somebody else’s pocket. Fashion 4 Development’s non-profit arm – World Fashion 4 Development (WF4D) – isn’t beyond such skepticism just yet, but so far it appears to be doing more good than harm.

The organisation was founded by Bibi Russell, a former model from Bangladesh who set up a system that helped to build an international reputation for the weavers and craftsmen in that country, and in doing so grew the industry and created jobs. She now “employs” around 150,000 local weavers and craftsmen/women.

That was where the idea was supposed to end, but in January 2011, Evie Evangelou saw the possibility of extending the idea to Africa, and set about doing so via the UN’s media affiliate South South News. It attracted the attention of many fashion insiders and diplomats, the result of which is that F4D is now running similar projects in Ghana, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The key westerners involved are Evangelou (global chair), UN advocate Ray Chambers, Cesare Ragaglini, Italy’s permanent representative to the UN and F4D’s goodwill ambassador, and Italian Vogue editor-in-chief Franca Sozanni.

Discovered in Africa

Last year Sozanni visited Ghana, Nigeria and Togo with Italian designer Robert Cavalli. The visit drew a lot of attention; was this just another case of influential fashion personalities looking for “inspiration” in Africa? Sozanni was working on a special issue of Luomo Vogue called Rebranding Africa in collaboration with F4D’s chair Roberta Annan (May/June2012 issue).

This turned out to be one of those well-meant exercises that didn’t quite manage to avoid peddling the same stereotypes about the continent that most of us find really frustrating. Then again, Vogue Italia’s 2008 all-black edition and their 2011 Tribute to Black Beauties actually weren’t bad at all, despite our, and many other people’s, concerns about throwing crumbs to black models and designers so they’d shut up about not being featured the rest of the time.

Our feeling is that Sozanni’s heart is in the right place, but she is still finding her feet because Africa and black people in general have been a neglected and therefore unfamiliar audience for Vogue for so long, so she is still prone to gaffs. For instance, who these days still uses the term “third world”? F4D does.

Anyway, the point of that troublesome Rebranding Africa issue was apparently to make the continent more attractive to westerners for its creative industries. Typically, Africa is promoted to investors for its minerals wealth or land.

Another reason Sozanni paid those visits was because she was developing F4D’s Discovered in Africa project, the part that links African designers to retailers in the west, both online and brick-and-mortar retailers. As far as we can tell, Cavalli came along to scout for talent.

As Franca found during her visit, there are many designers in Africa whose work has global appeal. They just lack global name recognition and access to the same distribution channels as their European counterparts. So far, the first initiative has been a success. Discovered In Africa teamed up with Saks and online store Yoox to stock some selected African fashion brands alongside western brands that produce some of their clothes in Africa, and they sold out in two weeks. Among the designers were Koshie O (Ghana), Kofie Ansah (Ghana) and Tiffany Amber(Nigeria). All selected designers can be found here.

Made in Africa

Sozanni believes that there is potential for Africa to develop something akin to the Made in Italy stamp that is taken everywhere as a sign of style and craftsmanship. There are challenges, of course. For instance, not all selected designers are set up to supply western chains, or even have a website that is more than a Facebook page, so such designers need to be invested in, that is, they need money. Money is also needed to buy the collections from African designers. It costs €100,000 to buy the collections that were featured on the Yoox site. The cash has to come from somewhere.

But it’s early days yet, and F4D seem to be taking the right steps. The benefits to African designers and craftspeople are already very real. We don’t imagine the ride is going to be without hiccups, but for a change what’s going on here is merely building on what craftspeople and designers are already doing, which is an improvement on the old NGO practice of going in and disrupting people’s lives by telling them they need change what they’re doing because their practices or products are completely wrong. If this is how the African crafts and fashion industries become suppliers to the world, that wouldn’t be a bad result at all.

Fashion 4 development is also on Facebook. A longer version of this article can be read on This is Africa.

Scroll Up