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December 12, 2017
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Jewel By Lisa, S/S 2012 Collection (Source: JewelByLisa.com.ng).

It's always exciting to observe the birth and solidification of a new movement in the world of fashion. One such trend is the rapid ascent of new African fashion. Ever since Yves Saint Laurent's 1967 S/S Africa-inspired collection, designers all over the world have been using influences from the continent. But now, a new group of African designers is emerging. They're cranking up the colour, thinking ethics and environmental soundness, and turning to traditional techniques, textiles and patterns that many in the West have never experienced before. 

Traditionally, African-inspired design meant animal prints and beads; the fashion industry preferred somewhat condescending characterisations. "Africa has always been used as a reference point, but not as a valued source of serious fashion," says Duro Olowu, a London-based, Nigerian-born designer. 

A new wave of designers has set out to prove to the world that Africa is so much more than a leopard print.

A new wave of designers has set out to prove to the world that Africa is so much more than a leopard print. Designer Mimi Plange was born in Ghana and raised in San Francisco, where she launched her clothing line, Boudoir D’Huîtres, in 2007. Plange says she wants to prove to people that African fashion can't be pigeon-holed. In her work, she rarely uses traditional prints and textiles, opting for more social commentary in her approach. With her F/W 2011 collection, she re-launched Boudoir D’Huîtres under her own name. The collection features stitched bustiers pieces that mimic the ancient practice of scarification (considered to be adornments in some parts of Africa, but as taboo in others). Through the use of linear patterns, embellishments and pleating, she translates body-scarring into something beautiful, while not alienating design in the process. 

Nigerian-born Buki Agbabiaka grew up not far from Fela Anikulapo-Kuti's nightclub, The Shrine, the birthplace of afrobeat. Kuti's activism and music captured the hearts and minds of many. Recently, the late-musician was a muse to Agbabiaka's debut menswear collection at London's Central Saint Martins. Agbabiaka initially wanted to study illustration, but a stint at a British knitwear house changed her mind. A little later, upon visiting a weaving factory in Nigeria, she knew exactly what she wanted to pursue. Her label, Buki Akib, explodes with intoxicating colours and patterns, but it's the fabrics that make her clothes truly unique: a mixture of ankara (stranded colour knitting), aso oke (loomed cloth woven by the Yoruba people of Nigeria), batik print (traditional fabric printing and dyeing) and knit. While not all of the colourful designs and quirky shapes are suitable for the everyday, there is no question of collection's craftsmanship and artistic value. 

Buki Akib F/W 2010
(Photograph: Milly Kelner;
Source: Paper Mag).

Then there is Duro Olowu, who is celebrated for his kaleidoscope of whimsical and clashing vintage-inspired prints. Having worked in fashion since the '90s, he launched his first womenswear collection in 2004. The famous "Duro Dress" (silk caftan) was equally embraced by Barneys New York and Vogue editors. In 2005, Olowu was named New Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards. His work is favoured by Iman, Iris Apfel and Michelle Obama among others, and his recent collections present African roots with an international sensibility. Olowu states that his F/W 2012 collection was curated from favourite fabrics, personal history and travels - a truly global mix of experiences for today's international woman.

Recently, the African aesthetic - beyond the animal print - has been steadily popping up among Western designers. Take SUNO and Edun, for example. In 2008, Max Osterweis and Erin Beatty launched SUNO, a New York-based womenswear brand. Osterweis had been collecting vintage Kenyan textiles for years, and he used them as the basis of the first collection, which was produced predominantly in Kenya. Today, production also takes places in Peru, India and New York and includes a combination of traditional, local techniques with high-end tailoring. SUNO was first represented by Opening Ceremony and a few other boutiques, but it it can now be found in more than 60 retailers worldwide, including Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue. With an emphasis on fit and fabric, SUNO strives to "maintain the optimistic, fresh, and slightly haunting point of view" across all lines. 

Duro Olowu (Photograph: John
Paul Pietrus; Source: Paper Mag).

Founded in 2005 - and now backed by LVMH - Edun is an ethical clothing brand that encourages trade with Africa. Designer Sharon Wauchob (who trained at Central Saint Martins and worked for Louis Vuitton before launching her own label) takes her inspiration, as well as artisanal techniques, from Africa. For the S/S 2012 collection, Wauchob enlisted a group of Kenyan artisan nuns to produce crochet dresses and shorts for the collection. Particularly interesting is the use of indigo dye, for which Wauchob partnered with Malian artist, Aboubakar Foufana, who works with the hue. Artisans in Foufana's workshop hand-dye the fabric using pigment from a plant native to Mali. Notably, the colour indigo means great devotion, wisdom, justice and impartiality, which is perhaps one of the messages of Edun's S/S 2012 collection.

The work of emerging African designers is becoming better documented now. In the fall of 2011, Helen Jennings, editor of ARISE magazine - a large format quarterly dedicated to global African culture - published her book, New African Fashion. In her interview for AnOther Magazine, Jennings says that she was compelled to write the book because there was no tome on the subject, but "there seemed…a huge thirst and need for one." In her book, Jennings thoroughly explores the history of African fashion and its evolution into a flourishing trade. She captures its muses, models and a group of African designers who are making, or are about to make, a splash by offering their own interpretation of their culture. New African Fashion is an invaluable source.

Some of the designers featured in the book include Jewel By Lisa, Maki Oh and Blackcoffee. Nigeria's Jewel By Lisa combines craftsmanship with eye-popping designs and ankara fabric. She was the first to embellish this traditional fabric with Swarowski crystals, beads, sequins etc. Each garment takes an average of 120 hours to make!

Maki Oh F/W 2011 (Source: Maki-oh.com).

Amaka Osakwe of Maki Oh is turning heads with her take on modern female sensuality. Each of her collections include indigenous features and traditional adire fabrics, which she turns into a beautiful contemporary material. Maki Oh rejects ankara, claiming that it is not originally African (it used to be referred to as Dutch Wax from Holland; Nigeria became an insatiable market for it), focusing on more traditional motifs. In the words of Osakwe, "the Maki Oh woman is a multi-faceted being with a strong sense of identity."

All about form and functionality, Jacques van der Watt, founder of Black Coffeestudied Japanese and English pattern-cutting techniques before launching his highly conceptual label in 1998. Jennings states that, for over a decade, his label has helped forge a contemporary identity for South African fashion. In his own words, "my designs happen very organically, but my aim is always to dress the creative, adventurous woman."

And the list goes on... African designers are not only offering a unique interpretation of their continent, but also, in many cases, are consciously supporting Africa's economy by enlisting local artisans, factories and workers to make their garments. Because many of the traditional processes date back dozens of years, they're more environmentally sound than some contemporary techniques. Engaging in more trade with Africa leads to economic improvements in the region, which, in turn, can help raise the standard of living. African designers are not only promoting, but actively participating in the advancement of the continent. We can expect the "Dark Continent" to bask in the spotlight for a considerable time to come. 

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