African Fashion Cannot Afford To Be Boxed Up!
2011 has seen African fashion gain prominence like never before, from Lagos to London to New York, African designers refuse to make a quiet entrance and the world is waking up to their presence. Dolapo Shobanjo is the co-founder of My Asho, a leading online retail outlet for African designs and designers. In our interview, she talks about why the industry cannot afford to be boxed up in one fabric!
Dolapo: There is no simple definition of African fashion. There is a big misconception that it is defined by African prints or tribal themes, but that is not necessarily so. Heritage and culture will influence for sure, and it is great to see African designers using their continent for inspiration. However, I would say think of it the same way you think of French fashion and think Parisian chic or New York fashion with its trendy, Sex & the City vibe. African fashion has its own aesthetic which is typified by the African woman who is so diverse and hard to define. Strong and Amazonian yet submissive and respectful. African fashion captures your attention. It is bold, it is colourful, it is elegant, it is international, it is art and it is interesting.
Belinda: How would you describe the current state of the global African fashion industry and do you have any idea what is it worth in monetary terms?
Dolapo: The African fashion industry is worth billions of dollars potentially. I am very sure of it. Looking at it from a supply chain perspective, we have the capacity within Africa to grow and manufacture raw materials such as cotton, design and produce clothes, and distribute them. Within Africa alone we have massive distribution prospects, and when you factor in the international markets, that number just grows even larger. Also with the huge drive for ethical fashion, we can offer a different model than China or India. We can offer Western designers production opportunities which create jobs within Africa. Look at SUNO New York – they produce out of Kenya using SOKO Kenya – a co-op involving local artisans. More initiatives like SOKO Kenya are what we need in Africa: driving global exports whilst creating fair employment for locals. If we get this right, I have no doubt that the industry could be worth billions in a short space of time.
Belinda: We seem more comfortable wearing traditional African fabrics now than in previous years, at least, that’s what the narrative insinuates in not so many words. Was there ever a time when people were ashamed to wear African designs or clothes made with African fabrics?
Dolapo: I’m sure there are some people who were and still are ashamed to wear African prints or African designs. I can’t really speak for them. I don’t know what their reasons are – maybe they’re embarrassed and don’t want people to connect them toAfrica. I don’t know. What I do know is what I saw growing up. People would comfortably wear traditional outfits, made from beautiful, rich African fabrics and not even just the prints which are so popular now. In London I’d go shopping with my mother, and she’d get stopped on the street so many times and complimented on her outfits. I don’t know why people would be ashamed. Wear it with pride I say!
Belinda: Why has African fashion become very fashionable in recent years?
Dolapo: Fashion is a reflection of the times and what’s going on in the world. There is a new appreciation for Africa and its culture especially compared to a few decades ago. Now we have pioneers like Obama who have brought attention to the continent. This has resulted in greater awareness of African culture and is observed in the fashion industry through the increased use African models, African prints and generally African inspired fashion.
Belinda: Why has African fashion become big business in recent years and what do you think changed the tide in favour of African fashion and designers, and what fundamental factors contributed to that change?
Dolapo: I had a conversation with one of our designers, who runs the brand Tiffany Amber. She had recently met with the head of the British fashion council and had some interesting insights. In the UK, there is a British Fashion Council which was only set up in 1983 to showcase British designers and develop London’s position as a major player in the international fashion arena. It is because of the British Fashion Council that there is a London Fashion Week and that designers such as Giles Deacon or Henry Holland have found the support which they need to develop and establish themselves globally. Prior to that, British designers faced similar problems to those faced by African designers today. Look how far British designers have come since that point. African designers, bloggers, photographers, stylists and magazines editors and publishers are 99.9 percent responsible for the shift in focus to African fashion. They just got tired of being ignored. You see beautiful work in Africa and then maybe you get a Marc Jacobs collection which has the same elements, and that is lauded by international press as “genius and original”. Everyone who has a stake in African fashion just got so tired of that. These designers and Afro-fashionistas work tirelessly and face so many challenges but they must be heard at all costs. There is no council to help them, no government funding or assistance. It is all their hand and their voices which shout about African fashion and it is a good thing that people are starting to listen and give credit where it is due. Yes, the industry has developed greatly in recent years, but there is still such a long road to travel. Imagine we had an African fashion council like the Brits did.
Belinda: Your website says ‘Local Fashion Made Global.’ How difficult/challenging was access to designs/clothes by African designers for a global market, which compelled you to start My Asho website?
Dolapo: It was challenging initially. Back then, most of the designers didn’t have websites or seasonal collections or even collections – just random pieces which they produced as they liked. I’d see these gorgeous clothes in pictures from weddings or events or even in magazines, but would have no idea how to contact the designers. Back then, the blogging scene wasn’t as developed so really there was no up-to-date directory for these designers. When we did eventually contact the designers, they were very reluctant. A lot of them were very sceptical, didn’t really understand the My Asho vision. They were also uncomfortable with having to produce multiples of a single style/fabric design. Africa is very couture driven and you have typically have pieces made for you exclusively in a specific print or style, so the idea of “mass production” was met with some resistance initially. Also withinAfricaitself there is, maybe an element of competition or mistrust or something, so it was also a little bit challenging to get Africans united together in one Site. I must say, there were some designers who got the concept straight away and just rolled with the idea.
Belinda: Before the website started, where there other similar initiatives to serve the same purpose or was My Asho the first on the market?
Dolapo: My Asho is the first online store dedicated to African designers from all over the world, celebrating, promoting and distributing their products globally. We are very proud of that.
Belinda: Since you started, what has the response and business been like?
Dolapo: The response has been phenomenal. It continually amazes me just how big the internet is. We literally have customers from over 100 countries. It’s amazing! The press are also great and very supportive, and we get good feedback from our customers, which helps us to improve continuously.
Belinda: Where is your biggest customer base globally?
Dolapo: Europe and USA.
Belinda: What are some of the most popular pieces/clothing that is sold on your website?
Dolapo: We produce in limited quantities so most items are pretty popular and sell out quickly. We did have this one dress that was so popular, we could not keep up with the demand. We did 3 production runs and then literally the fabric ran out. We called distributors all over the world looking for this fabric print and could not find it anywhere. It was so frustrating. We forfeited tens of thousands of dollars from that one dress.
Belinda: What role do you think African fabrics, which come in variations, from Kente, to Ankara – bold and colourful prints, which are now to Africa what denim is to the west have played in the equation of bringing African fashion to a global audience and do you think this is a temporal phase or can it stand the test of time?
Dolapo: The bold and colourful prints I suppose represent the bold and colourful nature of Africans. And there is nothing temporal about us. We definitely cannot keep using the prints in the same way for all time, but always, as with all fashion, will find ways to keep it fresh and innovative. Also, I must mention, there is so much more to African fabrics than the prints. We have other equally captivating fabrics which are produced in very interesting, traditional methods. There is the weaving and looming process used to produce aso oke, the batik process, and even tie-dye. There was even a time where inNigeriafor example, we used to produce special types of silks from locally bred silkworm. Some designers such as Kemkem Studio and Urbanknit are trying to preserve and re-introducing these techniques and fabrics and provide a new offering to the industry. There is so much scope.
Belinda: How would you describe the gap in terms of visibility between African fashion and designers in comparison to their western counterparts until the change we see now – where people are flourishing?
Dolapo: Flourishing? I don’t even think we’re at that stage yet. Yes, the African designer is more visible now, thanks mostly to the internet. However, their western counterparts still get most of the visibility and therefore the gap is just as wide as ever. If a collection with African prints by a Western designer goes on show (as we’ve seen with many AW11 collections), it’ll be featured in the Vogues of this world. However, for as many features as that collection gets, one or two African designers will get 1/1000th of exposure for a similarly good collection. Fashion is ultimately a business. You need backers, press and lots of money. A lot of African designers don’t have this. Without this, it’ll be very difficult to narrow that gap significantly.
Belinda: What do you think are some of the fundamental factors which makes/made exposure difficult for fashion designers fromAfrica, both those who live on the continent and in the diaspora?
Dolapo: African fashion designers face two main challenges. Identifying their market and raising the capital to serve that market. There is a massive market both within Africa and outside ofAfrica, to natives in the diaspora and wider world. Getting the focus and understanding the demands of each market is tough – where do you focus your attention. South African designers for example tend to stay within South Africa where they have established their bi-annual fashion weeks (in line with the Western fashion calendar but which for some obscure reason largely gets ignored by the Western fashion world). They have the retail spaces and infrastructure to service the demands of their local customers and therefore focus on that. They may be household names in SA but outside of that world, they are not known. To expand outside ofAfrica, you would be competing with the Thakoons of the world. Designers, who have backing, support from their governments and fashion funds. These things help when you try to make your brand more visible. Magazine features, celebrity endorsements, all of these give you the visibility to then gain customers and establish that foothold. However, you don’t want the visibility before you’re prepared. It’s all well and good for Beyonce or Rihanna to love your dresses, but if 100,000 people say they want to buy it and you don’t have it ready to sell and deliver, that’s poor business. So we get back to a whole different issue of production and the investments needed there. So visibility is necessary, but at a carefully measured and calculated rate.
Dolapo: We have a strong PR team that regularly invites editors, stylists and other fashion insiders to view the collections from different designers. We also provide that platform that allows customers to view and purchase pieces from designers that they couldn’t access before. We’ll try and get celebrity endorsements where we can like with Jewel by Lisa and Kelis or with Christie Brown and Michelle Williams of Destinys Child. We really try all we can to promote our designers. We have helped designers get features in Elle UK, Marie Claire Italy, Grazia UK and more.
Belinda: Can African fashion designers afford to relax now because the recognition is there or there is more work to be done?
Dolapo: Absolutely not! No time to relax. And the recognition is still not there. Sad to say, but designers such as Boxing Kitten get more visibility for what they produce than African designers who have been doing the same thing for years. The recognition is not going to the right people. African fashion designers are knocking on the doors of the magazine editors, celebrity stylists and global fashion industry and I’d say they are at the stage where they only hear the footsteps coming towards the door. The door has not been opened yet. But it’s only a matter of time. We’ll all keep knocking for them.
Belinda: There has been criticism in recent times about the proliferation and reliance on one single fabric,Ankara, in defining the fashion credence of a continent, especially when used by western designers. Has the criticism got any truth to it?
Dolapo: Defining an entire continent filled with so much by a single fabric is absurd. I don’t know why people always try to define and put things in a box. Anyone who has travelled to Africa can draw so much inspiration from the richness and warmth of the people and surroundings. Yves St Laurent didn’t use Ankara but his collections were very Africa inspired. Yes, it seems that because everyone is using and over using Ankara, that defines African fashion. I don’t agree with that at all. I personally think the Ankara craze is all just a stepping stone to bigger things. It’s actually like “Pow. Look at our prints” and as the world is looking we can start to offer other things as well. Very much like in a Moroccan market, we do it all the African way.
Image: My Asho
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