Q&A: Helen Jennings on the rise of African fashion
Africa has always provided inspiration for Western fashion but it is only in the last decade, as a result of the growing stability and economies of the region, that African fashion design is becoming recognised for its own formidable merits. Poor infrastructure and lack of support means there are still enormous challenges for designers (how would our British talent cope with only a few hours electricity a day) but they’re getting there. In 2011, responding to this growing interest, journalist and editor - and former editor of the award-winning magazine Arise - Helen Jennings wrote a book called New African Fashion, published by Prestel. I spoke to her about a vibrant, defiant, exciting area of global design.
Bel: How did your interest in African fashion come about? Helen: As a fashion/lifestyle journalist, I’ve always liked writing about things that aren’t on my doorstep, that aren’t what everyone else is writing about. Season after season at Fashion Week, people tend to get excited about the same things. My career has always been as much lifestyle and music as it has been about fashion and I’m always trying to introduce Western audiences to other things going on around the world. I find it exciting talking about something that’s emerging and needs support and publicity. In terms of Africa, it stemmed from editing Arise. The first issue was really well received. It opened up a whole new world to me and it snowballed from there.
Bel: What are the intrinsic qualities of African fashion that appeal to you? Helen: Partly because of Arise, it’s really developed in the last five or six years, not just in terms of people paying attention but also the quality and the industry. What’s exciting is the way the best designers mix their own histories and traditions, fabrics, cultures and techniques with a modern, contemporary styling. It’s how those two things come together which are creating new silhouettes and fabrics which most people haven’t seen. Africa has been an inspiration since Yves Saint Laurent but everyone thinks tassels, beading, wooden jewellery, wax prints. Those things exist but there are designers at the moment who’ve delved so deeply into their own cultures and found amazing textiles only made by a certain group in a rural area, for example. They’re keeping those textiles alive and creating their own versions; making clothes you recognise - pencil skirts, sports luxe - but giving their own twists to it.
Bel: This kind of growth is normally linked to structural change. What's happening in Africa right now? Helen: Economically and democratically, a lot of Africa is booming. There’s a lot of wealth. Technology, banking, telecommunications, all those industries are developing fast. East Africa is a real tech hub, especially around Nairobi. South Africa and Nigeria are huge economies now, world players. The continent is developing and that trickles down to the creative industries. The education is better; a creative career is a real option now. You’re getting more interest in literature and music. And with the internet and social media, Africa is far more connected to the rest of the world. People are noticing what people are doing on the other side of the world, a lot more than they used to be. I’m not saying fashion isn’t a bubble because it is. The forecasters still reign and African designers are still about getting into that market if they want to be an international brand. But there’s a lot more mutual interest; it’s not everyone wanting to be Western anymore. And then, fashion likes the next new thing. There’s a lot about Japanese fashion, Belgian fashion, Chinese fashion. Africa is the last frontier. For a lot of creative industries, it’s where can we find the next production hub, the next talent, where can we get new ideas from?
Bel: I’m assuming designers still work on a small scale …. Helen: Yes, it’s a very ethical industry because it’s very small in real terms. And I don’t think it will become like Asia. At the moment, every designer has their own workshop, they make their own clothes, they’re using local materials - a lot out of necessity more than anything else but it does mean that every garment has a story. Western fashion is finally - slowly - waiting up to the fact that these things are important and Africa actually has that.
Bel: Will African designers have to play the international fashion game to succeed? Helen: The designers I like aren’t about making a bad copy of a big brand. What’s the point? There are designers who do that all over the world. It’s the ones who have their own look and are proud of that, and want people to be interested. The problem about being labelled, that’s a real debate. People don’t want to be labelled an African designer. They just want to be a great designer. Me trumpeting on about them all the time is, in a way, weirdly bad, but it’s also a great selling point right now. It’s interesting for the West to hear about what they’re doing so it’s a double-edged sword.
Bel: What are the problems? Helen: The infrastructure is holding everyone back - in terms of shipping, transport, red tape between countries, taxes and textile bands. A lot of countries don’t have electricity all day long so production costs go up. Some areas - again more East than South - do have good production but a lot of West Africa doesn’t. That means a fantastic designer might get an order from Barney’s but they can’t deliver it and that holds them back. And governments have bigger problems to worry about so unless you’re fairly wealthy anywhere, you can’t get a brand off the ground. It’s changing. When big business starts to invest properly, when government starts to pay attention, when infrastructure improves to a level that’s comparable to the rest of the world, then there’s no reason why these designers wouldn’t fly.
Bel: Are you finding most designers are independently financed? Helen: Yes, in most countries, you have to be a certain background to be able to afford to do this. At South Africa Fashion Week, some designers do get sponsorships from certain high street brands. They don’t have the support or the prestigious academic institutions that we do. But considering the challenges, the leaps and bounds they’ve made in the last two years have been amazing.
Bel: Do these clothes sell in Africa itself? Helen: Most sell to a local market and they have local customers. There are boutiques and concept stores popping up on a small level but it’s very much that people have their customers. What needs to happen is pan-African trade and interest between designers. Everyone talks about reaching the US or the UK but why not reach next door and help each other and communicate better and build these networks and production facilities?
Bel: What do you think about initiatives like ASOS Africa? Helen: They work with Soko, a clothing production workshop in Kenya which is also used by brands like Suno. That’s the way forward. You need these hubs all over Africa. And the fact they’ve put it on their agenda, it’s great. Then there's the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative. Vivienne Westwood makes handbags in Africa, Stella McCartney makes handbags in Africa. The EFI is bringing big designers into Africa to produce a line. They do local training with smaller designers and workshops and now some African based organisations are getting on board. Things like that are exciting.
For the five top African designers currently working today, as recommended by Helen, visit this post