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Sometime in Africa

Africa In Vogue

It’s wonderful to see African fashion making it on the global runway, but what is African? Is it the use of zebra print and ostrich feathers, or is it clothes made by Africans? Does it matter if the garments are made by African hands but not on African soil?

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If you’ve been living under a rock be sure to emerge and catch up because Africa is in vogue.

As far back as 2009, the world’s top designers couldn’t help making inspired references to what was once called the Dark Continent. The likes of Marc Jacobs and John Galliano have paid homage to Africa’s intricate beauty. Well renowned international designer Vivienne Westwood, exhibited her interest in Africa through her Ethical Fashion Africa Collection. Other Labels bitten by the Africa bug have been Burberry, Gwen Stefani’s LAMB and Tommy Hilfiger.

Arise Magazine’s African Icons show at last month’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week New York featured designs by Gavin Rajah, Ozwald Boateng, Folake Folarin (Tiffany Amber), Tsemaye Binitie and Amaka Osakwe (Maki Oh).

At the Arise Magazine Fashion Week in Lagos, Boateng was handed the Lifetime Achievement award and labels KLuK CGDT and Maki Oh won best designer.

It’s gone beyond Africans inspiring international designers, to African designers sharing their own history and creativity.

Nigerian Designer, Lisa Folawiyo, studied law at the University of Nigeria and followed her dream when she started Jewel by Lisa from home in 2005. She redefined the way one could wear Ankara—a colorful wax resist dyed fabric—and makes handcrafted clothes that take an average of 120 hours, using custom made prints.

Nigerian fashion is moving away from the local markets with their rows of fabric stalls and corner tailors.

Folawiyo has exhibited in Johannesburg, London, Paris and New York. To increase her appeal and market, Folawiyo launched a diffusion line, The J Label, in 2011. The pieces emulate the luxury core of her designs but are a more practical and accessible option. The new label offers anything from trousers and handbags to dresses. While the main label ranges from $350-$11,500, the diffusion line ranges from $150-$350.

In South Africa, and further afield, the name Gavin Rajah is synonymous with style, opulence and glamor. He is a true example of an African designer turned international sensation. Rajah’s fashion is inspiring, his shows are mesmerizing and it’s no wonder he’s dressed people like Beyonce, Nelson Mandela, Tom Cruise, Naomi Campbell among others. As if this were not enough, Rajah has even delved into jewelry design.

Taking fashion beyond just designs, Rajah wrote a paper titled “Creating an Identity in Design: South Africa the future of fashion?”, which reached as far as Milan. A founder of the Cape Town Fashion Week, Rajah, is serious about the industry and its sustainability in the country. He’s made a point of employing and mentoring young designers in his Cape Town studio and sits on the Cape Town Fashion Council board.

From UNICEF Ambassador to design extraordinaire, Rajah sees no limit for his brand.

The most stylish first lady of the United States, since Jackie Kennedy Onassis, is a big fan of Nigerian Duro Olowu. Michelle Obama has worn the designer’s garments on many occasions. Quitting law was the best thing Olowu could have done for the fashion world. The courtroom’s loss has evidently been the runway’s gain. Olowu’s love for art goes beyond fashion and makes for interesting collections; all that creativity makes it hard to imagine him wanting to succeed in any profession but this one. His career was catapulted when he won the New Designer of the Year award at the 2005 British Fashion Awards. Now his clothes can be found online and in stores in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

“My job is not about dictating to women what they should wear, it’s about presenting them with beautiful options,” Olowu once told The Independent in London.

Deola Sagoe is a talented and beautiful mother of three, whose clothes have been modeled by supermodels Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek. Her daughters have fashion in their blood as they have launched their own fashion label CLAN. Sagoe went to college in the United States and has a Master’s in finance and management. She will showcase her new range at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Africa being held in Johannesburg at the end of this month.

Describing the Deola Sagoe woman, the designer says: “She is colorful—she uses color to mirror her mood. She is vital—energetic—not the shy, retiring, type, but she also knows the appropriate time to hold her peace.”

The final feather on the African cap is Tiffany Amber’s Folake Folarin-Coker, another Nigerian who did not study fashion and escaped the legal world. Folarin-Coker has a degree in Petroleum law and spent her childhood in Europe. The label launched in 1998 but she made history when she became the first African-based designer to showcase at New York Fashion Week for two consecutive seasons, in 2008 and 2009.

Tiffany Amber has an online shop as well as three stores in Lagos. The brand had grown by adding two more lines and winning Arise Magazine’s Fashion Brand of the Year award for the Autumn/Winter 2011 collection.

With designers such as these, it’s no surprise African designers are taking the industry by storm and inspiring plenty. This is just the beginning as there are many budding designers.

Nina Baksmaty’s Koshie O label is gorgeous. The Ghanaian designer established a workshop in Ghana and her work has attracted the likes of Franca Sozzanni and Roberto Cavalli on their visit to West Africa. She has also brought in American singers Mỳa and Michele Williams for one of her campaigns.

Osakwe’s Maki Oh line is definitely on the right track. Her age has not hindered her will to take on the world fashion. Although she grew up in London, the Nigerian designer returned to her country of birth to start her fashion line. Her inclusion in the New York Fashion Week will only solidify her place as a young designer to watch. She brings her age and fun to her designs and shows that sometime the “now generation” is a little old school. Osakwe uses adire, which is a process of indigo dying cloth using natural indigo leaves as opposed to industrial dye. This is commonly done by Yoruba women in southwestern Nigeria. She says it takes a day to hand paint five meters of fabric and another day to dye and de-wax it.

Osakwe says her latest collection is inspired by secrets and people’s inability to keep them. This imagery is brought forward by the eyes in her prints.

Loza Maléombho is Arise Magazine Fashion Week’s Emerging Designer of the Year. She designs in the United States and manufactures the clothes at her workshop in Côte d’Ivoire. This talented designer’s work can be traced as far back as her early teens, when she made dresses for the women in her family. Her Afro-Modern designs make use of batik prints, wax fabrics and Kente cloth. She’s all about showing the world what she has to offer and helping out the Côte d’Ivorian woman in the process.

The other fresh talent to keep an eye out for is Mimi Plange. Her Boudoir D’Huitres label has been around since 2007. Fashion guru André Leon Talley took an interest in and mentored her for her New York fashion Week presentation. As if this was not enough of a fashion nod, she created a capsule shoe collection with Manolo Blahnik—a dream for any woman in the world.

Africa is bringing more than just oil, gold and war to the table. The future of fashion is here.

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