African designers defy cliches and ‘come of age’

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LAGOS – African designers are fast re-defining styles emerging from the continent as they defy stereotypes and move beyond outsiders’ cliched ideas of how Africans dress.

Without abandoning their roots, designers have long embraced a range of new ideas and continue to expand, spreading their influence globally while staying in sync with evolving tastes back home.

“The African designer and African fashion in general is moving in a more global direction,” said Tsemaye Binitie, a Britain-based Nigerian designer who launched his label by the same name two years ago.

“We are doing more contemporary work … moving with a more global feel.”

Influenced by traditional, long wrap-around skirts, matching blouses and head wraps for women, designers are creating body-hugging jumpsuits, or mini, pencil skirts in the much-loved Ankara fabrics, prints with bold colours and energetic designs once known as Dutch Wax cloth.

Their message aims at those whose only perception of the continent is an outdated one: Africa’s style and creativity goes far beyond what is often shown on Western television sets.

A recent fashion week in Nigeria’s largest city of Lagos put these trends – and diversity – on display. More than 70 designers lined up for the event, including some from outside of Africa.

The African collections at the shows included hints of the traditional with a modern flair – an approach that has proven successful at home and abroad.

Dresses in Ankara fabrics were embellished with precious stones or sequins, while animal prints or tribal-themed fabric were used for collars on bespoke suits.

“African designers have definitely come of age,” said Penny McDonald, organiser of the event known as Arise Magazine Fashion Week.

“Our chosen designers all created contemporary, wearable, creative African designs that are commercial enough to transport internationally.”

— People are respecting us —

Traditional African prints are also moving with the times.

“In Bangkok, people love it because it’s something different. It’s something new. It’s something vibrant,” said Maureen Ikem Okogwu-Ikokwu, a Nigerian designer based in Thailand.

“We are much more appreciated right now. People are looking to us, respecting us.”

Ivory Coast designer Loza Maleombho was one of the few who showcased a collection made exclusively from traditional African textiles, notably the colourful, interwoven silk and cotton kente cloth from Ghana and her native country. Her models strutted the catwalk with heads wrapped in brown turbans, recalling those worn by Tuareg nomads.

“It’s about West Africa,” she said.

Maki Oh, another Nigerian designer, showed pieces of sensual African street fashion with baggy trousers suggestive of men’s agbada suits made from antique aso-oke — a traditional loom-woven fabric.

“Africa is quite a new emerging fashion center. Europe and America are quite saturated in terms of fashion. If you think of Prada and Gucci – there’s almost one in every street corner now,” said South African designer Malcolm Kluk.

If one is looking for new fashion frontiers, “maybe Africa will be that,” he said.

As interest in African designers grows, some still have to deal with tough working conditions that have prompted others to move shop to overseas bases.

Infrastructure problems such as a lack of consistent electricity have dogged designers in countries like Nigeria. Others have had to deal with copyright problems, since many African countries have no such laws that cover the fashion industry.

Nkwo Onwuka, a Nigerian designer based in Britain, has developed a ruse for beating the copycats.

“You just have to stay one step ahead and just create your own look,” she said. “Try to do it in such a way that nobody will follow you, and even if they try, it wouldn’t be the same.”

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