With the exception of South Africa, when it comes to the monetary value, there are no specific figures for the African industry’s worth as a whole but Shobanjo says it is potentially worth billions of dollars. She uses the example of SUNO New York, which produces out of Kenya using SOKO Kenya, a co-op that involves local artisans. It recently partnered with ASOS for its Autumn/Winter 2011 collection. It is Shobanjo’s belief that more initiatives like SOKO Kenya, is what Africa needs because it “drives global exports while creating fair employment for locals. If we get this right, I have no doubt that the industry could be worth billions in a short space of time.”
To get to a point where the industry is worth billions, there are hurdles to overcome, visibility for the designers and their work being one of the biggest. Runway events aimed at showcasing African designers has “played a major role” in giving them much needed exposure according to Zi, owner of Zed Eye. But Shobanjo says while African designers are more visible thanks to the internet, their Western counterparts still get most of the attention. “African designers, bloggers, photographers, stylists and magazines editors and publishers are 99.9 percent responsible for the shift in focus to African fashion. You see beautiful work in Africa and then maybe you get a Marc Jacobs collection which has the same elements, and that is lauded by international press as “genius and original”. However, for as many features as that collection gets, one or two African designers will get 1/1000th of exposure for a similarly good collection. Fashion is ultimately a business.”
Disu, on the hand believes the use of African print by western designers is a contributing factor of African fashion becoming big business. “More and more Occidental designers are using African prints in their collection and/or “African aesthetic” as inspiration. It’s a great compliment” But like Shobanjo, makes note of the disservice that is done to African designers who receive little or no recognition for the same work. “Nowadays, international competition is a fact of life for brands and companies,” she said. Whatever the case may be right now, there is one factor that rings true and that’s the fact that fashion from the continent is making leaps that cannot be ignored.
Belinda Otas is a London Based journalist with a special interest in African Affairs. You can find her on @BelindaOtas