By Raegan Rubin
Firstly, my initial obsession with Netflix was border lining on the extreme and secondly, I was spending each morning rummaging through my wardrobe and sighing in exasperation as I stepped into the same bland pair of jeans and pastel-coloured jumper.
A dull reminder of months spent unsuccessfully trying to find myself, these once treasured garments seemed outdated and said little of post-pandemic me.
Like the majority of bored and concerned fashion lovers, I devoted my summer to learning about the realities of the fashion industry and supporting global activists. As a result, not only had my perspective of the industry changed but I was determined to channel my enlightenment through a new wardrobe.
Thankfully there are hundreds of African-inspired clothing brands that have enriched my life with vitality, culture and an appreciative style.
Often defined as parades of ingenuity and colour, the African clothing category is a vibrant branch of the fashion industry and yet, (amidst BLM and demands for social justice) only now is it being given the global attention it deserves.
Seemingly ahead of the curve, African fashion designers like Abrima Erwiah and her brand Studio189 are pioneers of social change in Africa and beyond. Stumbling across Studio189 on Instagram, I was captivated by its ethos and aesthetic and launched into a thorough investigation of sustainable African clothing.
This article discusses the importance of African fashion in the sustainable industry and ways in which you can get involved.
Partly out of necessity, (since mass manufacturing in factories is impractical for many towns and villages) African-inspired brands typically support ethical production and construct their garments from locally sourced fabrics or upcycled materials and print them using natural dyes.
The scarcity of factory use can minimize opportunities for worker exploitation and increase the opportunities for bespoke tailoring. This slower mode of production supports artisanal handicrafts and skilled craftsmanship; ultimately enhancing the value of the garment.
The luxury sector
A long-time association with aid has typecast African fashion as a luxury market outcast.
Fortunately, organizations like the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative disagree, and have attempted to educate consumers on its potential as a luxury titan.
As the world addresses the lack of Black representation in the fashion industry, African-inspired brands are receiving more attention.
Discovering your style
Since the African fashion category covers the entire continent (spanning from Egypt to South Africa), it’s impossible to determine a principal fashion aesthetic. However, fashion brands generally use contemporary cuts to reimagine orthodox African design.
African fashion brands’ offer exciting and eclectic alternatives to the typical high-street look, as designers’ take inspiration from their roots and reject or mildly acknowledge Western influences. Intrigue has earned brands’ loyal followings and shows are attended by throngs of spectators who excitedly arch their necks towards the runway and applaud its diverse range of African cultures.
“The continent is incredibly blessed with resources,” Omoyemi Akerele, founder and chief executive of Lagos Fashion Week, declared in an interview for Vogue Business.
“From cashmere from South Africa or handweaving, the bogolan fabric from Mali, and kente from Ghana. Handweaving, embroidery, spinning, embellishment — there’s so much, we can go on and on. It’s not just the looms or the dyeing process, the beauty of the continent is that a lot of things are still touched by hand. That is luxury.”
Despite African fashion having widespread admiration, some are worried that by wearing a culturally-rich garment, they are inadvertently appropriating its heritage. However, by opting for block colours rather than motif-heavy pieces or by researching the values associated with a garment before purchasing, you can avoid commandeering traditional garb and still invest in statement pieces.
Abrima Erwiah & sustainability
Abrima Erwiah is a women’s and ethical fashion activist and regularly advocates for social and economic development in Africa. This year, Erwiah is continuing her work by participating in the launch of the Fashion Our Future 2020 initiative that encourages US voting and campaigns for sustainable fashion.
Erwiah’s past work includes the co-creation of ethical fashion and lifestyle brand Studio189 in 2013 and her enduring partnership with Opening Ceremony and The Ethical Fashion Initiative: offering marginalized artisans (living in urban and rural poverty) the opportunity to collaborate with global fashion talent.
After a decade-long tenure as a global marketing and communications executive for Bottega Veneta, Erwiah co-founded Studio189 with actress Rosario Dawson.
The brand concentrates on empowering workers and aiding education training in Africa and has won the CFDA Lexus Fashion Initiative for Sustainability.
Based in Ghana and the USA, Studio189 illuminates African-inspired content and produces garments made from various traditional craftsmanship techniques like hand-batik and kente weaving. It also utilizes sustainable natural fibers such as organic cotton grown in Burkina Faso and natural plant-based dyes.
Studio189’s latest runway collection combined garish tones with organic visuals and illustrated the diversity within the sustainable fashion industry.
I marveled at the eclectic patterns as they sashayed down the catwalk. Gender-fluid and loose, the garments were adorned with banana leaf prints and jungle stripes as well as monochrome checks and pops of yellow and green.
Supporting the Black fashion community
Already a hard industry to break into, aspiring Black designers have been met with multiple obstacles and we encourage our readers to support Black-owned African fashion brands, so as to preserve the continent’s beauty and reinforce its luxury status.
Some of our favourite brands
Scroll down to read about three of our favourite Black-owned African fashion brands and a list of Black-owned organizations for you to support.
A responsible womenswear and lifestyle brand, Mayamiko was founded on an ethos of sustainable values by Paola Masperi. Inspired by the indegiounous women who craft the products, Mayamiko’s garments evolve from traditional African techniques and locally sourced fabrics called ‘chitenje’.
You can buy from Mayamiko here.
AAKS is a sustainable Ghanian brand that combines local weaving techniques with the high-end aesthetic of luxury bags. Preserving the ancestral spirit of Ghana through vibrant colours and authenticity, the founder Akosua Afriyie-Kumi maintains the brand’s sustainable ethos by ensuring that every stage of the design and production process is ethical.
You can buy from AAKS here.
Established in 2016, Tongoro is a 100% made-in-Africa label based in Dakar. The brand promotes Africa-based fashion in the high-end arc by manufacturing the economic and social development of artisanal workers in Western Africa.
You can buy from Tongoro here.
- Melanin & Sustainable Style – A website (and Instagram) for communities of colour in sustainable fashion and beauty spaces. Founded by Dominique Drakeford.
- 15% Pledge – Aurora James, the founder of Brother Vellies, organized a pledge to call on major retailers to devote 15% of their shelf space to products from Black-owned businesses since Black Americans make up 15% of the U.S. population. Sephora was the first to sign on.
- Black-owned Etsy Shops – Curated by Etsy.
- Blk + Grn – An all natural marketplace for beauty products made by Black artisans.
- Buy From a Black Woman Directory – A directory of businesses owned by Black women, from home decor and furniture to food.
- Buy From BIPOC – A directory of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color makers and creatives with a focus on slow, ethical, and sustainable fashion.
African fashion is a complicated tapestry woven together by spools of brilliantly coloured thread, with each strand illustrating a regions’ ancestral roots, concern for the natural world and cultural authenticity.
Which African brands are your favourite? Do you know of other organizations to support? Share your thoughts in the comments section and enjoy your first (or next) African-inspired shopping spree!