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.