African designers are subverting the stereotypical ideologies of what it means to run a fashion business and are creating brands that have made it into the mainstream with full force. Adebayo Oke-Lawal of Orangeculture Nigeria, Kenneth Ize, Thebe Magugu, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Sindiso Khumalo, Mmuso Maxwell and Thompson Adeju of Lagos Space Program are a few of the household names in the African fashion industry whose ethos are unmatched and hard to miss.
Besides being stocked in global luxury retail showrooms like Browns, Farfetch, SSENCE, Net-a-porter, and being semi-finalists, finalists and winners of global competitions like the LVMH and Woolmark Prizes, a common thread to these brands is their focus on ethical fashion.
Sustainability and ethical fashion have been a core conversation in the fashion industry since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic was the much-needed jolt to reality the fashion industry needed to expose the ripple effects of certain unethical practices.“[Covid-19] has shed light and inspired deep compassion and gratitude for those who do the arduous work of supporting the backbone of our economies, often at great risk and with little appreciation,” writer Vanessa Barboni Hallik, said in Vogue.
Although it gained mainstream attention during the pandemic, sustainable fashion and ethical production aren’t new phenomena in the African fashion industry. “One important thing to note [is that] sustainability has always been an inherent part of African culture partially due to necessity,” Sana Ahmed, wrote on Causeartist. Textile waste reduction, skills preservation such as hand weaving and crocheting, environmental conservation such as the use of indigo dyes, responsibility to humanity, rubbish sorting and slow production have long been ingrained in the working principles of African fashion.
Ultimately, the point of sustainable and ethical fashion in Africa is to preserve and conserve a craft that’s been lingering since pre and post-colonial times. However, the conversation has gone beyond preservation of crafts, to building a community of people whose ideologies are premised on teamwork, love, bond and community building.
The Politicization of the Fashion Industry.
Fashion has always been a medium for storytelling, expression and activism. From Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba to Thandiswa Mazwai and Erykah Badu, fashion is rebellious – at times when words haven’t sufficed – looks have made powerful statements. Adebayo Oke-Lawal and Babatunde Oyeyemi of Maxivive are two ethical designers whose brands have been premised on social justice and activism. “I found that my masculinity and sense of self was always being questioned because I expressed it as something ‘other than’. The pain and bullying that came from it is why I’m so invested in fighting those stereotypes today,” Oke-Lawal shares with WDCD Amsterdam.
Developing their queer-owned brands in the conservative Nigeria has allowed them to identify with a community and build tightly knit relationships. “My collection is called 2 Bailey Street – a space where people from different walks of life could come in to feel safe, regardless of harmful laws surrounding them,” Oyeyemi tells Culture Custodian, describing his recent showcase at Heineken Lagos Fashion Week. “I wanted to use this collection to create a community out of chaos.”
At the centre of her SS/22 collection, Places We Have Lived, Nigeria’s foremost sustainable designer, Nkwo Onwuka takes a deep dive into the never-ending political mishaps the country continues to experience. For her, sustainable fashion has surpassed how we previously understood it to be. It’s now about politicization and the empowerment of local artisans, with a focus on building a community of people who are adamant against being defined by previous ill-experiences. Building the Dakala Cloth was a testament to that. “Our collection is inspired by the stories of these 10 amazing women I’ve been working with in a camp for IDPs – Internally Displaced Persons,” Onwuka shares with Essence. “[They] have lost their access to homes because of the Boko Haram insurgency. The tales are horrible, but these women still find time to learn new skills and have a better life.”
Embracing Traditions and Cultural Values/Ethics
Overthrowing the skewed narratives of deep traditional cultures and practices of Africans, is the basis for Bubu Ogisi’s Iamisigo. With the media and religion spearheading the vilification of sacred cultural spaces like shrines and forests, and leaving us with perverse thoughts about its practices, we’ve managed to grow a negative attitude towards our heritage. If anything, tradition and culture fosters community building, and brands like Bubu Ogisi of Iamisigo and LVMH finalist, Thompson Adeju of Lagos Space Program are ensuring that these values are at the centre of their works.
“The forest is the surest guarantee of man’s duration,” Ogisi tells Industrie Africa. “I’m rendering gratitude and belief and making people use what I do to create a space that feels like an altar or shrine, where they feel protected and safe.” By following unorthodox approaches to designing, the ethical brand is highlighting families and building mutual relationships.
Adeju’s work follows carefully designed apparels that emanate from their love for cultural heritages and African traditions. Specifically, they originate from practices of Western Nigeria, and these include sacred festivities and events. “Inspired by this aestheticized spiritual process, Lagos Space Programme similarly relays clothing as that which is capable of transforming the wearer, as a technology for redefining one’s sense of self,” writes Kojo London. Beyond this, they’re also by African gods and deities such as masquerades. Their fluidity and gender nonconformity as a huge inspiration. “Thompson self-consciously positions themselves as an inheritor of this mid-century modernist legacy, as they synthesise ancient Yoruba philosophy and indigenous textile crafts with contemporary innovative tailoring methods and external subcultural references”.
London is also much in the business of subverting Western concepts in fashion, so much so that their collections aren’t termed ‘SS’ or ‘AW’, but ‘Projects’, as this feels more personal to them. “My biggest anxiety is embodying a persona that feeds into how the West expects me to present myself. I am not one-sided. I appreciate and am inspired by cultures from all around. That is my reality,” Adeju tells Vogue. The piece, described the Lagos Space Program brand as “an ethical movement that values teamwork and craftsmanship, [with] community and heritage central to Thompson’s work.”
Leveraging Personal Experiences
After co-winning the LVMH prize last year and making his debut on international platforms like New York Fashion Week (NYFW) and Paris Fashion Week, the South African eponymous designer, Lukhanyo Mdingi, is attaining great heights. At the centre of this ethical label though, is his telling the world about his incredible artisans and how much of a family they’ve become. OkayAfrica describes his collection debut at PFW as “a collection that spoke of the relationship he shares with himself and the artisans he collaborates with. For Mdingi, growing up amongst a community of middle-class people serves as a mirror for him to chase well-meaning relationships.
“I live in a particular way that’s based on community and building human relationships, and for me, the best moment was seeing how we can come together,” Mdingi tells OkayAfrica, “We want to create something very modern, but most importantly, bring visibility to the [craftspeople]. I love the human networks that are involved around the clothes.”
For Adebayo Oke-Lawal of Orangeculture, this sentiment runs through, but doesn’t end on just the artisans. It also seeps into the relationship he shares with his family, those in his circle, and his consumers. “I remember being so fascinated by how clothes made me and the people around me feel — from seeing sisters trying on clothes together and glowing when it fit right, to the exuberance of our traditional wear at weddings, to the simple freedom of being able to wear what you want,” he reveals to WDCD Amsterdam.
Adeju of Lagos Space Program is loud about their non-binary identity. For them, it is one of the surest means for expression. This identity, though, ropes into their work with their brand. They have infused this identity into their works and are queering African traditional gods in the process. Through the lenses of this talented designer, African deities such as masquerades have been queered.
“Lagos Space Programme not only contemporises but queers the Gẹlẹdẹ mask by making it unashamedly camp. Resembling the heightened cosmetic look of drag queens, the mask assumes a glamourized appearance through excessive effeminate adornment,” says Kojo London. Adeju’s non-binary identity, their love for fashion, and their inspiration from traditional gods have formed the personal experience he’s leveraging on to build this global brand.