Not so long ago, the idea of an African fashion scene was an optimistic stretch of the imagination. Now, the organisers of the Arise Africa Fashion Week, inaugurated in Cape Town in 2009, believe those days could soon be very last season.
This year’s event, which ended on Sunday and took place in Nigeria’s vibrant commercial capital, was such a success that the organisers plan to make Lagos a major fixture on the global fashion calendar and take their designs around the world.
“You’ve got Milan, London, New York and Paris. Why not Lagos?” organiser Penny McDonald said. “We’ve been invited to showcase in New York and to return to Cape Town and other places, but there’s such an appetite for fashion in Lagos that we were comfortable with a vision for making this the fifth fashion capital of the world.”
It started, fashionably, almost two days late, but the show eventually lived up to its name. For one week Lagos was graced with glamour, cries of “Hello darling!” and fashion high priests such as Ozwald Boateng and supermodel Alek Wek.
Winners to showcase at New York Fashion Week
Seventy-seven rising African or African-based designers were whittled down to five winners to show at next year’s New York Fashion Week, the glamour queen of all fashion weeks.
Among them was Boateng, the youngest and first black man to open a shop in London’s Savile Row.
From Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire known as the “Paris of Africa”, to fashion deserts such as Somalia, entourages were flown to Lagos. All expenses were paid by the show’s founder, Nduka Obaigbena, an ebullient Nigerian media baron nicknamed the Duke. “This is about putting Africa on the map. There is an African brand of style, elegance and beauty,” said Obaigbena, dressed head to toe in white.
Nigerians do not do things by halves in terms of fashion and the shows rivalled those in global fashion hotspots. Longlegged women — and a few men too — in heels tottered across polished marbled floors. Runway lights glittered off sequinned bosoms and music pumped as models sashayed down the catwalks. Any wardrobe malfunctions were enthusiastically applauded.
Chance for designers to shine
For designers struggling to break through preconceptions in the European-dominated industry, the week was a chance to shine. “I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that there is such a thing as African fashion. I think the whole print fabric and ankara [a traditional West African lace fabric] thing is limiting,” said Fatima Garba, whose House of Farrah boutique attracts moneyed crowds in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
“It’s overdone and overplayed. It’s always animal prints or tribal or whatever. I want to design clothes that an African lady or a woman in Alaska feels she can wear. I prefer to go left when everyone is going right,” she said, dressed in towering red heels and a sparkling purple top.
Nigerian designer Maki Oh’s models paraded down the catwalk in suits whose frills and sheer materials would perhaps be a little too va-va-voom for the office, but they will look at home when she displays on the New York catwalks this September. Also chosen to accompany her was South African Gavin Rajah, whose flowing pastel clothes elicited wistful sighs from the audience, and the United Kingdom-based Tsemaye Binitie.
Tradition-inspired clothes made an appearance too, ranging from tiny native corals woven into Kinabuti’s clothes and worn by models from Nigeria’s coastal cities to bold prints from South African label PPQ.
Delicious pastel colours were draped in ways that recalled Sahelian nomadic clothes by Nigerian brand Amede. —