Aware of Africa’s economic potential both inside and outside the continent, a generation of young entrepreneurs of African origin working in the textile and fashion industry have decided to bridge the gap between Europe and Africa in the name of a cosmopolitan and universal fashion industry.
From Givenchy to Valentino and Burberry, African wax prints have taken Paris, Milan and London by storm, and a long list of brands are playing with the fantasies of sub-Saharan Africa – and those distinctive styles are surely but firmly growing into becoming new business perspectives. In fact, it’s easy to see why many businesses consider sub-Saharan African to be the new El Dorado. With a population of nearly 900 million, GDP growth around 6%, an emerging middle class, and seven countries in the region ranking among the 10 most dynamic economies in the world, Africa’s economic potential looks promising. On the fashion and textiles side, the industry could generate $15.5 million within five years according to a recent report from the AFDB (African Development Bank), with a textile-clothing market that’s already worth more than $31 billion as a whole – figures that sound very promising, and particularly promising to young entrepreneurs who wish to breakthrough with their own fashion brand.
Aware of the potential of fashion and the textile industry, the AFDB has announced the launch of “Fashionomics” for the first quarter of 2017. This initiative is led by Géraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Special Envoy for Gender Issues, who saw in this project the potential to develop youth employment in Africa, especially among the young women who constitute the majority of the workforce in the fashion and textiles industry. In this context, Fraser-Moleketi and her team intend to bring the African fashion and textiles industry to the international scene by offering a B2B platform dedicated to the fashion and textiles players in African. This is a pending project that offers the support of the Bank to micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) working in this sector in Africa. “This initiative is Pan-African. It includes all African countries, and even the diaspora,” says Emanuela Gregorio, AfDB gender specialist and the linchpin behind Fashionomics. She explains that the website will be equipped with a database that will enrich the platform with all the information about the project’s designers, producers, buyers, sellers, investors, and financial partners.
For Lamine Kouyaté, the Senegalese-Malian designer behind the ready-to-wear brand XULY.Bët – an icon of afropolitan fashion from the 90s to today – this enthusiasm for African fashion is explained more by a globalization of trends brought about by the digital age that knows no limits. “Today individual practices are more complex, and transcend community boundaries,” he explains. “The internet offers considerable visibility to an entire generation of designers from Africa who sharpen their claws and propose their own self-assured universes.” Nelly Wadji, for her part – the founder of MoonLook, an online platform dedicated to African fashion – points out that African fashion is not merely a question of esthetics; it is above all else a sign of belonging to a range of African cultures that can’t be considered as a united whole. Rather, each country, each culture must be addressed independently. African fashion would therefore take different forms and styles, depending on the geographic location and the local cultures with which it mixes – in other words, the African diaspora in New York or London are not the same as that of Paris. “Many of the creative individuals in my generation are as hybrid and multicultural as our adopted country; many of us are emerging from a certain ghettoization of Africaness.”
One of the ambassadors of this creative renewal of African expression is the jack-of-all-trade Amah Ayivi, of Togolese origin and artistic director of Marché Noir(“Black Market”); a concept dedicated to the cultures of the African continent and including a point of sale at Le Comptoir Général – an institution of African cultures in Paris – and a new shop just a stone’s throw from the Carreau du Temple in Paris. “The main challenge was to do something different which would be financially viable. The other challenge was to source my vintage items in Africa and involve Africans in the business.” But the Marché Noir is not limited to selling clothing, accessories, and vintage objects from Africa. Entrepreneur that he is at heart, Amah Ayivi is currently developing trend books and the first Marché Noir signature capsule collection, and is considering outlets and pop-up stores abroad.
But African fashion not in terms of business but in terms of style is also one of the main concern of today’s movers and shakers from the African continent. “As far as I’m concerned, even though many designers use it in their creations, wax print has not been fully utilized. Everything depends on inspiration and creativity, so we can keep taking it in different directions forever,” explains Aïssé N’Diaye, Franco-Mauritanian creator of the Afrikanista brand. Indeed, many fabrics of the African continent are not being emphasized enough, such as bogolan, bazin, indigo, kenté, xhartoum, and djipri.
Will the ultimate challenge of the African fashion designers be to go beyond the esthetics of the waxprint? “Waxprint has become a cliché of Africa,” says Imane Ayissi, designer of Cameroonian origin. “The paradox is that this Indonesian fabric, exported to Africa by the Dutch, is still predominantly produced outside of the continent. I refuse to use waxprint, I’d rather work with fabrics that are actually of African origin, such as kenté, faso dan fani, n’dop, and all artisanal dyed fabrics.” On the other hand, Nei Wilson, a public relation consultant for the Africa France Foundation, the Africa Luxury Forum, and the Black Fashion Week, is convinced that waxprint is just getting started and that its heyday is far from being over. “Designers will open up to new styles, new esthetic horizons, by mixing wax with other fabrics. This type of cultural mix is the most exciting step forward – and above all, the most beautiful one.”