When Ricardo Tisci’s Spring/Summer’14 offerings for Givenchy (fronted by Erykah Badu) was said to have been inspired by Africa, the cliché description of ‘African print’ surfaced alongside talk of ‘gothic motifs,’ ‘tribalism’ and such, with some left feeling the touch of Africa was quite indistinct. Compared to the likes of Adama Kai of Sierria Leone, who’s been evoking the spirit of Ibiza on a Paris catwalk with her Ascobi label – interpreting the African multicultural cosmopolite – Tisci’s references seem less authentic, with we as fashion followers having long moved on from the idea that African designs need have a vague, stereotypical theme of ‘Africa.’
Leveraging on international exposure with more than a small tribute to their indigenous backgrounds, African designers are truly placing Africa on the global fashion map, with rich designs that draw deep from their heritage. And, together with our crop of brilliant fashion entrepreneurs, bloggers, models, stylists and editors, fashion designers from the continent and the diaspora have become the favourite of many global celebrities, fashion lovers and top media houses the world over.
Working non-cliched elements of punk, vintage, street, minimal, couture – you name it – into their work, the below designers (our top 10 African designers re-interpreting world style via the African fashion lingo) have got the fashion ground almost entirely covered, adapting and responding to consumer trends while skilfully crafting interesting, personality heavy pieces. See a snippet of their work, below;
1. David Tlale (South Africa)
Award winning designer, David Tlale from Johannesburg first launched his brand in 2003 and made his name back home, winning Elle’s New Talent in South Africa competition. Based on his early thespian style – his love of leather, lace, striking prints, gorgeous fabrics – his designs have acquired the reputation of being bold and unpredictable, with a penchant to challenge mediocrity.
David Tlale has exhibited his unique designs on international platforms such as Paris Fashion Week, Arise Fashion week, Mercedes Benz Fashion Week New York and many more, to the critical acclaim of many major publications.
In his Autumn/Winter’14 collection for New York Fashion Week, titled “Elementary Metropolis,” Tlale personalised his looks to an urban sod where women like to stand out yet be part of the rhythm. And more recently, at the just concluded Spring/Summer’15 New York Fashion Week, Tlale displayed what The Mail & Guardian have called a “riveting” collection of “African-inspired” garments, for which Tyson Beckford, Oluchi Onweagba and Angolan/Portuguese model Sharaam Diniz walked the runway.
Tlale explained to The Mail & Guardian;
“I think it’s all about a lot of research and wanting to bring the African heritage into the United States and globally so that people actually realise that the African print goes along way back and there is history.”
On South Africa’s presence in the industry, the designer said;
“We are the future, we have the resources and we have the heritage and we have the boldness and it’s time for us to support one another and lift one another and teach and show the world what South Africa is all about.”
With the look of his latest collection and the resulting attention his global-African wears have garnered, we at SPICE are taking note of his advice.
2. Duro Olowu (Nigeria)
Mr Duro Olowu’s designs are frequented by first lady and style icon, Michelle Obama to name just one high profile follower of his work. Most popular for his well-polished cuts and vintage mix, the lawyer-turned-fashion designer of Nigerian descent has ranked top in the African fashion league, ever since his debut in 2004.
Clinching the 2005 Designer of the Year award at the British Fashion Awards is just one of the numerous acolades he has to his name, and with Alec Wek, Linda Evangelista, Uma Thurman amongst many others in his clientele, it would not be too much to place him in the ranks of the World’s most sought after designers.
Duro Olowu dovetailed it this season by continuing to find just the right balance between the classic, the ethnic and the unexpected. The designer’s Autumn/Winter‘14 pieces, as showcased at London Fashion Week last February, were inspired by Elizabeth Eyre de Launx and equally emphasizes Olowu’s marked prêt-à-porter design ethos.
The designer once explained of his uniquely eclectic pieces, which are always a delightful mix of African prints, jacquard knit, silk, brocade, organza and fur trims;
“Fabric is the one thing that we all have in common, it’s a universal language. You will find denim in Lagos and Tennessee.”
Via his Spring/Summer’15 lookbook, we see a continued combination of his widely-referenced aesthetic; vintage silhouettes, a clash of prints reminiscent of Ankara, chunky, printed bangles and colours that range from those of the safari to those of the swinging ‘60s. So it seems Mr Oluwu speaks the universal language of fashion, too.
3. Deola Sagoe (Nigeria)
The fact that she has been appointed as a UN Designer for the UN World Food Programme, has a plethora of international fashionistas on her waiting list and is the first black woman to present a collection at Alta Roma in Milan (2004), is a clear indication of how globally-affixed Lagos-based designer, Deola Sagoe really is.
As Africa’s foremost lady of fashion, Deola’s journey into the world of glamour and stitches began in 1989, and we have since seen her brand develop with a very intelligent approach towards fashion over the past 25 years. Her haute couture pieces have gained international fame for their signature, practical, bespoke tailoring, with Ms Sagoe also having received the Best African Designer award to represent African fashion designers in New York Fashion Week in 2000 – an accolade achieved for her highend label, which has also helped birth the more minimalist brand, CLAN, headed by her three daughters.
With her Autumn/Winter’14 collection, which Deola showed in New York in February, the designer proudly re-visited her archival pieces in different interpretations, sending them down the runway as a look back over her career as she celebrated a benchmark 25 years in fashion, telling OkayAfrica in an interview;
“I don’t take it for granted at all that people are just going to fall in love with my work. Because there is so much more out there to compare things to but, thank God, until now people still find the brand really relevant.”
And the relevancy of her work is easily found in her collection for Spring/Summmer’15, too, which showcased at New York Fashion Week just last week. The beautiful cutout hemlines, elegant finishes and soft palette – the sihlouettes that will flatter any female form, wherever they are worn. There is not a hint of vague reference seen her – just the work of a world-renowned African designer with a clear, internationally-minded aesthetic.
4. Ozwald Boateng (Ghana)
When Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, Matt Damon and Jamie Foxx need a suit, they go to Ozwald Boateng – the youngest ever and first black designer and tailor on London’s high-status Saville Row (the exacting epicenter of London’s centuries-old craft of men’s tailoring).
Ozwald’s father emigrated from Ghana in the 1950s and his mother, who was previously familiar with fabric, became a seamstress. Inspired by his father’s immaculate suits, Boateng obtained a summer job sewing linings into suits aged 14 and finally discovered his talent for tailoring by accident while helping his then girlfriend put together a fashion show. In the following two decades he set about re-writing contemporary perceptions of men’s tailoring, opening his first store in 1991, moving on to include Selfridges (London) and Les Galeries Lafayette (Paris) in his international sales base.
“The worst mistake you can make is wearing an ill fitting suit” – Ozwald Boateng
As a former creative director at Givenchy (2004), Ozwald continues to blaze the path with his unique, made-to-order tailoring and ready-to-wear collections and in 2006, the British-Ghanaian was awarded by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to the fashion industry. Other note-worthy awards include his Lifetime Award at the 2012 ARISE Fashion Week Lagos and his Top Menswear Designer award at the British Fashion Awards.
Today, Ozwald’s brand spells suave, vibrant colours and refined fabrics with a twirl of modern silhouettes, and offers an absolutely unique menswear luxury brand label that is sought after from all corners of the globe.
5. Adama Paris (Senegal)
Adama Ndaiye of the Adama Paris label is well known in Africa’s fashion scene. She is the founder of Dakar Fashion Week in Senegal and Black Fashion Week in Paris, as well as Montreal.
Based in Dakar, Senegal, Adama Paris’ designs come by the cosmopolitan way of living, stemmed from years of travel during her fashion conscious childhood. With a Masters degree in Economics in Banking, Adama’s passion for fashion soon drove her from the halls of a French bank to her all-time love of design, holding her drive responsible for what forms her progression and explaining her garments as the product of what happens when motivation and ambition meets success.
Adama says of her latest collection;
“These past three years I’ve been trying to focus on showing more African fabrics along with showing the fabric I made with artisans. This is a step into my designing classes; I get to design my own fabrics, which is to me a luxury.
The last collection was really inspired by great women – Michelle Obama and Jackie Kennedy. They are both really kind of similar even if they’re different eras. Their elegance is just timeless. I thought just showing the mix of style of those two great women would be something beautiful. That’s the first really well tailored collection I did for winter.
However, in this collection I did something different. I really wanted to surprise people by showing different sides of me in the same collection – it was risky and it’s still risky because people are like, “Ohh what is she doing….?” But that’s what I wanted to do and not be like everybody else…”
The “Ghana Must Go” laundry bag print in the label’s newest pieces reveal another daring side of Adama Paris, proving yet again how an intrinsically African influence can be well-executed and expressed exquisitely on pieces to suit any global cosmopolitan.
6. Tiffany Amber (Nigeria)
Despite holding a degree in Petroleum Law, having schooled in Switzerland, England and Scotland, Folake Folarin-Coker relocated to Lagos, her birth place in 1998. She has since successfully translated her passion into the foremost fashion brand in Africa, with outstanding global recognition too.
Fourteen years after launching her brand, Tiffany Amber has become a highly-esteemed, award-winning, international label, and Folake has added two more lines to her fashion house: TAN by Tiffany Amber (a diffusion line) and Folake Folarin (a couture line) – both carrying her signature, distinctive style that bares Africa in its heart for a clientele that’s worldwide.
Her designs reveal the inner loves of the glamorous, affluent, African woman while being noted by fashion lovers all over the globe, and Ms Folarin-Coker continues to stay true to her vision by developing a strong philosophy.
For her trending collection, Tiffany Amber’s Spring/Summer’14 “Nirvana” featured long, flowing dresses with elegant eveningwear in sassy blocks of aqua – a lineup of garments easily worn in any arena the world over.
7. Gavin Rajah (South Africa)
Gavin Rajah’s couture pieces are represented in around 11 countries and he has done a remarkable stint as a designer and judge in Tyra Banks’ America’s Top Model. Not just known for his wildly glamorous designs, the designer also specialises in traditional skills and crafts through collaboration with micro-economic projects, which has led him to become a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, with his philanthropic work aimed to uplift the lives of those living in rural areas.
Mr Rajah has designed couture clothing for celebrities including Naomi Campbell, Tina Turner, Beyonce, Celine Dion, Paris Hilton and Cameron Diaz, and he has been the only African to speak at the Global Fashion Conference in Milan and has made headlines in The Wall Street Journal – a clearly noted African designer on the international stage.
As well as being an African, Rajah is able to refer to other cultures and inspirations to continue his path as a highly-regarded designer. His recent Japanese-inspired collection showcased at the Mercedes Benz South Africa Fashion Week earlier this year though, spakered controversy, with a piece from his Autumn/Winter‘14 showcase claimed to be remarkably similar to that of Lebanese designer, Zuhair Murad. Rajah quickly explained;
‘’My design is my own original creation inspired by Japanese woodblock printing. The Japanese inspired theme is visible through the entire collection. I have created the design independently from inspiration sourced by Japanese themes, ranging from the rising sun to Japanese fans. The entire design process has been my own efforts in labor. I welcome you into my studio to view the creative processes that lead to this design.”
This controversy aside, we at SPICE we enthralled by the entire collection’s ability to speak to women of all origins and continue to be impressed by Gavin Rajah’s furor on the global fashion stage.
8. Mimi Plange (Ghana)
Mimi Plange has been worn by top celebrities like Estelle, Alicia Keys, Princess Astrid of Belgium and even the much-admired Rihanna. The designer’s iconic brand is inspired by African and Victorian historical fashion, widly tying the two reference points together into a perfect harmony of wearable goods.
Mimi Plange was born in Ghana and grew up in California, and, by the time Michelle Obama wore a Mimi Plange A-line skirt for an appearance on the America’s The View, Plange was ready to hit a wider turf and embark on a global industry adventure.
With her Ghanaian and architectural background shrouded in her clothing, Ms Plange has created signature elements that define the label; her unique model is her version of the Italian embroidery technique, trapunto which she uses to interpret scarification, the traditional body adornment practiced in regions of West Africa, where the skin is etched into decorative patterns using seared iron.
Mimi’s collections usually feature texture quite prominently, with clean lines and feminine silhouettes woven in to grace the female figure.
According to Plange, her Autumn/Winter’13 collection, “Line & Curve” explored wider references, including;
“…Curved dimensions and the use of space and negative space. The work of architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava’s design of the Tenerife Concert Hall in Santa Cruz, the capital of Tenerife, served as a source for simplicity and sculpture. The rounded dome informed the curved seams throughout the collection.
I wanted the dominant impact to be the structure was able to make with such a clean and elegant design. As a contrast, I also explore the intricate cut out techniques of Jen Grave’s wonderous installation, “Ruffle,” which inspired multi beaded laser cut leather in modern silhouettes and piecing.”
For her Spring/Summer’14 collection “Her Garden,” it was floral prints, pastels and origami pleats in luxe fabrics – a desirable range that any woman with high tastes would love to wear.
It’s for these beautiful creations with a wide range of sartorial references that we appreciate Ms Plange’s presence in the industry.
9. Korto Momolu (Liberia)
The Liberian civil war in 1990 left Korto Momolu settled in Canada, studying Fashion Design at the L’Academies des Couturiers Design Institute in Ottawa, Ontario, before continuingher fashion sojourn in USA’s Parson School of Design.
The Liberian Project Runway All Star 1st runner up has been featured in popular press like Essence Magazine, Ladybrille.com, The LA Times and InStyle.com, among others, and she has also appeared on television for CNN International’s African Voices, My Black is Beautiful and more.
Korto Momolu unveiled her Autumn/Winter’14 collection earlier this year during New York Fashion Week – a womenswear collection blending dark tones and cool fabric combinations on feminine silhouettes that bore a hint of modernity.
But her exquisite, luxe-dripping Spring/Summer’15 range, showcased during New York Fashion Week’s Spring/Summer’15 schedule, was something else; a beautiful lineup of things we’d easily forego this season for.
African in her roots but global in her aesthetics, the future holds bright for Ms Momulu and we anticipate the best is still to come.
10. Eleni Labrou (South Africa)
South African talent, Eleni Kabrou’s Akedo, is a brand that taps into what the youth want, worldwide. Crafting “clothing that allows you to be who you are,” the label explains on its website;
“Standing on the opposite end of the street, we’re the thinking behind the straight jacket and the motivation behind the jumping castle. Reconstructing the elementary with a bit of weird.”
Winner of the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Fastrack Designer of the Year Award in 2013, Ms Labrou is still growing her brand and is currently stocked on Spree.co.za.
The Spring/Summer’15 range the label produced and showcased at the most recent Cape Town Fashion Week was both fashion-forward and recalling of the trendy, jet-setting fashion blogging culture the world’s become accustom to, with zero trace of the type of prints akin to those ‘expected’ from an African brand. In fact these – overlapping digital prints that look to have been inspired by model walking down a catwalk – are modern in their use, displayed in all manner of proportions for varying, impactful effect; the type of effect that’ll have all the cool kids rushing out to get into them.
On her inspirations, Eleni said in an interview pre-Cape Town showcase;
“I read, watch, look, listen to everything going on in the world. Socially, politically, artistically… when one can understand the time they live in and respond accordingly – that is when you gain the ability to create beauty.”
And it’s for her particular brand of wearable beauty – one drawn of “everything going on in the world” – that we at SPICE are fans of her work, alongside all others on our list of African designers re-interpreting world style via the African fashion lingo.
Video & image source: Rmg.co.za, Vogue.com, 360nobs.com, Okayafrica.com, Adamaparis.com, Hautefashionafrica.com, Kortomomolu.com, @Kortomomolu, Akedo.co.za, Theseptemberstandard.com, Jcpenney.com, Afri-culture.com, Jamiemorgan.co.uk, Tiffanyamberng.com