Jean-Marc Chauve is currently a consultant and the Artistic Director of IFA Paris. He studied marketing, fashion design and socio-semiology of fashion, and used to work at Nelly Rodi and Maison Martin Margiela.
Sub-Saharan Africa was, until recently, the only part of the world out of the international fashion system. While African countries have been presented as the new market of the future for fashion and luxury for the last two years, we are discovering, in the meantime, a new generation of designers with new ideas who could very well be important actors of creative fashion.
Today, the whole world, from Russia to China, from South America to South East Asia is a part of a fashion global system. Only Sub-Saharan Africa seems to be left aside: a textile industry reduced to the production of fibres, no brands or international retail networks, a production of garment mainly artisanal and many fashion weeks which look more like local folkloric shows. All of this is changing and for the last two years, in Europe, we are witnessing a multiplication of conferences and seminars on the opportunity that African market represents as the next fashion and luxury market of the future. A market already evaluated at 31 billion of dollars by Euromonitor. Brands such as Zegna, Hugo Boss, Mango or Zara, magazines such as ELLE or Cosmopolitan are the pioneers of this integration with the opening of stores or the launching of local versions.
But without waiting to be fully part of this system, Africa shows a certain creative vitality with the Lagos Fashion week as the main showcase. Nigeria’s economic capital and main city Lagos, with its 10000 millionaires, is the trendiest hub of the continent. For example, its famous concept store Alara, where can be found brands such as Marni, Louboutin, Oscar de la Renta or Simone Rocha among African luxury brands, can compete with stores such as Colette in Paris or 10 corso como in Milan. In two years, Lagos Fashion Week became a much waited for event for journalists from Vogue US, GB and Italy or even Business of Fashion which reports all the shows in its last October edition. Even though the level of each collection is still uneven, a few names clearly stand out: Maki Oh, Lisa Folawiyo, Nkwo Onwuka, Imane Ayissi, Loza Maléombho, Meena, Orange Culture or Laurence Airline. They come from Nigeria, Cameroon or Ivory Coast and the level of professionalism, creativity and modernity of their work can be compared to the one of young creative brands from London or Paris. However, these names display some aesthetics elements of their own which are surprisingly new in the spectre of an international fashion which seems to only be able of recycling and vintage inspiration.
The appeal for this fashion, just as the enthusiasm towards African contemporary art (see the success of the different exhibitions which took place recently such as Art/Afrique at the Fondation Vuitton or Malick Sidibé at the Fondation Cartier in Paris for instance), can be explained by the capacity of these creators to mix contemporary styles with inspirations from the many and unknown cultures of the African continent. All these designers have in common to have studied or lived partially in Paris, London or New York and to be distributed in different African countries but also in Europe or the US. They are, as well, more than able to manage their social network and the production of visuals (for example, Orange Culture has today 71k followers on Instagram). In the meantime they also use artisanal and local savoir-faire, even though revisited, and twist weavings and traditional prints to incorporate them in sportswear or Parisian-style looks. But most of all, their work is always done in the respect and spirit of ethics, sustainability, the acknowledgment of devalued cultures or again the evolution of African societies, all of which being likely to seduce consumers fed up with an international luxury only motivated by the production of trendy items.
Are the African creators the new kings of 2020 fashion then, as were the Japanese in the 80s and the Belgians in the 90s? Emmanuelle Courrèges, journalist for ELLE, Grazia, Vogue Italy and who just launched Lago54, an e-commerce and promotion platform dedicated to African Contemporary creation, said that the challenges are still plentiful. Indeed, the occidental market is not yet ready and used to associate the idea and mainly the price of luxury to Africa and African consumers (Nigeria asides) and still prefers to buy from western brands when they have some buying power. Problems in the quality of the production due to the lack of textile industries and a local workforce not much qualified forcing them to outsource in other continents which comes at a price and with complications are also challenging. Finally, their development capacities are often limited to auto-investment due to the absence of private or institutional investors: in sub-Saharan Africa, fashion is still not being considered a “serious” industry by the economic and political world. However, their main challenge is probably to be considered legitimate by an industry from which they were the principal absents and therefore to make this industry forget about the “African” adjective before “Fashion” which is highlighted by Emmanuelle Courrèges statement who wishes that one day “we will say that we dream of an Imane Ayissi dress as we say that we dream of a Vanessa Bruno bag” (*Interview in Cheekmagazine – 09-11-2017)