Whether it’s Michelle Obama dressed in Maki Oh, the likes of David Tlale and Sophie Zinga showcasing at New York Fashion Week or Duro Olowu decorating the White House for last year’s Christmas celebrations, the list of feats claimed by Africa’s most prominent fashion labels over the past few years are undeniably impressive, even without considering that the majority of them are barely a decade old. Whilst they may be mere babies compared to the likes of Burberry or Chanel, Nigerian fashion giant Deola Sagoe has revealed to CNBC Africa her belief that the continent’s markedly young fashion business is set to become a $15.5 billion industry by 2019 suggesting that these burgeoning brands are looking to take their place as some of the world’s most powerful future fashion houses.
However, the problems that have so far hampered Africa’s fashion industry from becoming a powerful player in world fashion continue to plague its designers. The absence of national or international fashion councils means that the industry remains largely fragmented; weaknesses in skill sets across the industry are the result of a scarcity of formal fashion training courses, whilst a lack of internal and external investment is being exacerbated by the inability of Africa’s manufacturers to compete with the influx of cheap clothing from south east Asia following the free trade agreement of the 1980s and 90s- culminating in insufficient infrastructure and dizzying expense for designers.
Confronted with these issues, Omoyemi Akerele founded the Lagos Fashion and Design Week (LFDW) in 2011 to highlight the value of the Nigerian fashion industry as a commercial business with massive potential. Hugely successful in bringing together industry experts for workshops and information exchange events through a Fashion Business Series, in an interview with Not Just a Label, Omoyemi Akerele has identified how Nigerian fashion is not only now ‘being positioned as a key driver for the Nigerian economy’ but attitudes are changing to see fashion no longer merely as a hobby but as a lucrative career path. Along with the success of the new concept stores in the wealthiest economies such as Lagos’s Stranger and Merchants on Long in South Africa, which cater for a growing middle-class market with a higher disposable income and appetite for consumer goods- it is hoped that this will encourage investment in development and education from the government along with potential foreign stakeholders- vital for the expansion of an industry capable of producing powerful amounts of revenue.
Additionally, speaking to Laduma Ngxokolo, founder of premium South African knitwear brand MaXhosa by Laduma and one of the designers to frequently showcase his work at LFDW, he stressed the importance of fashion shows to gaining vital international exposure. Catching the eye of the global media’s attention, LFDW has become the continent’s most powerful platform for raising such awareness, and for Laduma, along with many other talented designers such as androgynous brand Orange Culture, this has led to showcases of designers’ work at fashion weeks across the world, such as at Pitti Immagine in Florence.
Looking beyond the glamour of the catwalk however, London-based designer Hazel Eki Agrey Orleans has suggested to Ventures Africa that the problem is now getting international boutiques to stock African labels season after season- essential for designers expecting to generate powerful revenue. Laduma identifies the role that the stereotype of cheap, poor quality African apparel plays in contributing to a reluctance to stock and buy, particularly when shopping online where garments cannot be handled. The greatest shock to international consumers, however, is that he produces knitwear (South Africa has winter? And sheep!?) – despite the fact that 60% of the world’s mohair is sourced from angora goats in the country – which when considered along with the press’ continued insistence on describing African inspired prints with a vocabulary often limited to ‘tribal’ ‘exotic’ or ‘wild’, exposes the need for our own outdated beliefs about the continent to develop if we can expect brands like Laduma’s to fulfil their potential to sit alongside the ranks of the powerful European brands that we so greatly covet.
Vital then, is the innovation of tech-savvy young fashion bloggers, who are taking advantage of the growth in access to technology- with Nigeria recording 56 million internet subscribers and Kenya being dubbed Africa’s ‘Silicon Savannah’- to generate global interest in the latest African trends and challenge these anachronistic attitudes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the example of brother and sister bloggers 2ManySiblings, who by promoting their laidback, thrifted street style to tens of thousands of followers are serving to counter what Joburg-based accessory designer Maria McCloy condemns in her video interview for Brighton Museum’s exhibition Fashioning Cities Africa as the ‘colonial/apartheid mindset’ that presents Western styles as sexy and sophisticated against the traditionalism of African apparel. 
Combined with the emphasis that African designers often place on promoting social initiatives – such as the importance of empowering youth through fashion, or sourcing locally to contribute to the devastated local economy as Laduma does – we are seeing here the talented minds of Africa’s young fashion business working to generate a sustainable future for the industry. It is this type of innovation that, amongst the tentative expectation of investment in a continent evolving to approach fashion as a profitable commercial business, that is experiencing increasingly powerful international exposure and is challenging the world to view it as a place of great creativity and commerce, will provide a fertile foundation for the African fashion brands of the future, both established and upcoming, to flourish upon.
 The exhibition Fashioning Cities Africa runs until 8th January 2017 at Brighton Museum
Time Stamp: Published: September 09 2016