This is a piece I wrote for Twende, ZanAir's inflight magazine:
Fashioning a future
Rachel Hamada looks at the emerging East African new wave
From deep roots, East African fashion is finally blossoming. A new wave of young designers is emerging – and they want to embrace African identities rather than plagiarise stereotypical European and American fashion ideals. What’s more, African fashion is becoming lucrative as more and more Africans become affluent enough to buy designer clothes and accessories, and discerning enough to eschew obvious “status” brands such as Chanel and Gucci and go for local talent instead.
The new fashion movement in East Africa is not about flashy consumerism – flaunting your wealth has become passé. Instead it is about quality and luxury, exquisite craftsmanship and tailoring for the older generation, and about shape, colour and exuberance for the younger generation. In short, it’s about looking classy or looking fresh, and East African designers excel at both these looks.
One designer who has been rising through the ranks recently is Dar Es Salaam’s Ally Rehmtullah. From a Muslim and Indian background, he has been lucky in that his family support his career choice and come along to as many of his catwalk shows as they can. With clients ranging from Miss Tanzania to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete’s wife and daughters, Rehmtullah is typical of the new generation of designers, who feel great loyalty to Africa and can manage to resist the bright lights of Paris, Milan, London and New York.
“I love Tanzania. There is no way I will travel outside Tanzania for fashion. I have been to London Fashion Week and been the first East African designer to showcase my work there, but for living and pursuing my career, Tanzania is the place. My whole aim is to promote Tanzanian fashion,” says Rehmtullah.
“A lot of people have the perspective that in Tanzania fashion does not pay, but I totally disagree. I think if you are on the right track and know what you are doing, there is no problem. I have been surviving for two years already just doing fashion. It’s doable.” At the moment, he adds, there is little competition. “Once you are in the market, you’re settled. It’s a lot of hard work to get known, but once you are known, it’s OK.”
While the fashion marketplace in East Africa may not yet be as crowded as Europe or the USA, Rehmtullah says that there is definitely a budding scene, and the number of local designers is increasing tremendously. “I get a lot of random emails every day from people all over Tanzania asking how I got where I am, what I had to do – and it really makes me feel good being able to help them out. I am very happy to help an emerging designer reach their dream.” Established designers are also supportive of one another because for now it is such a small community. “We go out for dinner regularly and talk about fashion,” Rehmtullah says.
Another up-and-coming designer is accessories wunderkind Doreen Mashika. With a range of bags, shoes and jewellery that give Prada a run for its money but also incorporate African themes and detailing, Swiss-Tanzanian Mashika is taking off fast. Yet she has chosen to base herself in the Zanzibari capital, Stone Town, rather than a more commercial fashion destination.
Why? She says that being located at the cross-winds of the old colonial trade routes is inspiring, and that Zanzibar’s small footprint and prevalent “made to order” culture are useful. Like Rehmtullah, she thinks that being an African-based fashion designer is both viable and exciting.
“African designers are discovering an increasing fan-base and market segment that is Africa based, both indigenous and or naturalized, that both appreciates and celebrates their creativity and craft. Now frame the picture so that all this takes place against the backdrop of a greater prevalence of affluent communities within African society today. The implications are that the lucrative business models once the preserve of Western arenas are presently equally viable at home. Celebrating and enabling the entrepreneurial skills of Africa's own to flourish in this way will ensure Africa's talents are increasingly harvested at home,” says Mashika.
It represents a good deal of progress that consumers are now snapping up local design with bold East African themes and colours. It used to be that African style (and India has traditionally suffered greatly from this too) would be adopted by the Western fashion establishment as a seasonal trend that could then be dropped when the next lot of shows came onto the calendar. To be Indian or African and to be “in” one minute and “out” the next was at best comical, and at worst demeaning. Now the new wave of African designers have seized back the initiative and are making African fashion a permanent fixture rather than a plaything of bored Western designers.
As the scars of colonialism gradually fade, a greater confidence and self-assurance is emerging in terms of what it means to be African, and also Zanzibari, or Tanzanian, or Kenyan, and this is permeating the design field. Mashika says that in the last half century, “the parental photo albums of almost any African household would have a beautiful set of portraits of African parents in almost exclusively classic European attire and accessories, down to the neatly folded pocket handkerchief for a man's suit jacket. The same albums would more likely today, carry images of the same parents, in unmistakeably bold and classically African regional attire. Perhaps the remnants of Africa's legacy of foreign rule in some parts has diminished and the consciousness of its children grown to both embrace and export the noble fabric of Africa's beauty.”
There are also some exciting developments where East African fashion meets and marries with other design traditions. For example, Christine Mhando, operating under the name Chichia London, is an intriguing young designer who uses traditional East African kanga fabrics and combines them with cutting edge London street fashion. Kangas are the main currency of traditional East African women’s fashion, and are steeped in symbolism – each vividly coloured kanga cloth features a proverb that can have several layers of meaning, and can often deliver strong messages to straying or lazy husbands or rival women, or act as declarations of love or hope.
The end result of Mhando’s dual inspiration is a collection of pretty but edgy dresses that draw from the best of both worlds, reflecting her Tanzanian background and UK upbringing. Such emerging success stories are helping the world to wake up to the existence of a vibrant and growing East African scene.
Positively, the African fashion community seems to be much more socially responsible than is often seen in the more cut-throat American and European markets. Designers tend to offer good working conditions for those making their designs and are often involved in fundraising for causes as diverse as HIV prevention through to peace initiatives. Fair trade is a reality for many African designers, making them an important exception in an industry that often uses sweatshops to increase profit margins.
This is exemplified by Kenyan-South African design team LaLesso, which also uses kanga design as its inspiration (kangas are so integral to East African women’s fashion that they offer the inspiration for many designers – Kenya’s Bella Matata is another example). LaLesso set up its own atelier in Kenya’s Diani Beach, at which all tailors are paid over three times the average manufacturer’s wage. Hours are flexible, and staff are offered access to a nursery school for children, as well as loans, sick pay, sick leave, maternity leave and crisis leave.
Another example is Fashion for Peace, a hugely successful event earlier this year that is being repeated next year. The show, held in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, features some of Africa’s most exciting new designers as well as more established names. Organised around the shows are designer masterclasses, where those involved in the fashion industry can exchange and develop ideas about the future of African fashion and how to penetrate further into worldwide markets. A worthwhile and stimulating show in its own right, Fashion for Peace goes one better – funds raised during the event go to the Alternatives to Violence Kenya project, building non-violence skills and helping people in affected communities deal with the aftermath of the violence that erupted in Kenya during the recent two-month political crisis. Alternatives to Violence has also been involved in reconciliation initiatives in Burundi, Rwanda and Congo.
This is fashion with a heart and a conscience, as well as a sense of fun. In fact, what’s not to love about East African fashion? Bold, colourful, beautiful design, featuring big patterns but intricate detailing, against a background of social responsibility and designers who are loyal to their home countries. East African fashion is feelgood fashion, and it’s here to stay.