/ 3 November 2023

African fashion boom’s frayed edges

© Daomo — Dr.sophia Omoro Quentin Alexander (1)
A piece from the odAOMO jewellery brand, created by the Kenyan designer (and surgeon) Dr Sophia Omoro. (Quentin Alexander)

Alphadi is not a grumpy old man; he’s cheerfully pissed off. The 66-year-old haute couture pioneer from Niger is on the phone to me from his restaurant table in Abidjan, where he’s launching an Alphadi-branded coffee range. 

And his beef is with the lack of finance and state support for the African fashion industry. It’s an old issue — and it’s been bothering him since the 1970s and 1980s, when the young Alphadi Seini was part of a wave of gifted West African designers who stormed the catwalks and boutiques of Paris and Milan. 

Back then, Alphadi brought Touareg chic to the world, and he is still doing so, and throwing in fancy-assed coffee to sweeten the deal.

“We are alone,” proclaims Alphadi, in between menu negotiations with a waiter. “Nobody is helping African design labels to grow. 

“Foreign labels come and copy us. They take our raw materials and samples, put their own labels on it, sell it themselves. There is no money to promote our work, because investors don’t like creativity. We have to do everything ourselves.”

For his part, Alphadi has walked his talk about African design sovereignty by founding the annual couture festival Fima (Le Festival International de la Mode en Afrique) whose 15th edition took place in Equatorial Guinea in August. He is also a Unesco Goodwill Ambassador for African Innovation and Creation. 

But he might be exaggerating the isolation of African designers — at least in aesthetic terms. A recent Unesco report describes a potently optimistic moment in the fashion industry throughout the continent. 

Global fascination with African style is deeper than ever, and domestic markets in many countries are swelling fast as a result of rapid urbanisation, the steady expansion of the middle class and a spike in e-commerce penetration. There are 32 fashion weeks in Africa. 

Right now, African countries export textiles and apparel worth $15.5 billion annually, says the Unesco report. That’s a lot of threads, and a lot of moolah — but it amounts to only about 1% of the total value of the global fashion industry. So there is massive market share to be captured, both at home and abroad.

Stars are aligning for a bigger boom. Africa skews young and youth skews creative. Moved by the pull of inspired new designers and the push of old cultural pride, tens of millions of African consumers are turning decisively toward African style, both traditional and contemporary. The “Made in Africa” label is sexier across the continent than ever before. 

Meanwhile, the visual language of geometric elegance that defines many African textile traditions is colliding with a worldwide appetite for rhythmic and opulent fabric design. 

And if dazzlement is what you crave, brands such as Laduma Ngxokolo’s Maxhosa, Ethiopia’s Lemlem (created by supermodel Liya Kebede) and Nigeria’s Lisa Folawiyo are ready to dazzle you — for a considerable price. 

So much for the flair and vision … but what about the buttons and threads? Textile manufacturing and exporting is happening at scale in bigger economies such as South Africa, Ethiopia, Egypt and Morocco. Even so, most African labels struggle to buy the right fabrics at the right price locally, which would slash production and environmental costs, and are forced to source fabrics made abroad, often with African-grown cotton. 

A lack of cheap and efficient transport links between regions deepens the sourcing problem. 

The backstory is that African manufacturing has not recovered from the ravages of the World Bank and IMF-imposed structural adjustment programmes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which forced many governments to drop tariff protections against imports in exchange for credit and debt forgiveness. 

Before that happened, textile and garment factories were plentiful and economically vital, sustaining vast numbers of low-skilled jobs. During the 1970s in Nigeria, fully 22% of the workforce was employed in the sector, according to the Unesco report. 

For Alphadi, now is the time to slap those tariffs back on. 

“African textiles must be given a chance. They must be produced on the African continent. I am in favour of limiting the entry of imported textiles into the continent. I have difficulty purchasing large quantities of textiles from Africa. 

“I refuse to import and it directly impacts my production capacities as well as my costs,” he says. 

“It is not normal. Africa should have the capacity to industrially produce textiles. It is difficult to make ready-to-wear collections with these constraints. Our fashion remains reserved for a minority because of production costs.” 

Sew far, sew good: Nigerien fashion designer and stylist Alphadi Seini at the Conference on Tourism and Hotel Investment in Francophone Africa in Abidjan in January. (Photo by Issouf SANOGO / AFP)

There are other holes in the structural fabric of African fashion, says the report, which draws on the insight of design and retail gurus such as Shaldon Kopman, Katungulu Mwendwa and Lulu Shabell. 

Legal protections for designers and other professionals need boosting on several fronts: intellectual property rights; pay and working conditions and the right to union membership. 

More capital and expertise needs to flow to small and medium-sized companies, who make up 90% of fashion companies. As things stand, they are heroically cranking out jobs and opportunities for millions of young Africans. Given proper credit, market access and technical support, they could be even more transformative. 

Similarly, technical skills need boosting with an urgent expansion of formal training in fields as diverse as 3D printing, quality control, and commercial law and marketing. 

Fashion remains an environmentally filthy business worldwide but this can change, says the report. 

African output of sustainable textiles, such as organic cotton, is rocketing but recycling channels urgently need to be found for the continent’s insatiable demand for second-hand clothing imports. About 40% of this ends up in landfills or waterways. 

Unesco’s assistant director-general for culture Ernesto Ottone says the strategic dream is for African economies to break the cycle of exporting cheap fibres and importing expensive clothing it could be making at home. 

“We have to synchronise policies to nurture the entire ecosystem of the fashion economy, from farm to factory to store. If we align our strategies to support vertical integration, then the continent moves away from raw-resource exporter to transforming its resources domestically.” 

Easier said than done, of course. But the ecosystem in question is vividly alive — it just needs tailoring. 

The tower of label: Guarding Africa’s fashion IP 

It’s one thing owning a major label whose designs get pirated by cheap knockoff merchants. But what do you do if you own a cultural heritage that gets pirated by major labels? 

That’s the problem facing various African cultures blessed with creative traditions that are compelling enough to inspire rich firms to quote them — or steal them, depending on your point of view. 

The three million Maasai people of Tanzania and Kenya learnt this the hard way. About a decade ago, over 1 000 companies — from Louis Vuitton to Calvin Klein, from Diane von Furstenberg to Ralph Lauren — lifted Maasai textile and jewellery motifs without asking permission or paying a shilling for the privilege.

Aside from the traducing of the ancient indigenous meaning of the imagery, there was big money at stake. Public-interest IP lawyer Ron Layton estimated the Maasai brand was worth $10 million a year. 

So in 2014, with Layton’s help, Maasai leaders did what Disney would do, and established the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative Trust, a committee of elders that negotiates with companies via a licensing agent. 

This was not a guarantee of riches — cultural motifs are not covered by formal IP rights in most places. Hence any agreements would be voluntary. (It says a lot that Disney has registered a trademark for the Swahili phrase “hakuna matata”, of The Lion King fame, at the US Patent and Trademark Office.) 

In 2018, the Koy brand was the first to strike a deal — granting the trust a 5% royalty on its Maasai-inspired line. Visual references by major brands to Maasai designs still abound, but the trust has negotiated with over 700 firms. 

The Kente cloth manufacturers of Ghana are looking on with interest, says Unesco’s Ernesto Ottone: “The value of their production fell 30% in five years due to foreign mass production of cheaper copies abroad.” 

Many argue, he says, that Kente should be registered as a protected geographical indication in EU law. 

That status was secured last year by Burkina Faso’s Saponé community for its famous Saponé hat, which dates to the 13th century. It looks similar to a traditional Basotho hat, but let’s not get into that. — Carlos Amato