I Agree With Naomi Campbell: Why Isn’t There A Vogue Africa?

April 9, 2014  |  

Layouts courtesy of Mario Epanya

I swear, sometimes I think that Naomi Campbell is my spirit animal.

Forget her edges (or the lack thereof) and Tyra Banks’ hurt feelings. Who needs them when you are the queen of telling folks exactly how it is? And according to New York Magazine‘s The Cut, Ms. Campbell had no qualms with calling out the fashion industry, yet again, for its lack of diversity.

Hattie Crisell writes for The Cut that last week at the Vogue Festival in London, Campbell joined Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, for discussion about Africa’s future in print fashion. Sozzani, who is the global goodwill ambassador for the United Nation-led campaign, Fashion 4 Development, had lots of “interesting” things to say about the topic. The most interesting point was about how she feels she contributed to highlighting African talents as well as encouraging further development of the fashion industry on the continent, which are two aims of her ambassadorship. According to Crisell:

In slightly broken English, she explained why she’d created the May 2012 “Rebranding Africa” issue of L’Uomo Vogue. “For me, L’Uomo Vogue is not a fashion magazine — I mean, it is, of course, but it’s more how to use fashion as a media to awareness for something else. So when we did [the] African issue, for example, I stayed two weeks in Africa, I interviewed the president of Nigeria, and we put, on the cover, Ban Ki-moon [secretary general of the United Nations].” The goal of the issue, she said, was to show some of the many positive things happening within the continent — because “if we go home and say Africa is poor, Africa is civil wars, Africa is AIDS, Africa is malaria — how can people go there?”

That’s right: In order to “rebrand” the continent away from the image of famine-starved children with large malnourished tummies and flies swarming around their heads, the editor-in-chief of a global fashion magazine (fashion being the key operative word here) puts the very non-chic Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations on the cover. I don’t have any good snark to match the sheer ridiculousness of that so I’ll just say: No!

According to Crisell, Sozzani then goes on to talk about how she saw some nice designers in Ghana and Nigeria, but unfortunately, most of the fabric wasn’t really African and is printed in Holland. She also spoke on how “more manufacturing needs to happen on African soil to build a sustainable industry.” There is a bit of truth in what Sozzani says in terms of building a sustainable textile industry on the continent. And I should also mention that there are some very real and intentional reasons why textile industries have failed to take form on parts of the continent. But besides that, Sozzani seems to be saying that the supposed “inauthenticity” of the fabric is the reason why African fashion designers are denied platforms, which sounds like nonsense to me, considering that the entire fashion industry as a whole relies on global fabric and textiles. I mean, does Sozzani chide Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Diane von Furstenberg and the likes for working with Maasai prints in their collections without authentication from the tribe itself?

Thankfully, Ms. Campbell was there to slightly pull the covers back and put people rightfully in the hot seat. As Crisell writes:

In the midst of this discussion, Naomi Campbell turned to the front row and directed a public request toward Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast International. “I’m hoping, Jonathan, that we can have African Vogue,” she said, laughing in the deadly serious way that only she can. “I would be the editor,” said Sozzani, and Campbell replied, “I’ll be an assistant.” (Now there’s a reality show we’d like to see.)

But when pressed…Sozzani said she thought the possibility of a Vogue Africa was still very far off. “We really have to work much more, and to have more people believe in [Africa]. There is not confidence in these countries [from the international fashion industry] because they’ve seen too many things, and of course in the newspapers they only put [negative] things. The good side is huge … So now, everybody’s talking about Africa, and probably something will happen. I hope so.”

Yeah, some of you all might see this as Campbell asking for scraps from the table. However, I think of it as a clever call-out of the same tired excuses people of color, particularly black folks, are given every time the question is raised about why it is perfectly reasonable for these industries and so-called bastions of global tastemakers to exclude us from the profit side – even as its inspiration is largely derived from our aesthetic. From what I gather from Sozzani’s reasoning, it’s really not about promoting or even rebranding Africa and its talented children for the rest of the world. But rather, selling Africa and its children on Vogue‘s (and its specific designers) ideas of what is fashionable and luxury.

Yes, it is true that advertising dollars move magazines, and on the continent, there are only two Louis Vuitton stores. However, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Givenchy and the likes were not birthed royalty. That came through branding and lots of backing and support from the industry. And honestly, there is nothing really stopping the industry from doing the same for black designers, except the industry, including Vogue‘s unwillingness to do so. Seriously, the best way to rebrand Africa is to stop treating it like a charity case all the time and just put some African designers in the magazine already.

Likewise, the high-end fashion industry thrives on exclusivity and aspiration. The lack of access of these products to the “average” person makes people more inclined to seek it out. It’s a game plan, which has worked wonders in the ‘hoods of America. And let’s not act like there isn’t enough purchasing power in certain areas of Africa to support luxe products. Sozzani is correct in her assertion that the image of Africa we often see in film and on television only tells a fraction of the continent’s story.

According to this Bain & Company Worldwide Luxury Market study, luxury spending on the continent, while small compared to the rest of the world, has increased by as much as 25 percent, particularly in South African, Moroccan and Nigerian markets. And as anyone with friends or family on the continent knows, some of the biggest requested items to bring back include the luxury s**t. This article from last year in the Guardian UK points out how Nigeria is the UK’s second largest trade market thanks in part to all those Nigerian cousins, visiting the UK from the continent, “who are spending more due to a booming oil-driven economy.” According to the Guardian, “Nigerian visitors want to spend not just on luxury, but also at mass market chains including Marks & Spencer and even Prada, as they get better value over here.”

I’ll be the first person to say that Africa does not need Vogue, or any other Western magazine, to validate its fashion sense. The patchwork handmade tote bag I had made during my visit to Ghana gets me at least five compliments a day (true story!). But part of me believes that a major reason why Vogue Africa does not exist is because it would likely cypher off the allure of the Western-fashion houses, while actually keeping the fashion (and eventually textile) dollars on the continent. Without a Vogue Africa, which would hopefully promote black African beauty and fashion, Western designers can still try and justify white girls in blackface posing with slave earrings in mock African jungles while wearing “authentic” African zeb-raffe prints as homages or as art.

But even still, I agree with Ms. Campbell’s particular call out of the BS too. I mean, there are 16 active Vogue international editions in publication, including one in Mexico, whose economy is ranked 14th in the world; Taiwan, whose economy is ranked 19th in the world economy; and Portugal, whose world economy ranks in at 49th. But Nigeria, which is ranked 26th and South Africa, which is ranked 28th respectively in world economies, don’t get one? In the fashionable words of RuPaul, sashay away with that!

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