The African agenda is popular today more than ever. But we know so little about this multinational hot continent, including the development of the local fashion industry. At the exhibition "African Fashion" in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), I got acquainted with the creations of not only honoured African couturiers of the last century, but also admired the bright and, in our European opinion, exotic outfits of modern designers.
Modern African creatives are changing the geography of world fashion. The exhibition begins with the era of African independence, from the 1950s to the 1990s, when fashion, music and visual arts sought to express the independence and pride of the inhabitants of the continent. African fashion has for too long been ignored or put into a stereotypical box. The new leaders of the newly independent countries believed that arts and culture were central to defining Africa's role on the world stage. African countries presented their dynamism, modernity and cosmopolitanism to the world.
Aso-oke and kente are ancient textile types created by sewing together narrow strips. Weaves, patterns, and colours often have a special meaning and may provide information about gender or marital status. Textiles with this pattern are often worn at important occasions.
Textile manufacturing has had an extensive and illustrious history in Africa before and during colonial rule. Post-independence, many new governments looked at reinvigorating textile manufacture to stimulate trade and boost economic prosperity. They actively encouraged the wearing of locally produced cloths and invested in local textile mills.
Women in East Africa often wear a kanga, a colorful piece of clothing similar to the sarong.
On the first floor of the exhibition, African fashion of the 20th century was presented: the work of the first generation of African designers, most of whom are little known outside the continent.
Naima Bennis - a woman of independence. Born in Casablanca in 1940, she was one of several pioneering Moroccan women who, filled with the spirit of independence, was determined to build a business in fashion. She established her first boutique in 1966 in the recently opened Hilton Hotel in Rabat, Morocco, and later opened three more boutiques selling clothes, jewellery, and perfume. Bennis catered to the international jet-set clientele of the hotel as well as local customers. Her atelier was just behind the shop, where she worked with a team of craftspeople to realise her designs.
Elegant evening cloaks were one of her signature creations. She combined multiple design traditions, mixing Moroccan and European aesthetics, old and new. She often paired Moroccan silhouettes with French couture fabrics for lightweight, contemporary styles perfect for women in the city.
Kofi Ansan - the "enfant terrible" of Ghanaian fashion. He propelled Ghana onto the global fashion stage. He first made the headlines upon his graduation from London's Chelsea School of Art when he created a beaded top for Anne, Princess Royal. He started his own brand in 1981, after spending time working for prominent London designers. Having established himself in the European fashion scene, Ansah returned to Ghana in 1992 to form Artdress, his design and creative concept company. The designer launched his first Blue Zone collection in 1988 with a show at the Dorchester Hotel, London, organised by the Ivory Coast Embassy. At the show, everything was presented in in the collection's signature patterned denim.
Ansah often designed evening wear: elegant and playful at the same time. He combined the historical kente fabric with other fabrics such as lace.
Jumpsuit and jacket, 1987. Dress made with kente and synthetic lace, 1996.
Alphadi - "the magician of the desert". Born in Timbuktu, Mali, Alphadi sees fashion as a vehicle for unity and prosperity. He studied at the Atelier Chardon Savard, Paris. With global ambition, he has opened boutiques all over the world, including in Casablanca, New York, Accra, and locations in Martinique and Spain.
In 1998, Alphadi founded the International Festival of African Fashion, supported by UNESCO. The first event, hosted in the Tiguidit desert in Niger, included designers such as Chris Seydou, Pathe'O, Oumou Sy, Yves Saint Laurent and Kenzo. Over 5000 people from more than 52 countries flew to the desert to witness Alphadi's fashion and culture extravaganza.
"It was important for me to show the beauty of the African continent... [to] show the diversity of our cultures and the strong history of each of them. I want to be able to represent them all but it will take a couple of lives. One continent, 54 countries. Every African has a different story to tell." (c) Alphadi, 2021.
Alphadi fashion show, Niger, 1992/3. Bustier and skirt, 1993.
Dress, 1998, which Alphadi created as an homage to Tuareg jewellers and their historic metalwork practices. Skirt suit, 1993. On the jacket, the fashion designer uses a strip of Tera-Tera cloth, which historically covered brides on their wedding day. He references this history, creating a design to represent a strong woman, fully independent and dynamic, pursuing her dreams.
Shade Thomas-Fahm - Nigeria's first fashion designer. She studied fashion at St Martin's School of Art (now Central Saint Martins) in London, having originally moved to England in 1953 to train as a nurse. She returned home to Lagos in 1960, the year of Nigeria's independence, and quickly established her own boutique, Maison Shade. Championing Nigerian fabrics and silhouettes, she designed for the cosmopolitan, working woman. Her boutique swiftly became the go-to place for stylish people in Lagos and she counted diplomats and royalty among her regular customers.
Dress and hat, 1977. A loyal customer of Maison Shade, Lalage Bown, a professor at Ibadan University in Nigeria, bought this dress to wear to receive her OBE at Buckingham Palace. Open robe made from okene cloth, 1970s
Chris Seydou - a bridge between cultures. He loved fashion from an early age and learnt his trade from his mother, a seamstress in Kati, Mali. After completing a tailoring apprenticeship, he opened his first boutique in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in 1967. A life-long fan of French fashion, he moved to Paris in the early 1970s where he worked for almost twenty years, first at French fashion houses, then at his own studio. Seydou was a pioneer in promoting African fashions on a global stage. His work attracted an international clientele and he routinely travelled between Paris, Bamako and Abidjan, eventually returning to Bamako, Mali in 1990.
Skirt suit and trouser suit, 1992. Seydou brought bogolanfini, a traditional cotton or wool cloth, dyed with fermented mud, to the runway.
Family photo albums.
African models, 1960s.
On the second floor of the exhibition, outfits and accessories created by contemporary African designers are presented. Today, African fashion creators are leading the way in modern cutting-edge fashion. They are charting their own course, pushing boundaries and challenging assumptions about who and what Africans and African fashion are.
Moshions (Moses Turahirwa). Based Rwanda, the designer often pays tribute to ceremonial attire historically worn by the country's royalty. Top and trousers, Intsinzi collection, spring/summer 2018. 'Intwari' cardigan, top, trousers and belt. Inkingi collection, spring/summer, 2020. Rwanda.
Mmusomaxwell (Maxwell Boko and Mmuso Potsane) is known for its tailored, minimalist design aimed at cosmopolitan working women. These ensembles come from the Imbokodo collection, where they explore power dressing and the power suit as a tool for female empowerment.
Dress and trousers; top and skirt. Imbokodo collection, spring/summer 2021. South Africa.
Doreen Mashika. Khanga is at the heart of designer's work, wrapped in a traditional style or tailored into a flowing dress. The Mikono collection inspired by the clothes of the women of Paje, on the south-east coast of Zanzibar.
'Amani' dress, bodice and khanga. Spring/summer 2020. Tanzania.
Lisa Folawiyo. For Folawiyo, mixing contrasting patterns and colours is an integral part of her design process, present in every ensemble. Ankara (print cloth) is the starting point, and an important part of her heritage.
'Jossa' top and trousers; 'Irin' dress; 'Classic' robe, leggins and bra top. Spring/summer 2021. Nigeria.
IAMISIGO (Bubu Ogisi). Every IAMISIGO collection is a deep dive into ancient material techniques from Congolese raffia to Kenyan handwoven cotton. The designer centred the Chasing Evil collection around the exploitation of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the exploitation of Africa as a whole.
Dress, veil and slippers. Gods of the Wilderness collection. Spring/summer, 2019. Nigeria.
Jacket, dress and shoes. Chasing Evil collection. Autumn/winter 2020. Kenya.
Nao Serati (Neo Serati Mofammere). His designs reflect his sense of joy and hopefulness for a brighter future. The two colours, pink and blue, feminine and musculine, blend together in a celebration of gender fluidity and self-love. Jacket, trousers, sjirt, tie, hat and shoes. 2020. South Africa.
Sindiso Khumalo. The suit below was inspired by African American abolitionist Hariet Tubman (1822-1913), who helped enslaved people make a break for freedom. The 'Zulu Princess' print on the 'Miss Celie' dress is a more personal reflection. The print shoes Khumalo's mother wearing an Inkehli, a traditional Zulu headdress, on her daughter's wedding day.
'Miss Celie' dress and bonnet, spring/summer, 2020. 'North Star' suit, autumn/winter, 2021. South Africa.
Christie Brown (Aisha Ayensu). In designer’s collections there are symbols of femininity - soft fabrics, nipped in waists, full of tight skirts.
Top, skirt and bonnet. Conscience collection, spring/summer, 2018. Dress. She is King collection, autumn/winter, 2019. Ghana.
'Irene' dress, inspired by the bathing dresses of times past, 2021. Nigeria. Designer: Torlowei (Patience Torlowei).
'Jama' jumpsuit, 2021. Senegal. Designer: Tongoro (Sarah Diouf).
NKWO (Nkwo Onwuka). NKWO works with small-scale artisan makers across the African continent that specialise in hand crafts like dyeing, weaving, beading and embroidery. The designer explores ways of using waste materials in her designs while still preserving traditional textile craft skills.
'Namod' dress and shoes. Be us, be them collection, spring/summer, 2020. Jacket, skirt, bra, gele and shoes. Who knew collection, spring/summer, 2019. Nigeria.
Imane Ayissi. The designer is working within the French couture system shows the skill and refinement of African fashions, challenging stereotypes that they cannot be luxurious. Here he has woven together silk and hemp, embellished with painted obom (bark cloth), spealing to global exchange in the fashion world. Dress. Akouma collection, spring/summer, 2020. Paris, France.
Carol Achieng and Joice Makokha Simiyu. Dress and head tie, 2021. Kenya.
African artists, from musicians to actors, often consciously represent the continent's fashion, spreading it across the globe.
Dress, jumpsuit, xibelani skirt. The set was worn by Sho Majosi during the Global Citizen festival, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2018. Designer: ODI - Onder Die Invloe. Coat, jacket, shirt, trousers. The suit was worn by Burna Boy at the 2020 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Designer: Tokyo James.
Engagement ensembles for a traditional Ghanaian engagement ceremony. They were worn by explorer and entrepreneur Lady Ashley Shaw-Scott Adjay and architect Sir David Adjay at Westminster Abbey in London, 2014.