Africa fashion’s future – Fashion Africa Conference in London

In London, there are only a handful of African fashion events on the annual calendar, so when you hear of one, if you’re a stakeholder in the industry or merely a fan of African fashion, it is a must – especially if it is Europe’s largest African fashion conference organised by none other than the reputable social enterprise Africa Fashion Guide.

The second annual Fashion Africa Conference in London, the brainchild of Jacqueline Shaw, founder of The Africa Fashion Guide and The Fashion Africa Conference and the author of Fashion Africa – came back much bigger than the 2013 maiden edition, this time over two days on 25-26 May, held under the theme, “Africa. Fashion’s Future”.

“The artisan craft sector is the second largest employer in the developing world. In the next five years, Africa’s textile industry could generate up to $15.5 billion revenue according to The African Development Bank. Within Africa, the entire textile/clothing market is already worth more than $31 billion and accounts for the second largest number of jobs in developing countries after agriculture. As it has been stressed, Africa will rise not by charity or aid but through investment and trade. So the time to invest is now, and a strong garment manufacturing sector is key to Africa’s development,” says Shaw.

With this in mind, Fashion Africa Conference seeks to highlight the scope of opportunities across the continent by bringing together industry leaders from across Africa and the world.

The highlights of day 1 had to be Daphne Kasambala’s case study of Sapellé, online (and now in brick and mortar) African fashion outlet which clocks five years this year and has grown to include brands offering fashion, gift and home products to customers around the world as an omni-channel lifestyle brand offering the very best of African-inspired design. To paraphrase founder Kasambala, five years in African fashion is no small beans.

Another case study was from Bola Marquis, the founder of ÒKUN Beachwear, another brand that clocks five years this year. Founded in 2012, with hard work, and the Ps Marquis highlighted in his presentation – partnerships, people, problems, perseverance and pain – ÒKUN Beachwear is on the way to becoming a global fashion brand already stocked at Browns and Matches in London and Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Problems were highlighted by another celebrated speaker, Simone Cipriani, who in a poignant talk, stressed the importance of the role of the African designers and artisans in finding solutions to problems, “We love Africa, but let’s tell the truth, there are inefficiencies in Africa,” said the founder of ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, “Managing in Africa is managing inefficiencies and finding creative solutions for bottleneck. I believe in Africa. It is time to do things properly, remove bottlenecks and give people dignified work.”

It wasn’t just the role of the designers on the continent that was under the spotlight; in a panel I moderated with the founders of two equally delightful online fashion portals, Parisian Chayet Chiénin of Nothing but the Wax and New York-based Ekua Odoi of African Prints in Fashion, we dissected the role of the African fashion journalists and bloggers to enhance the African narrative highlighting the work of continental designers and creatives as well as recognising and reporting instances of appropriation whereby African fashion is a point of reference without recognition.

A key issue soon emerged the future of African fashion journalism where the panel were keen to stress that the future is digital and social as opposed to print journalism. Responding to a question from a member of the audience over quality control both Odoi and Chiénin were keen to address that digital media is equally conscious of producing quality content as print media and they have a plethora of digital resources available that enables editors and writer to correct any errors in a timely way – not an option for errors made in print. This led to a discussion of funding and supporting African owned media, whether digital or print to enable them to continue producing high quality content in innovative formats.

Chiénin was also keen to highlight the need for African-owned media with offices based across the continent to enable us to report what’s on ground and to report the Africa often unreported in mainstream media to continue enhancing the narrative.

Alongside panel discussions, presentations and case studies, there was also an exhibition bringing together designers and brands supporting sustainable fashion in Africa. Some of the highlights here were Gitas Portal founded by the inspirational Mariatu Turay who escaped civil war in Sierra Leone and a brief period of homelessness in the UK to establish her fashion brand; Barefoot in Business, a groundbreaking documentary driven campaign showcasing the work of female entrepreneurs across Uganda and creating a new online marketplace; 18 Forever, an online social enterprise fashion brand for women aiming to create an avenue where artisans are empowered and fairly rewarded for their work.

Day 2 of the 2017 Fashion Africa conference saw keynote speeches by Tamsin Lejeune of Ethical Fashion Forum, Orsola de Castro of Fashion Revolution Day, Lance and Dulma Clark of Soul of Africa, workshops from Ann McCreath of FAFA Kenya and Kiko Romeo and Chris Springs of the British Museum and sustainable fashion designers Fee Uhssi and Jose Hendo, panel discussions on the future of manufacturing and future poicy and finance.

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