Jacket cover of New African Fashion by Helen Jennings. Design by Maki-Oh.
New African Fashion by one of Europe’s pre-eminent fashion journalists and ARISE magazine editor, Helen Jennings, delves into contemporary African fashion. Starting with a brief historical overview of African fashion, Jennings puts the focus on the best in fashion design, modeling and photographic talent from the continent and diaspora.
Notably, she explores why African fashion is currently having a moment on mainstream catwalks.
I was honored to speak to her about the book. Please read on for our conversation.
Helen, thank you for honoring my site with this interview. Your book New African Fashion was sorely needed. What inspired you to write it now and what was the creative process like for you?
As editor of ARISE for the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of traveling around Africa discovering different fashion scenes and meeting the industry’s movers and shakers. ARISE also hosts its own fashion events, most notably our collective shows at NYFW and ARISE Magazine Fashion Week in Lagos. In this time I’ve witnessed the rapid growth and improvement in African fashion as well as the international interest in it. It feels like a seismic moment in African fashion right now, which deserves a book dedicated to it. The creative process was intense – I only had a few months to do all the research, interviews and writing – but it was also a very rewarding experience as almost every person I approached was enthusiastic to be part of the project.
Africa has long been an inspiration to designers. What is about Africa as a whole that has designers returning to it as a reference point?
Africa is a vast continent encompassing so many different cultures, tribes, religions, traditions, textiles, landscapes and dress practices, each with their own rich history and significance, that there’s simply so much to be inspired by. Although there are those abiding (and sometimes colonial) references international designers have leaned on over the decades – animal prints, headwraps, safari suits and so on – the best designers from all over the world dig deeper to tap into the vast well of African styles and materials that have yet to be seen on a catwalk. Better still, they are now also beginning to collaborate with African designers and artisans and basing production in Africa (e.g. Suno, Edun, LemLem etc). Africa has for centuries prized appearance and adornment so it’s little wonder it offers endless stimulation for those who can see past the ‘exotic’ to what is truly original and meaningful.
Tiffany Amber by Justin Polkey, page 97 from New African Fashion by Helen Jennings
New African Fashion explores the profiles of designers such as Duro Olowu, Black Coffee and Jewel by Lisa. How has this new wave of African design emerged and how are they different from the likes of Xuly Bët of the 90’s?
This is a big question! But briefly, as Africa has opened up to the world and grown in influence both economically and culturally, so too has its fashion industry. Improved infrastructure, education and good governance has allowed creative industries to prosper. The Obama effect and the World Cup also shined a light on all things African. Whereas a generation ago, fashion was not seen as a worthy or viable occupation, now stylish Afropolitans are showing the west how African fashion is really done. Today’s designers don’t have to be defined or limited by their origins or be making a political point with their designs (if they choose not to). Instead they can concentrate on making desirable, well-made, well-marketed collections.
How did you chose which labels to profile and how does their work go beyond the stereotypical cliché with reference to aesthetic and translation?
I included a cross section of designers from around Africa and the diaspora who represent the kaleidoscope of aesthetics within African fashion now. Some are more Afro-centric, others make clothes that don’t at first glance seem African at all, but I hope that viewed together they reflect the talent and diversity the scene has to offer and prove that these designers are creating contemporary ready to wear that can compete with the best in the world.
Eric Raisina by Misha Taylor, page 53 from New African Fashion by Helen Jennings
In the last few years we have seen celebrities like Kelis, Solange and Beyoncé champion this new wave of African design. Would you say that this multi-culturalism a reflection of what is happening socially or is this just a passing trend?
The ascension of Africa fashion is definitely a reflection of a growing multiculturalism. More and more people think globally, travel globally and are aware of life beyond their own backyards so it’s only natural for clued up, educated individuals to show an interest in creative output from other cultures. This is of course also aided by the growth in social and new media and e-commerce worldwide. Trends do come and go – wax prints will be in one season and out the next – but the more quality output African fashion produces; the more the people will sit up and take notice.
Designers like Kenzo Takada successfully managed to bridge that cultural divide between East and West. Venturing outside labels such as ‘Far Eastern designer’, his became a global brand. One that the consumer both in the Far East or West could relate to. How can African based, high fashion design talent, become internationally recognized labels?
The best African designers combine local and traditional influences with international ones. By balancing the demands of the global fashion seasons and trends while maintaining an authentically African sense of style, African fashion is offering the world something that feels fresh. Challenges remain though in terms of infrastructure, transport, production and access to materials and trained staff, which hinder small designers from fulfilling substantial orders from abroad to the required standards and time frames. Governments need to financially support their local industries more in order for them to compete effectively. Also designers should come together to form a pan-African body to promote themselves and campaign for improvements.
In a time of heightened environmental consciousness, how is African inspired to the African made, more relevant now?
As most designers have their own ateliers and tailors and source materials locally, African fashion is by and large very ethically and environmentally conscious. Designers are helping to keep indigenous textiles and crafts alive, creating much-needed employment and producing hand made, feel good fashion that appeals to shoppers both at home and abroad.
You edit award-winning magazine, ARISE. You have worked with the best models and photographers from the continent of Africa and diaspora. Which of this talent has been most memorable to date and how does New African Fashion bring them to light?
A lot of my work with ARISE has been fed into New African Fashion. Shooting Oluchi on a rooftop in Johannesburg during Africa Fashion Week, going to New York to interview Alek Wek for the World Cup issue cover, feeling the excitement at ARISE Magazine Fashion Week in Lagos, meeting the Smarteez in Soweto, judging the M-Net Face of Africa competition, going to Nairobi for FAFA… almost every page is a reflection of my ARISE experiences.
Duro Olowu by Andrew Osunmu, page 23 New African Fashion by Helen Jennings
Finally, who is New African Fashion for and why is it a coffee table must have?
I hope New African Fashion has a broad appeal. It’s a useful compendium for anyone in the industry, it’s an eye opener for the casual reader, it’s educational for fashion students and it’s an investment for lovers of glossy coffee table books.
New African Fashion by Helen Jennings as published by Prestel is £19.99/$35.00. It is available in the UKhere. and US here. and Amazon US here.
Many kind thanks to Helen Jennings for the interview.
( This article and pictures are all from Marian's blog)