As dawn breaks across Canchungo, it casts a soft glow on the red earth and blue-rendered buildings. The stylist Wilow Diallo happened across this town in the coastal region of Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau, while delivering school supplies to the local children one day last winter.
Aside from its vivid palette, he was enchanted by the inhabitants’ distinctive style and the sight of multiple generations congregating under the morinda trees.
This, he decided, would be the perfect place to shoot a story showcasing the “talent, innovation and diverse perspectives of black creatives who are shaping and redefining the global fashion landscape”.
Africa has a population of more than 1.4 billion, several thousand societies and more than 2,000 languages: the lines that delineate its 54 countries can hardly contain its multitudes, in fashion as in everywhere else.
“The beauty of African fashion is that it is as varied as the continent itself,” says Dr Christine Checinska, who curated the V&A’s recent exhibition Africa Fashion (now at the Brooklyn Museum until October this year).
“People’s aesthetic vocabularies are broad. There is an appreciation for the skill that has gone into making a garment, print or weaving among global Africans that has perhaps been lost in the global north. And among designers there is a collective power, in the sense that they want to bring others with them in their journey to success.”
© Bettina Pittaluga – Angel wears Creole Officiel cotton top, POA. Xuly.Bët cotton trousers, £255. Jewellery, model’s own. Milanca wears Lilabare cotton top, £97. Emmy Kasbit Nigerian cotton shorts, £118. Vanhu Vamwe recycled paracord bag, £300
Diallo, who was raised in Senegal and now lives in Paris, is particularly moved by the ways in which black creatives embed African traditions into their work. He cites the Cameroonian dancer and designer Imane Ayissi who tailors Ghanaian Kente cloth into cocoon coats, and Faso Dan Fani, traditionally a woven cloth from Burkina Faso, into cocktail dresses.
He points to the Nigerian brand Emmy Kasbit, renowned for its use of Akwete textiles from the Igboland region, and Lagos Space Programme, the recipient of this year’s Woolmark Prize, whose collections have seen lace and brocade motifs imparted onto garments using a resist-dye technique known as Adire, which originates from Yoruba culture.
Then there is South Africa’s Thebe Magugu. Since becoming the first African person to win the LVMH Prize in 2019, Magugu has teamed up with Dior on a capsule collection and reimagined a Valentino couture gown for Vogue.
“These collaborations have been important for visibility. It’s a way for people to see African fashion through a prism they are familiar with,” he says. “Bigger brands have gained a new appreciation. The best collaborations are mutually beneficial.” Adama Ndiaye, the Senegalese founder of the brand Adama Paris, who produced Chanel’s Métiers d’art show in Dakar last December, goes further.
“When a great luxury brand like Chanel comes to us with open arms asking to collaborate, it says that African fashion is at the top of its game,” she says of the event, which celebrated local artisans and craftspeople. “It was a great success. The idea of Africa being a continent that needs to be ‘helped’ is over: we are in control of our narrative now, no one else.” Ndiaye left a career in banking in Paris 20 years ago to simultaneously establish her brand and Dakar Fashion Week.
“Nowhere was showcasing African fashion back then,” she recalls. “We brought overseas designers from everywhere, from Brazil to Moldova, to learn about our culture and create a platform for their work, too. Now there are so many strong African designers, we solely focus on talent from the continent.”
The exponential growth of Dakar Fashion Week and the likes of Lagos Fashion Week, which launched a decade ago, reflects Sub-Saharan Africa’s booming apparel and footwear market, which is estimated at $31bn.
According to Ndiaye, lack of financing is one of the main challenges facing designers: she is currently working to set up a fund for emerging talent. Magugu emphasises the important infrastructural improvements that need to be made – in June, the same week he relaunched his international online store, Johannesburg experienced power and water outages. “The African fashion industry is being truthful about the harsh realities that exist here,” says Magugu.
“We have moved past this notion of an African fashion ‘utopia’, which I love because we are dealing with reality, and not presenting this perfect industry.” Currently, Africa accounts for just 1.9 per cent of global manufacturing; as part of its agenda to invest in high-growth sectors and promote women’s economic empowerment, the African Development Bank has identified the creative industries, including fashion, as an area of massive potential growth.
Diallo was keen to include fashion creators in this shoot who may not be based in Africa, but whose heritage gave them an invaluable perspective. In London, Grace Wales Bonner draws on her Caribbean roots and her knowledge of black culture to offer a rich, nuanced take on the history of the African diaspora, while Priya Ahluwalia’s namesake label weaves together elements from the designer’s dual Indian-Nigerian heritage, exemplified by her SS23 Africa is Limitless collection. Her research encompassed vintage museum blankets from Tunisia, album covers from Côte d’Ivoire depicting elegant Sapeurs and beadwork from Kenya and Rwanda – all brought together in celebration of Africa, “a vast wonderland of cultural innovation”, as the show notes read.
Ahluwalia also has a kinship with African designers thanks to its permanent focus on sustainability: like Emmy Kasbit, it prioritises artisanally produced or upcycled materials. Meanwhile, Diallo, Magugu and Ndiaye all describe how in their respective cultures, garments are lovingly passed from generation to generation. “Global African creatives build their collections in a more artistic way and they evolve,” says Dr Checinska. “They aren’t bound to seasons and are more considered. For many of them, sustainability is ground zero. There is a focus on people, resources, skills, and therefore the planet, and that encourages more conscious consumerism.”
If there is one thing that unites African fashion creatives, she concludes, it’s a drive to create a sustainable fashion ecosystem – but also how they demand and exercise agency. Models, Angel Da Silva, Mari Seide, Milanca Figuereido and Valentina Gomes. Casting, Braima Djata. Hair, Tânia Mário Gomes. Make-up, Melissa Righi. Photographer’s assistant, Adam Storm. Stylist’s assistant, Jordan Renou Rohel. Production, SW Studio Paris.