by Fleur Rollet-Manus
African designers have long lived in the shadow of their showier (read: richer) European counterparts, frequently victims of cultural appropriation, Western exploitation and blatant theft of designs. As the creative scene across Africa booms, Lagos and Johannesburg are jostling to become the continent’s fashion capital, while traditional crafts are being brought back from extinction and used to celebrate culture and history through meticulously designed clothes. These are the young creators and African fashion houses that are pioneering sustainable initiatives while shattering stereotypes with a made-in-Africa ethos.
Make room in your wardrobe for a new wave of African designers
A firm favourite of fashion royalty Naomi Campbell (who closed his recent show in a striped trench coat), Kenneth Ize is devoted to preserving the traditions of Nigerian craftsmanship. Working with western Nigerian aso oke (a traditional Nigerian fabric) weavers, he takes a local handicraft and merges it with modern design to create a new aesthetic. Workwear-style polychrome pieces demonstrate playful touches: silk trousers sport a fringed hem and boiler suits are quilted. Not limited to collaborating with African artisans, Ize’s previous collections saw him call upon Viennese lace-makers in a nod to many West African women (including his mother) who once sourced high-quality Austrian lace for their Sunday best.
Self-taught Lagos-based designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal uses his designer brand, Orange Culture, to challenger masculine Nigerian stereotypes and blur the lines between gender boundaries. Diverse, androgynous silhouettes in the form of linen tunics, silk kimonos and well-cut suits in stripes, shimmery satins and unashamedly bold colour palettes (think neon oranges and lime greens) feature heavily in his collections. Traditionally feminine silhouettes are used as a symbol of freedom, while knitted lime-green crocheted combat vests give Oke-Lawal’s clothes a gritty, streetwear edge.
The eponymous brand from the 2019 LVMH Prize winner caught the attention of fashion’s front-row when he debuted at Paris Fashion Week in February. Tokens of his childhood can be seen in his latest collections; a photoprint of his aunt’s corrugated iron roof is featured on a feather-trimmed shirt, while a pleated skirt references South Africa’s handiwork and a patterned trench coat draws inspiration from a retro tablecloth. Hailing from Kimberley, South Africa, Magugu’s home-grown production process remains pivotal to his collection: knitwear is constructed in Cape Town and his logo-embossed satchel bag is stitched in Johannesburg.
At the forefront of South Africa’s thriving fashion scene, MaXhosa’s modernist knitwear has graced the catwalks of New York Fashion Week, hung on the rails of Bloomingdale’s and had knitwear pieces displayed in the Big Apple’s Museum of Modern Art. African craftsmanship is celebrated as ferociously as designer Laduma Ngxokolo’s heritage; everything – from dyed fabrics, beadwork to avant-garde headwear – is produced in-house with most garments knitted in South African mohair and merino wool. For his latest collection, a ceremonial theme is evident with cable-knit sweaters displaying complex patterns in the colour of the South African flag and sport-luxe silk tracksuits decorated in geometric patterns and futuristic shapes.
Attracting rave reviews from her debut at New York Fashion Week – the first Mozambican designer to show, we may add – Eliana Murargy knows how to dress a woman. Soft yet strong, tailored yet fluid, her expertly tailored garments have a whimsical feel that pays tribute to the feminine form. Created in conjunction with a community of skilled West African tailors, the “Basking in the Osun River” collection gathers inspiration from the flora and fauna that blooms along the Osun River, which flows from Nigeria to the Gulf of Guinea. A palette of rosy hues, metallics and stark white is used in elegant dresses and forward-thinking beachwear garments.
Born in Brazil and raised in Côte d’Ivoire, Loza Maleombho models her eponymous clothing line on the cultures and subcultures that make up her heritage. Fusing contemporary design with traditional techniques, her signature silhouettes play on the concept of old and new, bringing together Ivorian tribal aesthetics with urban New York grit. Old African practices are translated into trends and a medley of energy and history. This isn’t just a clothing line aimed at a millennial audience, but an education in the diverse artisans of Africa.
A trailblazer for South Africa’s LGBTQ community, designer Rich Mnisi isn’t afraid to experiment with clashing colours; his runway pieces look as much like well-tailored clothing as they do modern art installations. Minimalist structures with pared-back prints and clashing co-ords – think: Andy Warhol-esque Coca Cola-print suits and pink and green zebra co-ords. His recently released Azania accessories collection has a hint of Jacquemus about it, with the rust-coloured, ostrich feather-trimmed bag quickly becoming our summer go-to.
Born in Botswana and raised in Durban, South Africa, designer Sindiso Kumalo has a generation of women to thank for her garment skills. Her grandmother crocheted clothes for her grandchildren and constructed wedding dresses for the community, while her mother sewed 80s power suits from old Burda patterns. Inspired by her Zulu and Ndebele heritage, the majority of her handmade textiles are created using watercolour and collage. For the SS20 collection, the sustainability-focused Khumalo explores experiences of black women in the 1800s and 1900s, with babydoll dresses fitted with voluminous bibs and high-necked maxi dresses cut from intricate, regal prints.