Designers are launching the style revolution in Africa | Fashion
gRowing in Ghana, impossible not to find yourself immersed in fashion. An endless flow of colors and fabrics is a constant presence; there is a palpable affinity for design and style. Every day on my way to primary school in Cape Coast, I strolled through the town market, it was like strolling through the most beautiful textile museum in the world. There were the shops and the stalls, yes, but also the living exhibits: the elegant women working their stalls in kaba and the wide-eyed customers browsing the latest prints and photo catalogs for inspiration on what had to be worn for an upcoming event or church. service on Sunday. These sensory memories stay with you.
After graduating from university in economics and statistics in 2006, I returned to these experiences, tinkering with screen-printed t-shirts, before moving on to embroidery. Almost a decade later, I yearned for a more challenging career and moved to South Africa to study fashion design. Unbeknownst to me, I had enrolled in a fashion merchandising program, which would later lead to a master’s degree in fashion design. Perhaps stimulated by my background in economics, I found the unintended route piqued my interest in the global fashion supply chain. I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to immerse myself in the rich tapestry of African fashion and support the next wave of designers to impact their respective economies, rather than just making my own clothes.
The way young people design and dress here is constantly changing. It is part of a broader reinvention at the intersection of culture and history, which sees Africans questioning their identity. My full name is Kenneth Kweku Nimo. I stick with Ken because it’s easier to pronounce for people outside of my culture. If I had my way, I’d just be Kweku Nimo. Increasingly, young Ghanaians are abandoning the Christian names once imposed on their parents and grandparents under colonial rule and adopting the traditional names of their community and cultures. You can’t help but wonder what was lost when Africa was subjugated to imperialism. This is why this new generation is also changing the way they think about what they wear and how they are made.
This intersection of identity, colonialism and fashion in Africa is nothing new. My town of Cape Coast was a key location in the transatlantic slave trade. The colonialists not only violently exported Africans, they brought with them clothing, textiles and luxury items. Traces of these imports are still visible in the way we dress today.
When the missionaries arrived, the women who registered for Christianity were greeted by white European women, who taught them sewing and dressmaking. After the end of colonial rule, cultural activism has been a key element in the reconstruction of Africa. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of an independent Ghana, proclaimed the birth of a new African not in costume, as one might expect, but in fugu, the traditional blouse. Nkrumah’s ideology of freedom transcended being free from colonial rule to encompass claiming an African identity.
Nkrumah’s impeccable style and mastery of fashion semiotics were unmatched, as he aptly embraced indigenous styles of dress in a repertoire of diplomatic gestures. Watch how Nkrumah wore a special kente fabric synonymous with forgiveness when he danced with Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, at the presidential grand ball. He also boosted the fashion industry through import substitution policies and sponsored Ghana’s first professional designer, Chez Julie, to study in Paris. In the 1990s, pioneering Ghanaian designer Kofi Ansah brought modern African style onto the world stage. Fashion has become the catalyst for a new identity in a continent too long subjected to centuries of European acculturation.
Today’s New Cohort of designers goes one step further – not only challenging Western forms of dress, but seeking out and breathing new life into lost aesthetics, craftsmanship and processes. Social media and pop culture are key enablers of this phenomenon. Instagram accounts featuring restored photographs of models from old movies evoke a nostalgic past, but also serve as inspiration for contemporary designers.
Under colonial rule, Africans were denied access to their own resources and restricted in their freedom to cultivate businesses. Imported European textiles were favored by the authorities, to the benefit of their national economies, which saw the systematic dismantling of the infrastructures that existed before. Through research, innovation and a relentless pursuit of excellence, contemporary designers are defying all odds to overcome the historic challenges that have plagued the textile and apparel supply chain since colonization.
The vanguard of contemporary African designers is moving away from the cliché of African prints to embrace and enhance indigenous textiles. From the end of the 18th century, an influx of imitation prints arrived from Europe and quickly became desirable. But these were actually not African but from places like Manchester and the Netherlands. Now there is skepticism about these materials, with designers critical of their origins. These may have been the clothes of their grandparents, but the new generation is looking further back, opting for locally woven textiles for their collections. And, rather than replicating what happens in the West, we value our own local market. We produce for our own context, while proudly exporting designs to a global audience. Atelier mood-boards are no longer composed of photos from fashion week shows in Paris and London. Instead, African images serve as inspiration and references, whether for tailoring or more accessible everyday attire.
There’s Nigerian designer Tokyo James applying a flawless Savile Row cut on aso-oke fabric. Kente Gentleman from Ivory Coast makes exquisite modern suits from handwoven kente fabric. Cape Town-based Lukhanyo Mdingi, who won the coveted Karl Lagerfeld Award at the 2021 LVMH Prize, champions indigenous materials and fashion production. Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi is world famous for his dexterity with textiles, such as akwete, faso dan fani and kente, while South African brand Maxhosa Africa explores the colorful traditions of beadwork and painting by hand of the isiXhosa. Across the continent, we see designers constantly collaborating with producers to support local industries and historic processes. The results are nothing less than modern, high fashion designs that also demonstrate a genuine respect for our cultural heritage.
As told to Michael Segalov
Africa in Fashion: Luxury, Craft and Textile Heritage by Ken Kweku Nimo is published by Quercus on May 5 at £30