African Style Goes Global, Despite Little Tangible Support From African Leaders

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By FRANKIE EDOZIEN

ACCRA, Ghana — Every day on the downtown streets of Accra, debonair men and fashionable women can be seen proudly attired in Western-style skirts, shirts and slacks, all made from African prints by local tailors.

In recent years, local designers created ready-to-wear outfits with these prints. But today the quintessential British fashion emporium, Burberry, has taken similar patterns and built a collection in stores that takes “Accra style” global.

The prints and fabrics ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa have long inspired European and American high fashion, but Burberry’s Prorsum collection is the most prominent.

Ironically, this African design moment comes at a time when Ghana has gone from having 44 textile manufacturers to just four, employing a scant 2,500 people down from about 30,000.

In an interview with Italian Vogue, Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, said, “I really believe in the textile industry and I’m firmly convinced it can revitalize the country. Ghana is totally open to fashion, which is part of our history, and I think there’s a lot of untapped talent in this country. We need to return to the golden years.”

The golden years have been eroded by prints now made in China with Ghanaian patterns.

“We have very strict laws that impede the Chinese from bringing cotton fabrics into our country with Ghanaian patterns printed in China. If we find them, they are burned at the border,” Mr. Mills said before having his photo taken for Vogue.

The current May-June edition of L’Uomo Vogue is entirely dedicated to African fashion and also includes an interview and photo spread with Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

Mr. Jonathan understands the power of images and was happy to tout his efforts at re-branding Nigeria to the magazine: “You know our designers. They’re talented and very creative.”

Indeed, Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos, hosts an exciting fashion week, even though it lacks substantial government support and is bedeviled by power failures and other infrastructure challenges.

Last March, Lagos Fashion Week provided an international platform for local talent and lured the Ghanaian designer Ozwald Boateng to Africa from his Saville Row outpost in London.

As the IHT’s Suzy Menkes noted recently, designers around the continent are leaping into fashion’s mainstream with quality and creativity. If harnessed properly, they have the potential to spark huge economic growth in these countries.

For continental designers to go global, they have to toot their own horns loudly and hope someone hears. This is exactly what has been going on for the past three days in Soweto, South Africa’s famous township outside Johannesburg.

The organizer of Soweto Fashion Week, Stephen Manzini, 23, raised about $7,500 for a bare-bones operation showcasing 16 designers, some inspired by Nelson Mandela’s pre-inaugaration wardrobe.

“We refused to be stopped because we don’t have funding,” Mr. Manzini told The Associated Press.

It was local fashion showcases like these that caught the eye of Theo Omambala, a former model whose Ubuntu International project showcased smaller Ugandan, South African and Nigerian designers during the 2011 and 2012 London Fashion Weeks.

Organizers say a new initiative, dubbed Theo’s Vision: La Haute Culture (TVLHC), aims to repeat that, but this time in New York, expanded to designers from various countries.

Last year larger designers and jewelers from Nigeria got exposure to buyers and retailers worldwide when they were spotlighted at the Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week in a “Made in Africa” segment sponsored by Arise magazine.

Yet, despite appearances by West African leaders in Vogue, and the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, appealing for support of African designers, there seems little chance of an effort from Ghana and Nigeria to push local talent onto the world stage — or even to commit to creating an international shopping hub in Abuja, Lagos or Accra.

Something akin to Los Angeles’s Rodeo Drive, or Paris’s Avenue Montaigne. A destination where boutiques can feature high-end local and foreign designers, the ones fashionable wealthy Nigerians wear.

Neither West African president made any tangible promises to Africa’s designers before smiling for the cameras. To see more and leave a comment click here.

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