The fashion industry’s relationship with African culture has long been a contentious one. For decades, designers have been co-opting traditional garments and textiles, inciting the question: Is it appropriation, or is it just inspiration?
The 1930s saw the beginning of designers using African prints and fabrics in their work: Known as the Ancient Egyptian craze, the elite from the Americas and Europe flocked to Africa for safari wearing tribal and animal prints. Today, the phenomenon stands, as indigenous patterns can still be seen on the runways. In 2017, Stella McCartney was accused of cultural appropriation when she used Ankara print during her Paris Fashion Week collection; according to All Things Ankara, the textile is a staple in West African countries like Chad, Ghana, or Nigeria and is used for both casual and formal wear. But African culture goes far beyond colorful patterns and leopard and snakeskin; it’s one that’s embedded in tradition and has a long and enriched history. And it’s one that deserves to be acknowledged.
Established in 2011, Lagos Fashion Week provides an alternative, diversified, and interactive platform for local designers to perfect their craft while placing Africa’s past, present, and future on a more global stage. The seventh-largest city in the world, Lagos, Nigeria is quickly building momentum as a place where talent is truly thriving. And the four-day event, which took place from October 24-27th, brought together buyers, consumers, editors, and influencers to view Africa’s emerging fashion scene. It was a celebration of Africanism and, as the locals say, a moment “to baff up” (to dress well).
Below, we’ve compiled five emerging designers from Lagos Fashion Week who are helping reposition and elevate the African fashion industry.
Born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, award-winning fashion designer Anyango Mpinga re-branded and relaunched her clothing line Kipusa as an eponymous label in 2015. Mpinga’s design aesthetic is influenced by her spiritual life as a Bahá’í, a religion that teaches the essentials of all religions through the unity and equality of all people, as well as by her interest in the arts and her travels. For her spring ‘19 collection, Mpinga showed a selection of modern and elegant pieces that were authentic to both her personal style and the sociopolitical issues she believes in. The offering reflected her “FREE AS A HUMAN” initiative, which brings awareness to human trafficking and child labor.
Emmy Kasbit creative director Okoro Emmanuel is the African fashion industry’s next rising star; the newcomer has won several accolades, including a $13,900 cash grant and business mentoring from Ijeoma Ogbechie, an expert in finance and vice president at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, as well as the 2017 Fashion Focus Prize at Lagos Fashion Week. Emmanuel also recently met with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who wore one of his designs on her visit to Nigeria earlier this year (spoiler alert: she’s a fan!).
Emmy Kasbit’s latest collection celebrated Calabar, Emmanuel’s hometown located in southern Nigeria. The offering recollects the story of his youth creating uniforms for school, his early twenties finding his vision, and his passion for design. Emmanuel’s aesthetic is largely guided by his roots and often references his father and the clothing he wore during the 1970s in Nigeria.
Born in Ile-Ife, Osun State located in southwestern Nigeria, industry veteran Mai Atafo continues to hold his position as one of Lagos Fashion Week’s strongest talents by showcasing collections that are both inspirational and aspirational. The bespoke tailor first learned about clean lines and sublime silhouettes during his time at the Leeds-based Savile Row Academy, where he fine-tuned his art of design. His spring ‘19 collection explored the Nigerian military, the largest component of the Nigerian Armed Forces, and aimed to present the strength and protection of the nation.
In 2012, Nkwo Onwuka was relaunched and relocated from the UK to Nigeria, staying true to an artisanal design direction through experimentation and preservation of traditional African craftsmanship. Onwuka often interprets a free-spirited and nomadic lifestyle that champions the African renaissance, and this season was no different. Onwuka’s latest collection entitled “Who Knew” magnified her use for cultural details by incorporating the “Gele” headdress and cocoon/barrel-like silhouettes into a selection of sustainability and ethically-sourced fashion.
Launched in 2009, Tsemaye Binitie showcases what happens when architecture and fashion collide. His contemporary approach creates a purposeful blend of functionality meets design, as the Tsemaye Binitie woman embodies strength, beauty, glamour, and an appreciation of simplistic pieces with a twist; elements of drama such as fringe, bias cuts, or sequins are often added to an otherwise basic ensemble.