Business, News

Opinion: Who Exactly Speaks for “African Fashion”: SUNO, #DesignAfrica, Franca Sozzani?

This article has long been overdue and it has just been a time issue that has prevented me from authoring it. However, after I saw the upcoming/recently held ‘Design Africa” event flyer, I knew I simply had to make the time to bring this issue to the forefront.

Before I get into this, please understand several things:

  1. I welcome dissenting opinions. Growing up, I was never permitted to just state a point of view without my family probing into the basis of why I held a position. That in turn coupled with my choice of career has led to an appreciation of diversity of opinions and keen intellectual curiosity. So, I truly mean it it when I say I welcome opinions that are contrary to mine.
  2. While I welcome differing views, I insist and remain un-waivering that such opinions are respectful and constructive. I am the least bit interested on how others run their websites or the false notion that people can be abusive, threatening, libelous etc. and such conduct should be permitted all in the name of obtaining “comments” on a blog. I don’t subscribe to that philosophy. I seek enlightenment and a good debate. If that is not your ethos, no problem. Please skip the comment section.

Now let’s get into it.

I have been concerned, for a while now, about persons that claim to speak for African fashion industry professionals and “African fashion.” These persons include individuals and organizers of events who put on panels that lack credibility and reads more like a roster of “who I like and who is famous” ;than persons with actual industry experience in Africa’s fashion industry, who can give a true assessment of its evolution and future direction.

Indeed, it is not unusual to see local personalities in Africa’s diaspora community with absolutely no involvement in Africa’s fashion industry invited on panels to speak on “African fashion,” Africa’s fashion industry and its evolution, among other things.

This problem is particularly acute in New York and I believe it is about time it is addressed.

Let me illustrate my point through an analogy.

Picture this. Assume you are at a national fashion event/conference where the who is who in America’s fashion industry make up the audience. Assume further, that at the podium is Fern Mallis (founder of New York Fashion Week or what is now MBFW). Behind her is a panel of some of the industry’s most seasoned representative s with a track record of success. They include persons like Donna Karan, Anna Wintour, Cathy Horn, Steven Miesel, Tom Ford, Kelly Cutrone, Tyra Banks, Rachel Zoe.  . .  you get the drift. Assume the topic at hand is two fold: 1) what is American fashion and; 2) what is the direction forward with America’s fashion industry?

The event organizers have carefully vetted the panelists chosen to give a true cross section and picture of the industry. Assume as the conversation progresses, everyone can hear noises from outside the conference room. People are speaking loudly. Initially, most in the room ignore the noise. However, to everyone’s surprise, not only does the noise get louder, the individuals making the noise enter the room, match up to the podium , they push Mallis and other panelists aside and proceed to announce who they are. Shocking the audience even further, they proclaim themselves experts on America’s fashion industry and proceed to speak for the needs of the industry. Worse, they condemn others who are doing the exact thing they are doing.

Surely, you can hear the gasps of shock. You can also see the room get real quiet and while everyone ponders how to act next, someone gets up and ask, “who exactly are you guys? What are your experiences and track record of success specific to America’s fashion industry? When exactly did you become the spokesperson for an entire fashion industry and its professionals?  Even if you rudely cut in on an ongoing conference of seasoned panelists, can you maybe have some of the seasoned panelists on your panel?? “

If you found the above scenario absurd, welcome to the absurdity that is taking place in Africa’s fashion community particularly here in the United States.  As one who has a vested interest in Africa’s fashion community/industries, I certainly take issue with it and believe we should be talking about this.

Here are the key points I will make and then turn it over to you all to share your positions be they in opposition or in agreement:

1. Neither Your Skin Tone, Your African Heritage nor your Experience in America’s Fashion Industry Qualifies You as an Authority on “African Fashion” or Its Industries. I say this with all humility possible, as one who has had almost 20years in America’s fashion industry; and five years in Africa’s (media). I find it absurd that many Africans within the African fashion community question a for-profit organization like Vogue Italia who makes an All African ‘Rebranding Africa’issue; yet, many who speak on “African fashion”  lack even half the knowledge Vogue Italia has accumulated, albeit limited, on Africa’s fashion industry. Many think they have the standing to question Vogue as well as speak on “African fashion” because: 1) they happen to cut European originated African adopted prints into dresses etc.; and 2) they are of African heritage.  Really? Imagine a musician of African heritage, whose reality is the West, writing one song to African produced beats. Does that make the musician an authority on African music? Assume this same musician  either moved to Africa or stayed in the USA but concluded that he/she wanted to exclusively sing and produce African music i.e. singing or rapping on African produced beats such as that of Fela, should such musician be invited on a music industry panel to speak as an authority on African music?(Keep in mind the African music production and singing part is less than four months). Clearly that would be very absurd. Why is it then acceptable in Africa’s fashion communities, especially here in the USA? Who are the people organizing these events?

Further, clearly, there is a need to define what “African fashion” really is. Within Africa, South African fashion, Nigerian fashion, Kenyan fashion, Ghanaian fashion etc. are distinct both in cultural aesthetics and communication and contemporary interpretations of “African fashion.”Accordingly, for Africans in the West (especially), we must get past treating Africa as one country when it comes to fashion. As the industry continues to evolve, we will have to get out of the narrow definitions of “African fashion” to answer the complicated question of what is “African fashion,” really?

2. A Start-Up With No History of Success on Africa’s Fashion Scene/Industry Cannot and Should Not Purport to Speak for the Industry, much less “African fashion.”  I already gave an analogy of an emerging musician. But, imagine a new start up technology company founder with no history or track record in the industry he/she has just entered into, jumping on a panel and representing the voice of the technology industry. Really? As in really, really? In events organized by persons claiming to advance African fashion here in the USA, this is rampant. If a brand only launched, officially, less than five months ago. Then by its very definition, it is a startup. If its founder has very limited experiencing working both on and off the ground within Africa’s fashion industry and with its professionals, how exactly is such a start-up founder an authority to speak on “African fashion?”, its evolution and direction etc. Where is the track record of success? The startup is yet to fully introduce itself both to the African and USA markets and most importantly, gain real traction to speak as an authority on “African fashion.” Did I miss something?

3. There has to be a Stronger Accountability on Event Organizers to Have a Stronger Vetting Process and have Credible Panelists if they Purport to Speak in Behalf of African Fashion Professionals and Industry.Post graduate school, I returned to college to learn about the theory of fashion to supplement my “street” knowledge. While in school, I recall my professor saying often that “fashion follows the money.” Indeed.  Having organized numerous events over time, I know the importance of attendance and creating buzz both for sponsorship opportunities and potential revenue streams, among other things. However, the need for “buzz” etc. cannot trump a well vetted panelists that consist of persons that are true authorities on “African fashion,” at a minimum. For the Design Africa event, for example, I fail to understand why anyone in the fashion capital of the world, New York, would decide to put on a panel on “African fashion” and not invite Adiat Disu, a producer of New York’s history making Africa Fashion Week New York. Even the mayor of New York City made a proclamation and designated certain days/dates in the year to be AFWNY.  From Columbia University Africa Economic Forum to Design Africa and every other event that has claimed to speak on “African fashion,” this is yet to happen. The same holds for an extended invitation to an important name here in the USA on African fashion, Stylist and Blogger Rosemary Kokuhilwa of Fashion Junkii. This is a stylist, on the merits, who has actual industry experience in both South Africa, Tanzania and New York working with some of the best in the industry. What seems to be the problem?

4. Emerging African Designers Should Not Take a Back Seat to Famous “African Inspired” Brands Like SUNO et al. This whole thing gets confusing, often disrespectful and many times a reflection of how terrible Africans view themselves and treat each other.

Often, organizers invite panelists that consist of famous American owned corporate fashion brands (for and non-profits). These persons while vested in Africa, cannot be the dominant voice on panels that claim to speak on the African fashion industry or “African fashion.” It is not only highly disrespectful to Africa’s industry professionals both within and outside the diaspora, it also shows a bad faith effort about truly keeping the interests of “African fashion” and its industry professionals paramount. By the way, read my article on how we need to also redefine who we call “African designers” – “Will the Real African Designers Please Stand Up? Re-evaluating the Definition of “African” Fashion & “African” Designers.”

Design Africa is so quick to invite SUNO and other “popular” brands to speak on “African fashion” but emerging designers of African heritage in New York etc. with industry experience that have worked very hard, faced and continue to face the many barriers in breaking into fashion are no where to be found? Who puts these panels together? As in really???

Either way, from where I sit, the ridiculousness, to me, promulgated by ( a need for) publicity more than anything else, has to stop. Event organizers need to be held accountable if they will purport to speak for “African fashion” and its industry professionals. If this kind of a behavior will not be tolerated in America’s fashion industry, which it would not, I am unsure why it is tolerated within Africa’s.  This takes me back to my initial question. Who exactly speaks for “African fashion”? SUNO, Design Africa, Franca Sozzani?  Who exactly?

Uduak Oduok, Esq.
Photo description: The Design Africa Panelists

Ladybrille Magazine

Founded in 2007, Ladybrille® Magazine is a California based pioneer digital publication demystifying the image of Africans in the west through contemporary African fashion and celebrating the brilliant woman in business and leadership, with an emphasis on the African woman in the diaspora. Our coverage includes stories on capital, access to markets, expertise, hiring and retention, sales, marketing, and promotions.

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  1. Kay says:

    Thank you for this, Uduak. I don’t always agree with your posturing, but I certainly appreciate your forthrightness and sustained ‘vested interest’. I really do wish you would find more time to write more of these opinion pieces — they are very invigorating and really set Ladybrille apart from other publications that want for thoroughness and depth.

    Let’s put a biblical and historical slant on this: The race is not to the swift, even though it will always at first seems so. It certainly hurts that Africa’s fashion scene is currently free for all and sundry, and that there are no barriers to entry and too few individuals who truly care about its growth and longevity. However, it won’t always be like this. Somehow, the chaff will get separated from the wheat, and the mere echoes from the actual voices.

    In all honesty, however, it doesn’t require all that much to speak for “African Fashion”, and that is in itself part of the problem. Small and underdeveloped as the industry currently is, it’s easy for us to brandy the same issues — electricity, supply chains, investments, lack of retail sector, the business of fashion, dutch wax vs. local textiles, etc. — and it’s easy for anyone with basic intelligence to speak on these issues with some level of authority, however faux and hijacked. It’s why the so and so’s of this world (not mentioning any names) can hop on the ‘I’m on a mission to help and save Africa’ and jump from AIDS, to trade, to ‘opportunity’ — whatever’s catchy, cool and of the moment, because these realities are so forced down are throats that we can all manage to write small paragraphs on them and be convincing. It’s not currently about being genuine, passionate or skilled — it’s how you posture yourself, how you can ‘work your network’, and how you can wriggle your way to the front row at Arise whether you’ve earned it or not.

    It’s not like we’re talking numbers or sorts of broad issues Business of Fashion and WWD tackle — we simply haven’t developed to that level yet. We’re still trying to define African Fashion and wondering if Ankara is African (enough). In a nutshell? When we graduate to more pertinent issues (e.g. Brand valuation, continental expansions, sustainable job creation, top notch design schools, factories, etc.), you’ll see the Omoyemi Akereles and the Soko Kenyas of this world on more panels. In the interim, they are quietly working to build the industry one day at a time and are not all that invested in the spotlight or razzmatazz. Their time will certainly come, but the swift should be left alone to enjoy their temporary reign.

    Oh, also, these events that basically serve the cool and connected are unfortunate, but they do happen, and some of the headline speakers attract the style.coms of this world ( faster than a Ladybrille, for instance. A Heritage 1960 gets more recognition for playing up their PR strengths and ‘working their network’ than a My Asho that pioneered online African fashion retail 3 years ago and has the balance sheets to prove it. Tough luck?

    In a nutshell, I wouldn’t worry too much. Yes, it’s upsetting, but it’s all part of an unfortunately prolonged teething process that one hopes will round off soon. For now, there is so much noise that it’s not all that clear who’s speaking for Africa, or why, but I must say, Uduak, that speaking for African Fashion in your small corner of the web is more than gratifying enough for me 🙂

    1. Ladybrille Magazine says:

      @Kay- Lol! at “posturing.” Hard to believe, but what you see is what you get. (No pretenses) Thanks for the comment.


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