/ 8 October 2022

African fashion at the confluence of heritage and culture

Material differences: Part of Ken Kweku Nimo’s book ‘Africa in Fashion’ explores the history and cultural heritage of textiles and craft, which have influenced couture on the continent.

When the world thinks of African fashion, they often picture dashikis, head wraps and intricate, colourful beadwork. Neglecting to recognise talented African designers who continuously create and showcase timeless luxury pieces that can compete with the best in the world. 

The story of African fashion, repeatedly narrated from an outsider’s point of view, has been told with hints of erasure, interruption and appropriation for way too long. This narrative curates African fashion in the “other” category, and deprives the fashion world of African designers who are using their traditional influences to bring something fresh to the world of luxury fashion. 

Ghanaian author Ken Kweku Nimo tells the story of the continent’s successful couturiers in his new book

Across the continent and in the diaspora, there has been a push to retell the story of African fashion using the voice of Africans themselves. One such voice is Ghanaian researcher and author Ken Kweku Nimo, author of Africa in Fashion: Luxury, Craft and Textile Heritage. 

“With this book, it was important for me to take on the task of telling the real story of African fashion while foregrounding the issues around fashion and designers,” said Nimo.

Nimo’s own fashion journey begins in his hometown of Cape Coast, Ghana, a city that is best known for being a base for the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Ghana. He has previously written that growing up in Ghana it was impossible not to be immersed in fashion, thanks to “an endless stream of colours and fabrics.” He recalls that his daily walks to primary school were “like walking through the world’s most beautiful textile museum.” He has fond memories of the women in his neighbourhood market unassumingly adorned in their daily kaba, the traditional dress for Ghanaian women, as though they were on a grand parade, completely unaware of their influence on a young man. His first foray into fashion was a small screenprinting and digital embroidery business.

His fashion journey continued to take shape more than 7000 kilometres later when he arrived in Johannesburg in 2016 to further his studies, a decade after obtaining his undergraduate degree in Economics and Statistics. He enrolled himself at LISOF, now known as STADIO, for an honours degree in Fashion Merchandising, with the assumption that he would learn tailoring, particularly menswear, only to discover that this qualification was strictly a research course. That did not deter him. 

“I had to go with the flow, but that was also intriguing for me because it led me to the back end of some big South African luxury brands. I got to understand what makes fashion tick, as a global business”.

Published by Laurence King Publishers, Nimo’s book itself came together swiftly because he had spent over two years conducting research for his honours dissertation, which focused on the challenges faced by South African brands in their pursuit to position themselves as luxury brands to appeal to the high end consumer. The book includes parts of the findings of his dissertation and also profiles designers and looks at the history and cultural heritage of textiles and craft cultures. 

Dress of success: Ghanaian researcher and author Ken Kweku Nimo (below) features 29 designers from across the continent in his new book. They were chosen for their uniqueness, their allegiance to African ideals as well as their brand’s longevity.

“Over the course of nearly two and half years of research, I gathered data from an expansive list of brands, many of which were in South Africa. However, as the manuscript evolved in scope, many more designers from other parts of the continent were invited to participate and contribute to the book”. 

The end product includes interviews and case studies from east to west, north to south of the continent, with designers from countries like South Africa, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Nigeria, Egypt, Mozambique, Kenya, Senegal, and others.  

Designers featured in the book were chosen based on a myriad factors, such as the uniqueness of their brand offering, product category, regional representation, but more importantly the brand’s allegiance to African ideals. A total of 29 designers are featured in the book. The designers did not need to necessarily be located in Africa. Brands such as T-Michael, which operates out of Bergen in Norway, and Imane Ayissi, which works out of Paris, were interviewed. Another significant factor was longevity. Nimo wanted to include brands that had been tried and tested. It was important to show the track record of designers who had persevered through the arduous environment to build distinguished brands with global reach. 

Capturing the stories of countless brands across the continent proved to be nearly impossible and also incredibly ambitious. One of Nimo’s regrets is that he could not feature every designer and brand he would have liked to profile. It became clear during the research phase that most challenges that designers were facing were universal and as a result this book captures the commonalities between them. 

Nimo’s story of African fashion is presented under four pillars which have impacted the trajectory of most African histories: Colonisation, Globalisation, Trade and Cultures. The book is presented in two parts, with part one focused on the history of craft cultures across the continent that have shaped the story of African fashion. Nimo also explores the rich crafting heritage passed down through generations and its impact on current global trends.

The reader is also taken through a chapter on a new era ushered in by a cohort of luxury designers currently operating across Africa, challenging European dominance in the luxury fashion space. These designers are putting out work that is smashing stereotypes that commonly pigeonhole African fashion as exotic or tribal, something to be caricatured. Part two opens a window to a masterfully curated medley of remarkable brands from across the continent.

This is where the reader gets to meet the designers through their brands. Some of the names to look out for in the book are the likes of South Africa’s Lukhanyo Mdingi; sportswear disrupter Mimi Plange, who was born in Ghana and moved to America as a child and recently collaborated with Nike and also famously dressed former United States First Lady Michelle Obama; African contemporary brand out of Paris, Peulh Vagabond; and Nigeria’s Tokyo James who was a finalist for the 2022 edition of the coveted LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers.

A continuous theme of the book is the intersection of African luxury and heritage. The two pillars may seem at odds with each other when one considers the continent’s interrupted history which ushered in the displacement of peoples, a watering down of cultures by western influences and a general distrust of anything African the world over. 

“Despite Africa’s venerable heritage in the manufacture and trade of luxury goods, the definition and idiosyncrasies of luxury have largely romanticised Europe. For centuries, these idiosyncrasies have precluded the appreciation of luxury in its varied manifestation not only in Africa but amongst people from cultures around the world,” said Nimo.

In his retelling of the story of African fashion, Nimo did not fall into the age-old trope of telling a linear story that bundles all Africans under one big African tribe. He is not oblivious to the nuances presented by these designers based on their lived experiences and heritage. 

“While African brands may not have singular heritage narratives, there is a shared history of a prolific material culture from which incredible stories of craftsmanship, creativity and sartorial splendour emerge,” he said.

Nimo’s vision for the book is to see it adopted into curriculums across the continent to grant young designers access to this important information. He would like up-and-coming designers to see iconic designers of the day like David Tlale and Mimi Plange on these pages and identify with them. The book is not only written for designers. It is a handy reference to keep for anyone with an interest in not only African fashion but in the idea of Africans telling their own stories and flipping narratives.

Nimo has penned an enigmatic book that will become a conversation starter in “Africa is not a country” spaces because of the way he has paid homage to each country and culture that he studied. 

Your only challenge with the book will be finding the right placement for it on your bookshelf, whether you should put it under history or under fashion and lifestyle.

Africa in Fashion is published by Jonathan Ball, R719.