The Global Influence of African Fashion

April 23, 2024
May 3, 2024

                                                                                            Photo by Thandiwe Muriu on Callao City Light

Africa boasts of a prestigious fashion heritage, deeply rooted in its rich history and cultural diversity. From the intricate patterns of the Kente fabric in West Africa to the vibrant colours of the Southern Ndebele, Africa’s fashion game is a true reflection of the continent's age-long ingenuity and a tapestry of rich cultural heritage. Dating back to the days of the silk trade, the continent remains a major producer of raw materials for the global fashion industry with 37 of the 54  countries producing cotton, thereby resulting in over $15.5 billion worth of textile exports annually. With a growth projection of  12.14% between 2023 and 2027 and a resultant market volume of US$10.12 billion in 2027,  African fashion styles and products have successfully carved a niche in the global fashion market. 

This meteoric rise has firmly established African fashion as a global powerhouse, with designers such as Aisha Ayensu, Deola Sagoe, Laduma Maxhosa, Adebayo Oke Lawal, Anifa Mvuemba, Thebe Magugu, Imane Ayissi, Lisa Folayiwo, Lozza Maléombo, and others driving fashion innovation and contributing to global change. The launching and thriving of fashion brands across the continent are on a steady rise, and undoubtedly, the African fashion sector is poised to grow even more than presumed.

The African Fashion Niche

The African fashion sector is a rich niche that encompasses the entirety of fashion production and marketing, typifying the richness of Africa's diversity and cultural heritage. Nothing tells the stories of true African beauty quite like our unique fashion style, laced with the beauty of patterning and embroidering. African textiles such as Aso Oke, Kuba cloth, The Okene Cloth, Kente Cloth (popularly known as “Ankara”), Adire Cloth, Bokolonfini, Lamba Mena, Adinkira, etc., are as old as time, each revealing the creative ingenuity of African fashion heroes. Till date, these textile styles continue to make bold statements, interwoven and combined to create the contemporary African textiles and designs we embrace today.

                                                                                                Photo on African Queen

From textile production and fashion design to sales and advertising/promotion, the African fashion value chain presents significant potential for value-added benefits and job creation. For example, in the cotton value chain, which consists of various processes such as spinning and twisting into yarn,  weaving and knitting into fabrics, dyeing, printing, and designing, up to 600% of value can be created along the chain. The production of African fabrics and fashion goods is highly lucrative and promises even to grow larger due to the increasing involvement of Africans in the sector.  

Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and the expanding market for both luxury fashion and fashionable mid-market clothing and accessories increases its economic potential. The unique and captivating African style, fabrics, clothing, and accessories have enjoyed patronage for decades and continue to be in high demand. The rise of African fashion and design, previously sidelined by mainstream fashion for over half a century, has captured the attention of international observers, positioning Africa as a new global hub for creativity. A creative revolution is underway, and a bold chapter in the history of African fashion is unfolding, with carefully curated showcase events, fashion weeks, and creative fashion schools springing up across major African cities.

While the recent global emergence of the African fashion sector has been widely appreciated, several sceptics still refer to this age-long fashion style as a "trend." This narrative tends to limit the history and heritage embedded in African fashion. Aisha Ayensu, an award-winning fashion designer and founder of Christie Brown Fashion House, a Ghanaian-based luxury fashion brand and one of the fastest-growing fashion enterprises, emphasized that "African Fashion is not a trend; it was never a trend to us; we have been doing this for years."

In support of this transformative shift in the support of African fashion, blockbuster movies like the Black Panther sequel - Black is King, and other similar A-list movies have globally showcased the continent’s rich fashion heritage and style, incorporating it into everyday life. 170 years after its establishment, London’s V&A showcased its first-ever exhibition dedicated to African fashion as part of a new exhibition at Britain’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum (the powerful UK art and culture institution), about 45 brands and designers drastically moved the narrative from African fashion being just a trend to being a global lifestyle. 

Similarly, the 2023 Africa Fashion exhibition held at the Brooklyn Museum in New York showcased a collection of African fashion, spanning from the African Cultural Renaissance (1950s to 1994) to contemporary styles. This landmark event is hailed as the largest showcase of African fashion, boasting over 180 works by more than 40 designers from 20 African countries. 

Fashion business in Africa is booming

                                                                                                       Photo on The Exchange Africa

Several other voices have been amplified, and supportive actions have been taken to mainstream the African fashion lifestyle. The story of the age-long heritage in Africa is being acknowledged as the sector continually asserts its influence globally.

Potential Hotspots in the African Fashion Industry that Can be Leveraged for Continued Global Impact.

Contemporary clothing designs with African fabric have become an area of great market potential in the continent's fashion sector, which is taking the industry by storm as the growing demand for ready-to-wear fashion has led to a boost in the production and exportation of African fashion products on a large scale. This has created a noticeable market for foreign-designed clothing, shoes, and accessories featuring African prints. This production of contemporary foreign designs using unique African textiles fabricates an alluring form of elegance; simply irresistible to the local and global fashion space. This harmonious combination has further increased the global demand and production of unique contemporary African-styled fashion goods that are ready-to-wear, largely available, and can be mass-produced. 

The local and international interest in African fashion products and styles is on a constant rise and the need for more exportation of these products has made it a lucrative hotspot in the African fashion sector with great potential. The introduction of these products such as African textiles, clothing, bags, shoes, and African-styled contemporary apparel in foreign markets has significantly increased their demand and production on a global scale. As the exportation of these products grows, African fashion brands are increasingly taking center stage in the global fashion industry, leading to higher international sales and revenue for the industry. No doubt, contemporary African fashion holds so much potential and must be further harnessed to scale up the sector’s production revenue. 

                                                                                                                Photo on The Exchange Africa

With African fashion brands taking up the global stage, African fashion exhibitions, fashion weeks, and world-class fashion runways both locally and globally have unavoidably been on a rapid increase. London’s V&A exhibition, Arise Fashion Week (the first world-class African runway show), Lagos Fashion and Ready-to-Wear Garment Exhibition in Nigeria, Cairo Inter Leather Exhibition, Fashions Finest Africa, Jewellex Africa, to name but a few, are all fashion shows that exhibit the true and irresistible beauty in African fashion products.

On another note, this gradual rise and outstanding success of African fashion shows and exhibitions have proven to be an effective method of promoting the continent's unique fashion heritage. With the influence of mass media, these fashion events have provided African designers with a global platform to showcase their unique skills and be in the spotlight while also catalyzing noticeable changes in the African fashion value chain, market influence, and overall narrative. 

When all of the potentials of these sectors are properly harnessed, the global impact of the African fashion sector will undoubtedly soar. This impact will be further widened by the increasing growth of African fashion style. Fashion remains a mirror of culture and history; as the African fashion sector grows in importance, the authentic African narrative will go global. As a world-renowned African Author, Chinua Achebe rightly said in his novel titled “Things Fall Apart”, in 1958, "Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter”. The lions in the African fashion industry are not only telling their stories but pushing boundaries to reshape the narrative.

Curious to contribute or learn more? Your engagement could be the missing puzzle piece in advancing the continent's fashion landscape. Feel free to delve deeper, offer feedback, or even join the ongoing discourse. Because, remember, the future of Africa involves all of us.

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First Draft by Joshua Ejim