Fashion revamped, and dare I say, a lesson in business

We’ve been seeing them in unexpected places for the past few years: African print bags and belts paired with black cocktail dresses; office wear incorporating ATL (Akosombo Textiles Limited) fabric; and clubbing outfits completely tailored from African print or featuring African fabric in some way. Yes, clothes and accessories made from African textiles have always been around but now they appear to have taken on a new form, and they are in high demand not just by tourists but also by young African women.

Young African women’s current demand for African-infused fashion is certainly in contrast with previous perceptions about African wear. Ten years ago, most Ghanaian female clubbers would not have considered a skirt tailored from ATL fabric as part of their outfits. I myself hardly saw Ghanaian print as trendy when I was a teenager. Today, things have changed.  Ask me now if I wear blazers and skirts sewn from ATL or Woodin fabric to work and I’ll say yes.

The fact that clothing made from African print has become more inviting to us young African women can be explained partly by the packaging. Clothes and accessories made from African textiles mirror Western designs, and are therefore more appealing to young African women who may see Western style as “it”. We like our clutch bags. So if that key design can be maintained and the bag made unique through the print chosen, then we are sold.

Some would call this trend modernisation or even Westernisation, but to me, it rather looks like Africanisation for if you think about it, designers are taking existing styles and enhancing them or creating new fashion through the use of African patterns. A clutch bag or belt is first a Western design before it is refashioned by incorporating African fabric.

In any case, attitudes towards African(-infused) fashion have changed. And astute emerging African designers are taking advantage of this new attitude to set themselves apart internationally through their creative use of African print. Ghanaian designers such as Aya Morrison and Aisha Obuobi (the creator of the Christie Brown label) have incorporated Ghanaian textiles in their collections, with Aya Morrison going as far as embellishing swimwear with print. Aya Morrison also makes handbags out of swatches of Ghanaian fabric. With Aisha Obuobi, I was impressed with her 2010 Africa Fashion Week collection which saw African print being used to enhance detail – from buttons to necklines to pockets to jacket linings. Along with other African designers like Asake Oge and Deola Sagoe, these Ghanaian designers are transforming perceptions about African fashion – they are taking the old and rebranding it in order to make it appealing to both the young African and the non-African.

These designers’ innovation is inspiring. Yet to a certain extent they are also being well-received because African print is seen as “different”, “cool” and “exotic”, and lately – if I can exaggerate a little – everyone wants to be exotic. Whatever the reason, it is about time African fabric got some PR time internationally. It’s especially about time we took an interest as African consumers and producers or designers in our clothing and fashion industry.

Why do I say the latter? Because apart from allowing us to be trendy, fashion is big business, both in terms of the amount of revenue generated as a result of size and reach, and the revenue generated through sheer numbers. Just think of big and lucrative fashion houses such as Chanel (and the prices they charge!). Think of the absolute number of seamstresses and tailors in Ghana alone. And think of the business that these large and small clothing companies give to downstream industry players – that is, the makers of fabric and thread and sewing machines and zips and everything else. Fashion is big business.

And because it is big business, we can learn an important business lesson from successful African designers. It’s simple: you take what you have and know; then you take what you’ve seen and experienced and what you think will sell; and then out of the two – that is the already-known and the newly-learned – you develop something new and innovative…you fashion.


Picture courtesy of Steven Adusei Photography, Ghana

Clothing: Ajepomaa Design Gallery
Model: Ajepomaa Mensah