ACCRA, Ghana — Calvin Klein, Armani and … Bayo Adegbe? African designers are working to make a name for themselves outside their countries, showing their collections around the world and bringing their unique styles to wider audiences.
At Ghana Fashion Weekend, more than 30 designers from around Africa rolled out their collections, featuring vibrant prints, chunky accessories and traditionally inspired forms. It was the largest fashion event in Ghana and drew audience members from beyond the continent.
“I love wearing the African wear on the runway because everyone is watching to see, ‘What new design?’ ‘What are they going to do with this fabric?’ ‘What’s next?’ ” said Accra resident, Sonia Ibrahim, a part-time model who walked the runway for designer Ouedraogo Usman of Burkina Faso. She sported a ruffled cream gown with a leather bodice, raffia tasseled fan, enormous bangles and bone accents, and a woven wicker mask that obscured her face. “Most people don’t understand, ‘Why is her face covered?’ But it’s traditional wear. And [wearing it] was fun.”
Some designers are ambitious and would like to see Africa’s creativity capture the spotlight on runways around the world. They argue that both Africans and Westerners will look to the continent for the colors, shapes and textures that will form part of their newest innovations in fashion and the arts. Earlier this year, African inspirations found their way onto the runways of Louis Vuitton and Dior.
“We have a lot of ideas that have not been tapped. We have a lot of things that have not been used,” said internationally recognized Nigerian designer, Bayo Adegbe, who runs the label Modela Couture.
Adegbe’s designs have won him a number of awards in Nigeria and beyond, as well as an all-expenses-paid internship with a design house in Paris. At Ghana Fashion Weekend, a troupe of male models showed off his line of Western suits made from richly textured batik fabric and popular African prints, ranging from orange and yellow geometric designs, leopard spots and pictures of chickens.
Adegbe’s collection also includes sparkling gowns, shorts and tops covered in silver and pastel sequins. He wanted to replicate the natural pattern of fish scales — he even started sewing the clothes with real fish scales from a market in Lagos. Those never lost their fishy smell and shriveled over time, so now he relies on flashy plastic sequins instead to achieve the same effect.
But, more than just creating fancy couture clothing, designers like Adegbe see their role as a catalyst for job creation and economic development on the continent.
“It will help to put business on a lot of people’s tables,” Adegbe said. “The population is large in Africa. So if they are all buying clothes that are made in Africa, then that is good business for a lot of African designers.”
Already a number of independent designers have been able to employ themselves and a small workforce to sketch, cut and sew their collections. But they have trouble pushing their miniature operations to the next level. Adegbe says that there are no factories in Nigeria capable of mass-producing his pieces. Even though he’s had interest from European buyers, he can’t keep up with the sheer quantity of clothes they demand.
Although many designers start small, the organizers of Ghana Fashion Weekend are working for nothing less than a fashion revolution. They aim to change not only the way the rest of the world views fashion in Africa, but also how people at home relate to the industry. Although local tailors’ shops are common throughout Ghana, many Ghanaians just didn’t get the point of a fashion show. According to Ghana Fashion Weekend Exhibition Director, Kofi Essel, “When a lady moves on a catwalk they say, ‘What is wrong with this girl? [She] just wears a dress, turns off, shows everybody and then she goes away.’ They just didn’t understand why somebody should do that first of all.”
But the organizers are encouraged by the showing at this year’s show — and optimistic about the future of what they see as an annual event in the country. Even though there were technical difficulties with lights and sound from time to time during the event, on the last day, the auditorium was packed and the large crowd cheered for their homegrown models and designers.