Top 10 African Designers
‘Africa is making waves’ sounds like a cliché expression to make, but in these turbulent social times, some African designers are adding inspirational zest to the creative industries worldwide. The Director, Adriaan Louw, of Major Lazer’s new video Africa is The Future says it best himself: “After the adventure that was this four-video series — shot in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal last year — I decided to cut these videos together into a single piece that I feel captures the energy in Africa right now. This film is a celebration of Africa as a continent and of what the future holds for it creatively and spiritually. I hope this film gets more people excited to visit the warmest place in the world.”
The tide is shifting — by 2035, the fastest growing cities globally will be African and the rise of the middle class and its enduring millennial population makes the continent a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. So much so that for the first time, media giant Condé Nast held its International Luxury Conference in Cape Town. Supermodel Naomi Campbell declared that Africa shouldn’t be seen as a trend, as it has the potential to leapfrog into a long term power house especially in the domains of sustainable fashion. Many initiatives are taking place to place fashion as a driver for socio-economic change especially for the plight of women, where artisans’ human touch are needed to upkeep luxury’s traditional dominance over craftsmanship.
In this light, who are the designers dominating Africa’s fashion scene and are set to conquer the world with their vision? Vie d’Artist presents the top 10 of the moment!
1. ORANGE CULTURE — NIGERIA
i-D’s interview with Adebayo Oke-Lawal reveals that the founder’s aim for creating the Orange Culture label in 2011 was to provide a platform to voice his frustrations with the hyper-masculine prescribed identities that surrounded him in Lagos. The brand’s androgynous style and willingness to push boundaries led to the 2014 LVMH Prize and a London Fashion Week Men’s collection. Being honest about his feelings allows Adebayo to create collections imbued in authenticity and this has an impact towards stirring social issues and conversations further. Wanting to make Nigerian men understand how they feel and think about the way they mentally and emotionally process clothes is his ultimate aim. Because of his own insecurities of growing up not feeling ‘man enough’, he finds it important to address men’s fears surrounding vulnerability and willingness to emote. He’s doing a pretty good job though, whilst it took years for Nigerian men to buy into the brand for fear of coming off a ‘certain’ way, Adebayo legitimate international presence persuaded Nigerians to get behind his unisex collections.
Shop Orange Culture here
2. IMANE AYISSI — CAMEROON
British Vogue’s 2020 highlight is Cameroonian born and now Paris-based designer Imane Ayissi, who was invited as the first African ‘couturier’ to join the ‘Haute Couture’ Calendar for Paris Fashion Week. After relocating to Paris to model and dance, he launched his namesake line in 2004 to create clothes for private clients and then went on to showcase his collection at Lagos, Dakar and Shanghai fashion weeks. Sold in Parisian and New-York based showrooms, as well as Lago’s premiere concept store Alára, Imane Ayissi’s invitation to the 2020 Spring/Summer Haute Couture week is poignant. Turning away from the clichéd wax fabric, Imane wants to expose the wonders hailing from various regions: “Africa isn’t a country, it’s a continent! We deserve better than these simplistic clichés, which saddens me. It’s now my mission to show how hugely diverse our cultures are: in Cameroon alone we have over 200 dialects; there is a profound complexity that I want to celebrate.” Revisiting traditional textiles such as Ghana’s kente, Madagascar’s raffia, obom, Mali’s bogolanfini and Cameroon’s ndop, allows his haute couture collection to represent Africa in a new light, so much so that actress Zendaya has taken a strong liking to his dresses for red carpet events.
3. CHULAAP — SOUTH AFRICA
Following the zeitgeist of 2019’s Yeehaw Agenda, Chulaap’s SS20 collection is an ode to the Sotho culture of Lesotho and South Africa with the traditional layering technique in design and the horseback riding references with the cowboy hat. Of Thai origin, Chu Suwannapha adopted South Africa as his home when he fell in love with Cape Town. The mix between the vibrant cultures, rich art scene and the city’s rawness keeps him “hooked”. Whilst his clothes are clearly inspired by African style, it never gives into clichés. Dubbed the ‘prince of print’ for his use of vibrant prints and colors layered on top of each other, he wants to celebrate Cape Town’s street style in a unisex collection, as the boxiness of the clothes blur the gendered forms. Working with existing African prints such as batik, ombre, tie-dye, animal or checks allows Suwannapha’s collection to stand out: after winning the Best Menswear Collection Award at the Durban Fashion Fair, Vogue Italia is creating a retrospective of his work, which would allow him to launch point of sales globally across the US, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Paris, Berlin and Milan.
4. TONGORO — SENEGAL
Sarah Diouf’s label is soaring no less thanks to Beyoncé’s recurring appreciation for the brand, as she was seen several times wearing Tongoro’s designs, whether on vacation or on duty for the Global Citizen’s Mandela 100 concert. The line’s e-commerce business launched in 2016 to harness the power of the Internet’s global audience and to not be at the mercy of fashion buyers. Whilst each piece of clothing is made in the ateliers of Dakar, to foster a new dynamic for Africa-based manufacturing and develop artisanal workers in the region, 68% of the sales comes straight from America. Graduate from the Paris’ INSEEC Business School, Sarah admired African designers that positioned themselves as luxury, but felt that there was a need for a more affordable price point, as the market isn’t fully established. Many of her stylish designs cost around 100 to 300 euros and with a partnership with DHL under her belt, she is able to ship worldwide in five business days, thus solving “a problem in terms of accessibility when it comes to African fashion”.
5. AFRIKANISTA — FRANCE/WEST AFRICA
Aissa N’Diaye is on the up, as Beyoncé was seen wearing her tee-shirts with Kelly Rowland on a recent trip to Johannesburg for the Nelson Mandela tribute concert. Channeling her West African background into her Parisian label has worked so far for the designer who is set on conquering the States, where sales have quadrupled since Beyonce’s style shot. Her tee-shirts stand out with old African proverbs and diverted French mottos such as ‘Liberté, Egalité, Affaires de Papiers’. Mauritanian in origin, Aissa wants to showcase the richness of her double culture and fight against perceived ideas that plague black immigrants in France. The exhibition ‘So Wax’ at the famous Parisian concept store Merci and the pop-up for ‘Africa Now’ at the Galerie Lafayette proved to be a lucrative way to promote her collection, which has enjoyed notoriety. Feeling the need to explore her heritage, she dives into her family albums from the 70s, which opens her up to the world of photography by Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keita Seydou Keïta. Through these vintage photos, the designer crafts the identity of her brand Afrikanista around this as a starting point.
6. MMUSOMAXWELL — SOUTH AFRICA
Mmuso and Maxwell, both fashion graduates, planned on launching a separate brand, but fate brought them together on a fashion TV show — think South Africa’s version of Project Runway- where they ultimately won and secured a place in the nation’s Fashion Week. Realising their shared interests and ideas, they decided to come together to create Mmuso Maxwell, a modern sustainable label. After winning the Sunglass Hut New Talent Search in Sandton City, they exchanged their London Fashion Week trip for machinery that would benefit their company in the long run and used the prize money to do their first stand-alone collection for SS18. After getting in touch with Beyoncé’s stylist, Zerina Akers, once they knew of her visit to South Africa, they made specific pieces for her to wear — which brought greater recognition. Finally, their capsule collection with ‘The Style’ by S.A. Woolworth was a great learning curve to get a handle on the financial and production side of things — however, it’s still challenging to sell their products to locals. Instagram has increased their visibility to a wider audience, and whilst being stocked by The Folklore in the U.S, they would still like to have more stockists locally around the African continent.
7. BENI ORIGINAL — SENEGAL
Daquisiline Gomis is the founder of the label, ‘Beni’, meaning blessed in French, which he created as an ode to his father who made it a point to suit up for work despite his humble job as a mechanic in Senegal during the 70s. Wearing a costume for Daquisiline’s father was a “show of strength, an expression of elegance” regardless of the difficulties faced. His SS20 collection is a representation of West African businessmen who came to France in the 70s to make a new life for themselves. The suits are made in an eco-responsible manner using fabric remains from luxury houses and a sustainable production model in Senegal is being set up to use linen and hemp dyed with by-products from avocado skins, turmeric etc. Many young people in his home community feel crushed by the system and lack confidence, and he hopes to revive the area with some work from his practice : “clothes can’t necessarily change the world, but they can represent hope, I like to think of each suit as a small benediction.”
8. KENNETH IZE — NIGERIA
KENNETH IZE focuses on reinterpreting examples of Nigerian craft to create an original perspective on luxury production within textile and fashion. Supporting a small community of weavers, and working directly with a variety of artisan and design groups across Nigeria, enables the label to merge a new design aesthetic with a specifically local handcraft practice. Winner of 2019’s LVMH Prize, the ethical luxury menswear brand is only on the up. After completing his degrees in Vienna, Ize understood that the fashion industry needed something different: “it needs people to be very real about their work, to learn not to waste things and to make products with value.” Post grad, he returned to Lagos to set up a production unit with three female weevers, which formed the basis of his designs. For him, luxury is something that is made carefully: most of his fabrics take three days to make and because it’s not mass produced, it has a careful and personal identity. “I believe that in 20 years, the pieces will last and will still be desirable and can be worn still, or passed on. Luxury to me is the sustainability of the craft, the lasting value in clothes.” says Kenneth Ize and that’s why he believes that the African fashion industry is rising due to personal stories that are uniquely narrated around diversity of culture through the craftsmanship and handmade techniques.
9. LAFALAISE DION — IVORY COAST
Lafalaise Dion is a journalist from Abidjan who currently works at ELLE Magazine Ivory Coast. As a hobby she works with cowrie shells, tiny mollusks that were popular forms of currency historically. One of her biggest achievements in 2019 was having her jewelry and headpieces such as the ‘Lagbaja’ featured in Beyoncé’s music video ‘Spirit’ for the Lion King. She is particularly proud of this as the cowrie shell reconciles her to African spirituality: “Every single one of my creations is a message sent to my people. I ask my fellow Africans to accept, to carry their inheritance, to stop demonising their heritage or to be afraid of it, as these are ancestral practices that should be embraced.” After sourcing these shells in local markets, it takes Lafalaise two to four days to handcraft her pieces — which also includes body wear. Shop the pieces at Wervenice in Los Angelos or Afrikea.
10. KENTE GENTLEMEN — IVORY COAST
Aristide Loua launched Kente Gentlemen in 2017 after falling in love with the traditional material, kente. After having lived in the Ivory Coast, United States and India, Loua wants to merge all his findings from his travels into his fashion brand. Comprised of homegrown fabrics, Kente Gentlemen comes to life by the various hand-weavers, tailors, artisans and vendors that Loua employs. His collections are also strong in color — each color represents a particular emotion — for him “when you have the means or the luxury to wear exactly what you are and what you want in your life, your clothes become the reflection, the outlet of your being, of your personality, of your style, of your dreams, and most certainly of your emotions.”