Review by Mbeke Waseme
African fashion has risen. When I attended the first African Fashion Week London (AFWL) in 2011, it was growing. It was a big event with a small market place. The stage was graced by new and established designers whose models came to showcase contemporary and traditional styles from all over Africa. For those of us who had been wearing our African clothes for many years, this was an exciting time. We saw African fashion hit the runway in its own right.
Returning to AFWL in 2019 was amazing. The event had grown exponentially and the market place now spanned three floors of the Freemasons Hall in central London. High-end designers of clothes, shoes, hats and jewellery were beautifully displayed and selling to customers who had travelled from within Europe to attend this event.
There were many great designs on the catwalk. Diane Carlton, Bwana Willy and Becca Apparel definitely caught my attention. The contemporary African pantsuits, patchwork designs, formal and evening wear in mixed fabrics were all a pleasure to see. There was a fabulous increase in the number of females modelling in a range of natural hairstyles. I absolutely adored @xOtaraOx in her matching hat and neck piece and all of the other women who showed us how hats can completely change an outfit. No doubt some of these will show up at Ascot in 2020!
As I basked in the glory that is indeed Africa, the colours, the ENERGY, the music, the food, and the creativity, a bigger question was begging to be answered. The question in 2019 is: What do we now mean by African Fashion? Does it sound too obvious or simple? Does African fashion mean a) clothes made of cloth or items from the continent of Africa ie, Kente cloth shirts (b) clothes designed by those born in Africa or from the African diaspora using any cloth (c)Designs which celebrate and mimic traditional African material or designs (ie Ankara, Ashoke, Kente) or all of the above?
Is this question important? It is when most of the cloth sold in Ghana, has been produced in China. We have high street stores in the UK who regularly feature ‘tribal’ and ‘ethnic’ designs which we know have been directly copied from African prints. There are cries when European designers sell African ‘inspired’ dresses for over thousands of pounds .
The question is important if African people are to rightly benefit from the African fashion industry. There needs to be some agreement as to how we do this on a global scale. How we define African fashion, who controls the industry and how is it sustained?
Telecia Kirkland is the Creative Director of the Costume Institute of the African diaspora. In leading the discussion on sustainable African fashion, some of the questions were raised. Kirkland wants designers to look at using materials and production systems that are sustainable. Questions around capitalism were explored. Kirkland did not want to get started on ‘Capitalism’ but, as the compere stated, there may be ways in which capitalism can work for us!
Indeed speakers at the Business of Fashion Forum, Jeanette Bain-Burnette, Asst Director for Communities & Social Policy at The Mayor of London’s Office and Simone Cipriani , Creator of the Ethical Fashion Initiative explained how their programmes to support small businesses in London or communities in Africa are ensuring that the right groups of people have access to their funds.
A number of the Patrons of AFWL are very wealthy African Queens and Princesses. Her Royal Highness Queen Diambi of Kasia Kingdom of the Republic of Congo – Her Excellency Erelu Bisi Fayemi, First Lady of Ekiti State. Her Excellency Mrs. Olufolake AbdulRazaq, First Lady of Kwara State. This business of African Fashion is sitting firmly in the hands of the African woman.
I love African fashion and as it continues to grow, I want to see the financial benefits of the industry invested in African communities, education, and training that will empower the new designers and artists who need support to birth their work.
For more about African Fashion Week London 2019 visit: https://www.africafashionweeklondonuk.com/
© Mbeke Waseme