Africans bring their continent’s style to the worldwide fashion scene

June 30, 2011

The country known for genocide is now giving the world $140 sundresses.

In the hilly Rwandan capital of Kigali, 300 female survivors of the 1994 mass violence are stitching kanga cloth into cocktail dresses for Anthropologie stores and crafting braided banana-leaf bangles for Nicole Miller and Ralph Lauren. Similar women’s cooperatives have opened in the capitals of Uganda, Ghana and Ethiopia, all part of a recent push to bring African fashion — garments that are made by Africans — into high-end American stores.

The effort began several years ago after a group of young African fashion designers working in ateliers in the District and New York noticed that many of Africa’s indigenous textiles and styles were being co-opted by multimillion-dollar fashion houses and thought: Not this time — you can’t steal from Africa anymore.

The designers connected with development organizations to set up for-profit women’s cooperatives in Rwanda and East Africa that offer fair wages, as well as business and fashion design training. The group also organized this year’s African Fashion Week New York, which takes place July 14-16, to offer a platform to young African designers in the United States and Africa. Liberian “Project Runway” Season 5 runner-up Korto Momolu will open the event, which showcases 21 other designers from Africa and the African Diaspora — including Olatide “Tide” Adeniyi, a Ni­ger­ian American based in Silver Spring.

The event underscores how eager this generation of young, upwardly mobile Africans in the United States is to redefine the continent’s image. It’s a generation that has come of age during the Obama presidency — an era when first lady Michelle Obama rocked a bright pink Mali-inspired top designed by Duro Olowu, the Nigerian-born designer whose clothing is sold at Barneys and blends vintage looks with African patterns.

A new momentum

If fashion is a guidepost to cultural change, then the expanding scope of African fashion indicates a new momentum among the African Diaspora in this country, many of whom being the sons and daughters of immigrants who are now in the middle and upper classes and who have more freedom to choose creative professions.

“It’s our moment, and it’s just beginning. Young African designers are becoming real players now. People have been taking resources from Africa for generations. But our generation, raised in both worlds, is changing that,” said Adiat Disu, 24, the Ni­ger­ian American producer of the fashion week during a pre-show event in Soho.

The list of luxury fashion houses using African patterns has never been longer, Disu said. The Burberry Resort 2012 collection has supplemented its traditional plaid with African tribal designs. There’s Bottega Veneta’s bright blue African-print canvas-and-leather tote and Diane von Furstenberg’s iPad case in a Nigerian-style zebra print. And a wooden African-mask charm bracelet by Yves Saint Laurent, the Algerian-born designer credited with first bringing African patterns and themes onto runways in 1967. And, of course, trend-echoing fashion retailers such as H&M, which carries a collection of African-inspired dresses, are getting in on the act.

While Disu and others like the attention, they say it’s equally important that Africans at home and in the diaspora “get it together to compete, because this is everything we were brought up wearing.”

Recently Disu, the daughter of a World Cup soccer player, spotted Aldo Shoes’ latest summer wedges, which feature yellow and blue African-style prints. She took photographs of them and dashed off an e-mail with the pictures to her family in Nigeria.

“I wanted to remind them of how powerful our culture is and how others around the world are using it to make money,” she said. “I wanted them to know that they shouldn’t be ashamed of claiming their culture in their business ideas. We also don’t want it to be a [passing] trend. We want people to pick up a dress from Uganda or Ghana the way they pick up a dress from Target.”

‘Trade not aid’ for Africa

The Africans’ effort reflects the current “trade not aid,” zeitgeist among African business leaders and think-tank economists. Yet the problems faced by the African fashion industry are formidable, industry experts say. Cooperatives in countries where electricity is unreliable sometimes miss deadlines because of power failures. And designers say the material must be subject to more stringent quality control before African fashion can become a driving force in economic development.

One woman trying to help is Waris Dirie, a supermodel whose best-selling biography “Desert Flower,” the basis for the 2009 film of the same name, chronicled her escape from a forced marriage in Somalia, how she began modeling in London and her journey to the runways of New York and Paris.

“Using African materials and patterns cannot be a trend that will be over and forgotten within a few seasons,” Dirie said. “The difference between a socially responsible project working with women in Africa and projects that are not socially responsible is the focus of long-term effects.”

Dirie said her Desert Flower Foundation is working to give African designers and fabric producers exposure by acting as a bridge between them and international designers.

There are success stories, such as Suno, a New York-based fashion label that started its brand using Kenyan kanga fabric and now sells dresses for more than $600.

“They started setting up a workshop of tailors in Kenya,” said Helen Jennings, editor of Arise, a London-based magazine on African fashion. “It’s the perfect trade-not-aid initiative that now hangs on the rails at the Liberty department store [on London’s Great Marlborough Street]. It’s the Obama effect and the 2010 World Cup, which have had the general effect of tuning the West into Africa as a creative and cultural source.”

Indego Africa, a development organization, is at the forefront of setting up women’s for-profit cooperatives in Rwanda. The group recently partnered with 300 genocide survivors in 11 cooperatives across the East African nation to produce tote bags that feature traditional African teal-and-yellow prints for designer Steven Alan and for Anthropologie, along with the bangles for Nicole Miller.

Fashion designer Miller said the Rwandan-made products have been selling out.

Traditional African designs

Emelienne Nyiramana, founder of the Rwandan cooperative Cocoki, will be going to New York for the first time to launch a new fall product line with Miller. Nyiramana was carrying water for 25 cents a day after she lost her father and three brothers to the genocide slaughter. She is now running the cooperative she started two years ago with Indego (it stands for independence, development and governance) and attending the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneur Certificate Program at Rwanda’s School of Finance and Banking. She studies marketing, public relations, human resources, organizational and financial management, and bookkeeping — which, she says, has helped her the most.

In an Indego video, she says that “all the women of Cocoki have a dream: to become rich with their hands.”

“That’s what it’s all about. The women in Africa are acquiring new skills, and people are loving the collections,” Miller said. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. I think people like wearing things that feel organic and not like they’re produced in a factory somewhere. A lot of fashion today is so slick. The fabrics came from local African markets.”

Many of the women who were previously making less than a dollar a day are now making six times as much, which often brings them into the middle class in the Rwandan economy, said Conor French, Indego Africa’s chief financial officer.

Because of its work with African women and fashion, Indego Africa is also the subject of a Harvard Business School case study about female empowerment and fair-trade export markets.

“I didn’t know anything about fashion before this,” said French, who pointed out that his digital watch was held together with a hair band as he circulated among models and designers at the African Fashion Week New York pre-show in SoHo. “But I quickly realized the enormous potential of fashion in helping Africa.”

Beyond animal prints

As a DJ spun Femi Kuti and Michael Jackson, a group of young designers and fashion bloggers of African descent who were born in the United States agreed that urban hipsters — with their “man bangs” and skinny jeans — were played out. They proclaimed it the cultural moment for “Afropolitians,” the slang term for a consciousness that blends Africa’s lively prints with vintage cuts and sensibilities that they describe as “the District meets Durban” or “Nairobi meets New York.”

“African fashion is no longer, like, ‘Take me to the zoo,’ with animal patterns. We are way richer than zebra and tiger prints,” said Washington Roberts, 28, who stayed up all night preparing a dress for the SoHo pre-show and works a day job designing jeans for American Rag.

“It’s an exciting time, because our fabrics are just so rich with color and patterns, ” said Darius Wobil, 28, whose Saint Wobil designs were recently featured in Italian Vogue. “Plus, there’s nothing more beautiful than an African woman’s swanlike posture.”

There’s a global Afropolitian culture that the fashion industry “has not fully recognized,” said Celeste Cristine, founder and chief executive of mybennucafe.com, a blog and shop for luxury Afropolitan brands.

“There are African-born residents living in every part of the globe from the U.S. to the U.K. and beyond,” Cristine said. “They are doctors, lawyers, engineers — and while they have strong cultural ties to the continent, they are also very much a part of American and European pop culture, as well. These designers have also emerged to serve this market of consumers.”

Listening nearby was Theresa Frimpomaa, 21, from Ghana, who now lives in the Bronx. Her family wanted her to be a doctor. She read about the fashion event and came with a homemade pink sparkly “look book” of her designs and a friend to model her vibrant dresses. One frock was cut like a short, puffy prom dress but made with West African kente cloth.

“My dad is a pharmacy technician. My sister is a radiologist,” Frimpomaa said as she adjusted her model’s bright orange dress and corralled her onto the cobblestone SoHo street for a photo shoot. “At first, my dad thought fashion was only for lazy people. But I explained to him that this is our chance and this can help Africa. Now, I’m just gonna go for it. In the end, he will be proud.”

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