African futures

A muggy cloud hung over Maputo last month, but the drizzle did little to dampen the spirits of an extraordinary event unfolding around the city’s gracious pale-green central railway station. The occasion was an auspicious one: the 10th Mozambique Fashion Week (MFW) and I’d been invited by the hosts to judge the event’s various competitions.

While New York Fashion Week rarely scrapes through in five days, here in remote, logistically volatile Mozambique, the 11-day schedule was in full swing and the zeitgeist in this eerily enchanting city was summed up by the ubiquitous neon-pink posters yelling: “MFW. Wild Now.”

What made the opportunity so interesting was that I had been hosted at the inaugural event in 2005 and was well positioned to gauge its – and the broader African fashion industry’s – progress over a decade.

From a sponsorship and logistics point of view, MFW is pretty miraculous.

In a country where 70% of the population is still considered poor, the luxury of a fashion week – let alone a burgeoning one – is no small feat and yet looking at the collections, I saw little evolution.

The clichéd combination of capulana (local wax print) and ostentatious gold lace, gaudy satin and chintz still dominated the runway. Only a few young designers, who had mostly enjoyed foreign training, showed hopeful signs of talent.

More telling was the Pan-African Show, where we saw designers from Angola, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Swaziland and South Africa. With a couple of exceptions, the collections remained mired in a long-standing aesthetic paradigm – a spattering of unexciting ready to wear that buffered the real product – grand occasional wear and wedding dresses.

In fairness, one couldn’t hope for much different because despite all the sponsorship money that was raised at the event, none of these countries offer any fashion education. After 10 fashion weeks, Mozambique still only offers a three-month sewing course with Bernina, so the hope of any real change is unrealistic.

The styling is fairly predictable, but given the economic realties of these countries, how could it not be? In a country like Angola, how could there be any need or possibility of a market beyond this? For the few who can afford it, weddings are the only time a dress can be especially designed. So the concept of a viable couture or ready-to-wear market is ridiculous.

Stylistically, the designs are also stuck in a post-colonial paradigm – either a classical Eurocentric approach, as seen in the obligatory cake-like wedding gowns, or an Afrocentric one, featuring wax prints and overblown silhouettes that, if anything, present a caricature of African style – exaggerated, clichéd and very rarely original.

Lately, however, and largely in the diaspora, a handful of designers of African origin have been breaking the mould and delivering truly exciting collections. It seems this has as much to do with their exposure to other markets as to their approach.

Sindiso Khumalo, a South African designer based in the UK, is little known back home, yet her collections seem to embody the contemporary African signature that’s so elusive on local catwalks.

Khumalo studied architecture at the University of Cape Town and went on to study textile design at St Martins in London.

She has not shown at local fashion weeks and instead chooses trade fairs to build her brand. Her interest in textiles has produced wonderful knits that express a contemporary African feel without feeling like clichés. They are easy to wear and their appeal to a broader market is self-evident. They do not exaggerate their Africanness, but appear as a natural expression of identity in an original form. With the luxury of living in the UK and South Africa, Khumalo does most of her textile development in London and keeps her production at home. Another designer creating ripples of excitement on the fashion scene is UK-based Nigerian designer Duro Olowu.

When I attended one of his shows at London Fashion Week four years ago, I wasn’t blown away, but his latest collection epitomises what is best described as a post-African aesthetic.

Olowu has come into his own with this range, and his masterful combinations of colour and prints embody the postmodern mash-up which, while always present in African street style, has rarely made it to the catwalk.

Presented at London’s posh Savoy Hotel, the collection’s Bohemian feel presents a revisionist take on hippies who abandoned their middle class Western backgrounds to embrace exotic, often African, dress and cultures. The role reversal it presents is a turning point for African design.

Another breakthrough designer is Laduma Ngxokolo, whose knitwear range draws on a traditional Xhosa motif, but Ngxokolo executes them as knitwear ranges on a par with Italian brands such as Missoni or Etro.

Similarly, the menswear ranges from UK-based Dent de Man showed African wax prints executed as sleek, tailored suits or lately, with an Eastern influence, stepping out of the African-European dialogue to present a surprisingly fresh result.

US-based Nigerian designer Maki Oh expresses identity in unlikely ways. For one collection, she selected her favourite songs and screen-grabbed the patterns that emerged on her graphic equaliser. She then interpreted these designs in reeds that she embroidered into her collections.

Another surprisingly fresh approach comes from US-based Ivorian designer Loza Maléombho – pared-down cuts, asymmetry and unembellished fabrics forge a very modern signature that somehow still carries an African essence.

Taibo Bacar is a Mozambican designer who did not show at MFW this year, but his carefully considered collections take capulana prints into a new orbit.

The Indonesian-inspired prints are presented in a formal and classical way, with precision tailoring that elevates them from the caricatured African paradigm and imbues them with a refined elegance, reinventing the prints in a desirable way.

His success in Spain and Portugal reflects the international appeal of the collections.

The new African designers are more complex, more nuanced and harder to pin down in terms of reference points or identity and, consequently, they stand a better chance of being taken seriously in the globalised mainstream fashion market.

FLOATY Maki Oh

GEOMETRIC Sindiso Khumalo

FRESH MaXhosa by Laduma

EASTERN MOTIF Taibo Bacar

FEMININE Taibo Bacar

OP ART MaXhosa by Laduma

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