When Michelle Obama and Beyonce Knowles attended high-profile events in clothes made by African designers, it was a sure sign that the continent’s vibrant style has arrived on the world stage.
The showcasing of clothes from home-grown African designers in stores in New York, London and Tokyo is a sign of a broader change of attitude towards a continent which is earning a brighter reputation beyond stories of war and disease.
It has proven difficult for Africa’s home grown designers to break into the mainstream fashion market because the perception has often been that products from the world’s poorest continent are of low quality or just not cool. Global fashion designers like Yves Saint Laurent took inspiration from Africa decades ago and more recently brands like Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior have embraced the continent’s style and broadened its appeal. But consumers now want products made by Africans, not replicas produced by Western clothing chains, according to Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, who owns Ethiopian shoe company, soleRebels, which has a dozen stores from Singapore to Greece.
“The global consumer today is hyper-aware. They want authentic and innovative ideas delivered from the authors of those ideas,” Bethlehem said. “We have always had incredible design and production talent here, but it was invisible. That is changing.”
In 2010, the first annual New York African Fashion Week gave home-grown designers the chance to showcase their work on the world stage. Global celebrities have endorsed African designers including Nigerian label Maki-Oh, Ghana’s Osei-Duro and South Africa-based retailer Kisua.com.
Nigerian lawyer-turned-designer Duro Olowu has become a well-known name in fashion circles and has a collection at U.S. department store J.C. Penney and his own boutique store in central London.
“It was a good thing to see international designers putting African fashion on the map,” said Ghanaian entrepreneur Samuel Mensah, who quit his job as a fund manager to launch online clothes retailer Kisua.com. “Now we’re starting to see Africa taking ownership of its own cultural assets. African designers are being noticed. They are stocked in international stores.”
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