Keeping Africa’s fashion promise

2009-09-11 13:38

TONIGHT four African designers will hold centre stage at the Mercedes Benz New York Fashion Week where fashion’s rule-makers and royalty will cast a critical eye over what the continent’s brightest young design stars have to offer.

The Arise Promise of Africa collective will showcase South Africa’s David Tlale alongside Nigeria’s Folake Folarin-Coker (Tiffany Amber) and Lisa Folawiyo (Jewel by Lisa), as well as Madagascar’s Eric Raisina.

New York fashion week jostles for prominence with three other fashion capitals: Paris, London and Milan. To show at any of these is an indication that you have made it onto the fastidious fashion radar.

“New York is the ultimate; it makes you or it breaks you,” says Tlale, looking stylish and composed in the midst of frenetic fittings in the centre of the garment district. “People here live, walk, eat and breathe fashion.”

The brainchild of Nigerian media mogul Nduka Obaigbena, the African showcase is the continent’s second foray into the New York fashion scene. Last year, also under the auspices of Arise – Obaigbena’s big-budget African riposte to Vogue and other fashion tomes – four other designers got to strut their stuff: South Africa’s Stoned Cherrie, Mali’s Xuly Bet and Nigeria’s MOMO and Folarin-Coker.

If Raisina, Tlale and Folawiyo all remain hopeful of snagging the attention of potential buyers in a rapidly declining fashion economy in the west, it is the veteran Folarin-Coker who is the least starry-eyed.

“Africa needs to cater for Africa. I’m Nigerian, you are South African; and we have so much more to offer. Why are we moving our talent out of Africa to New York, where a strong industry is struggling to survive while we take our money out of our continent?” asks the Lagos-based designer. She has her sights set on being the first major pan-African lifestyle brand.

For now, though, it’s all about pleasing the punters in Bryant Park, behind the historic New York Public Library, whence more than 200 000 fashionistas flock to see what to expect for the upcoming season.

All four Africans have interpreted the brief, “Modern African” in their unique way, underscoring the perennial quest by Africans in the west for individuation, differentiation and recognition of the continent’s diversity.

Tlale has kept his palette muted: black, gold, taupe, grey and cream. His accessories, more than his actual collection, speak of his roots: sisal, bone and kudu horn transformed into intricate fashion statements. His fabrics are silk and linen.

Raisina and Folarin-Coker have unleashed spectacular colours that echo the vibrant hues of the motherland. Folarin-Coker’s collection, made from silk and Chantilly lace, has as its anchor yellow, complemented with blue, gold, turquoise and hints of metallic thread.

It is Raisina whose use of colour is undoubtedly the boldest. Mimicking the myriad hues found in Madagascar, the island just east of Africa, his exquisitely handmade fabrics range from terracotta to orange, red to indigo.

Folawiyo has stuck to her trademark Ankara fabric as worn in West Africa, embellished with crystals and glass beads.

Only time will tell how this all goes down tonight with New York’s fastidious fashionistas.

The atmosphere in the Arise Promise of Africa headquarters on the 11th floor of 1410 Broadway, in the heart of New York’s fashion district, on the day before is professional and low-key.

Big-name ramp stars such as Chanel Iman, Coco Rocha and Oluchi Onweagba float in and out throughout the day, squeezing their impossibly thin bodies into impossibly small clothing. They are passed in the passageway – which doubles as a runway on which the girls show off the designs – by lesser-known girls so beautiful and thin and tall as to seem unreal. Even the United Postal Service guys sidling past as they make deliveries are agog at the creatures before them.

An array of design assistants and seamstresses stitch and steam and fetch coffee from Starbucks. Desire Ejoh, the gimlet-eyed project director for Arise magazine, oversees the organised chaos. Jan Malan, the producer and director of the extravaganza, pops in and out bearing large trays of healthy sandwiches and salads which he beseeches all and sundry to eat.

The calm, says Tlale is all a façade.

“That’s the beautiful thing; everyone thinks I’m so calm, but there are butterflies and fear – fear of the unknown, of being eaten alive by big fashionistas, editors, writers. Arise has trusted me with their brand and their money and the responsibility for representing Africa. No-one can really understand the weight of the fear.”

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