Paris – When one thinks of African fashion, the Wax print is probably the first thing to come to mind. First created in Java and brought into Europe in the 19th century by Dutch traders, the print has become one of the symbols of West Africa. While a large part of its production still takes place in the Netherlands, 90 percent of all Wax print fabrics are sold in Africa, with a turnover of 300 million euros in 2014.
But there’s more to African fashion than just Wax. Peulh Vagabong, for example, made headlines when one of its designs was worn by Beyoncé on her recent trip to South Africa to celebrate the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. Lagos fashion brand Iamisigo (pronounced “I Am Isigo”), best known for taking risks with volume, already has sales outlets in Africa, Paris, Zurich and New York. Benim-based Ibilola is another rising star: specializing in large sizes (44 and above), it is the first African brand to cater for the XXL size market. Last but not least, one can mention sneaker brand Umoja, which manufactures its organic, cruelty-free shoes in Portugal using fabrics labelled as “Made in Africa”.
In fact, African fashion is so trendy that fashion school Isem Paris Esmod International hosted an entire exhibition dedicated to it in its new premises in Pantin, near Paris, this month. The exhibit featured collections by nine African designers, including Peulh Vagabong, Maison Château Rouge, Imane Ayissi, Sakina M’Sa, Tiss’ame, Umoja, Iamisigo and Ibilola.
“The Fashion Weeks in Lagos, Ghana or Dakar have gained in strength,” says Ramata Diallo, who collaborated in the artistic direction of the exhibition. She spoke to FashionUnited about her last “African Fashion Tour” and future possibilities for fashion in the African continent.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your commitment to African fashion?
I work as a fashion teacher in Paris, researching new “success stories” to share with my students -- which explains my interest in African fashion. But my fascination for it actually goes way back. I used to work as Category Manager for a number of French brands. In 2017, I decided to create my own fashion consultancy agency and travel across Africa to gain a better understanding of its market. That’s how the “Africa Fashion Tour” was born.
You were there not so long ago, actually.
Exactly. I have just returned from the second edition of my African Fashion Tour in Lagos and Conakry. I spent a total of three weeks in West Africa, visiting design stores and showrooms. I met designers, bloggers, models and fashion event organisers. My aim is to understand how fashion is made in Africa and to analyse the behaviour of African consumers.
How would you define the creativity of African designers?
Their creativity is extremely bold and free compared to the Western market, where data analysis has led to conformism. The variety of trends, fabrics and colors is a real breath of fresh air!
How are African designers promoted in Europe? Do they receive financial support?
There are very few opportunities in Europe to promote designers based in Africa. It is always very expensive to enter the European market, and there isn’t any guarantee in terms of business. But, over time, the Fashion Weeks in Lagos, Ghana and Dakar have gained in strength. The international media and VIPs are starting to pay attention to those events and contribute to promoting African creativity worldwide. The challenge is to promote the brand outside Africa, while also considering the local market, which is full of opportunities. I have discovered numerous design stores and showrooms in Lagos and Accra in which the experience of storekeeping is incredible and the selection of fashion, exquisite. There is so much to do to create solid links between African fashion professionals!
African countries said at the last International Fashion Festival in Africa that they are are looking to create an alliance to help promote the fashion sector in Europe. Do you think this will help?
Any initiative to promote African creativity is good. An alliance is important to help understand us a vast and multicultural market. The best ambassadors of creativity in Africa are Beyoncé, Janet Jackson or Naomi Campbell. With a single Instagram post, they have the power to influence millions of fashion consumers. Designers need help to strengthen their presence and find a place for their products worldwide. Additionally, online fashion business play a major role in making contact with consumers internationally.
What positive outcomes would you say you’ve gotten from your latest Tour?
Last year, I visited four cities in one month: Conakry, Abidjan, Accra and Lagos. This year, I decided to spend two weeks in Lagos and one week in Conakry where I was invited to participate in the Guinea Fashion Festival. This offered the opportunity to follow designers, models and event organisers before and after the show. Every time I visit a town, I take time to discuss things with all those involved in fashion. Through Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp, I contacted designers, photographers and event organisers to prepare for my trip. People are so kind and welcoming that I feel right at home everywhere I go. It was an incredible experience that taught me a great deal about how fashion in Africa works.
Where do you think African designers can improve?
I think African designers do a very good job in creating a new economic model and offering a new approach to fashion, an alternative to the mass ready-to-wear market. It’s the media the one who must give a fair representation of African fashion. The heads of public relations firms and personal stylists must try African brands and get celebrities to wear them. After the first edition of the Africa Fashion Tour, I decided to wear clothing made in Africa only and create an Instagram account to promote the brands I wear. I think that every small action can make a difference.
Photos: Homepage Iamisigo (Esmod), Peulh Vagabong, Iamisigo and Ibilola (Esmod). Ramata Diallo - Guinée Fashion Fest at Conarky’s Prima Center - December 2018/ Showroom Iamisigo-Lagos with the founder of Iamisigo and Lagos-based blogger Vanessa Azar.
This article was originally published in French by FashionUnited.fr