On the runway, ready for take off
Lagos Fashion and Design Week is full steam ahead on Day 3, and watching the models strutting down the runway, street style stars getting papped daily outside the tent and Nigerian designers placing their best fashion foot forward with designs worthy of global catwalks, Nigerian fashion industry in particular, African fashion at large seems to be thriving. But is all as it seems on the African fashion scene?
With the incredible rise of the creative industries across Africa and the growing global interest in African fashion in the last decade, it is no surprise fashion from the continent has enjoyed a renaissance. Initially, the early Noughties continued the trend of turning to Africa for inspiration, and rarely was African fashion seen any further than the clichés of beadwork and animal print. Then almost overnight came a paradigm shift and towards the end of the Noughties African fashion was emerging in its own right as a force to be reckoned with. Finally, with the rise of African media and the emergence of early predecessors of fashion shows – think AFI Fashion Week in South Africa and Arise Fashion Week in Nigeria – the world came to recognise African fashion.
The boom continues – from Lagos to Johannesburg, from Harare to Nairobi, fashion weeks are now a dime a dozen, alongside African fashion events in the diaspora such as Africa Fashion Week London and Africa Fashion Week New York, amongst others. Online and on the fledgling African high streets, concession boutiques, fashion stores and luxury showrooms launch providing a much-needed platform for the retail of African fashion.
On the surface, it all looks much like a boom. Scratch the surface a little though, and there are numerous challenges stifling a fledgling industry. In most parts of Africa, it seems, unless daddy is rich, being a full-time designer is a pipe dream.
The first stumbling block is of course, as with most creative enterprises, funding – running a fashion business, from sourcing raw materials to manufacturing to marketing through to a retail space and chain, is big business which calls for big money. If all you have on offer is your skills with little to no financial support, your venture may be doomed from the start.
Then there is lack of training – while more established designers rely on their reputation and loyal clientele, emerging young designers often overlook the need to attain key skills they will require in such a cut-throat industry. In a bid to save money, there is much corner cutting – from the quality of finish in products to quality of branding and marketing efforts. There is many a designer on the continent – both emerging and established – who feel their brand can get by with a lookbook created by a mediocre photographer and a best friend modelling their creations or think PR involves getting a teenager to run their Instagram.
Finally, there is the lack of consistency from those who have been lucky enough to climb on the the first rung of the fashion ladder. We all know those designers, who crash on to the scene with razzmatazz only to bring out a capsule collection once a year to showcase on the runway and stock in a fancy over-priced Victoria Island boutique, never to reach distant shores and global retail chains. In my opinion, these are the part-time celebrity designers who practise art for fame’s sake so at least once a month they can appear on the red carpet on the society pages of weekend supplements.
Despite these challenges, opportunities African fashion can offer the youth are many. In 2015, the AfDB launched its Fashionomics Initiative to discuss ways to strengthen the global value chain of Africa’s fashion industry, with a view that fashion is an unprecedented opportunity for African countries to participate in regional and global integration and with the goal of enable African women and youth designers to create and grow their businesses.
With four key objectives (increase access to markets; increase access to finance; provide mentorship and networking opportunities; and develop the skills of the target group), this platform aims to the promote “investments in the fashion sector, increasing access to finance for entrepreneurs and incubating and accelerating start-ups.”
While African fashion is on the rise, with limited access to funding, markets and skills, we have only just scratched the surface of what could be a very lucrative industry which could aid towards to economic development and regional integration of the continent.
“Drawing on its High-5 Agenda, the bank is investing in high-growth sectors that have the potential to promote women’s economic empowerment and create 25 million jobs over the next decade. In this context, the creative industries offer massive potential for continent-wide job and GDP growth.”
If 25 million jobs over the next decade is not enough reason to take African fashion more seriously than street style photos or front row selfies, I don’t know what is. Tomorrow, hence, by all means twirl in your glad rags, but remember: African fashion is not just for a season, but done right, for a lifetime.