PARIS, France — There is a misconception that Africa still has everything to build — and not only when it comes to fashion. For every year of the past decade, we have heard that Africa has been “rising.” This is a narrative that implies we are finally waking up from the dead. On the contrary, we have been very much awake.
Our fashion pioneers have been hard at work, paving the way for the next step. All we have to do now is put it all together in a cohesive and consistent way. African fashion needs structural adjustments and changes in order to assemble a sustainable industry within the continent, and be armed to compete on the global market.
There are five essential pillars on our agenda.
Pan-African fashion council
African fashion needs a pan-African fashion council to further its growth — integrating existing national councils and inspiring the creation of new ones. With over a dozen independent “African” fashion weeks on and off the continent — and sometimes two to three separate fashion weeks per country — there is a lot of clutter and therefore little visibility. All too often, the execution is poor and the schedules are rarely confirmed six months prior to the event.
And, indeed, because designers lack resources and a clear framework, some do not become affiliated with one particular council or calendar. This means they often end up wandering from one event to another to gain maximum exposure, instead of truly investing their energy in building their business around one key fashion week and its affiliated market.
In the short-term, there is a need to cut through the noise using tools like an agreed annual calendar, which would avoid constant overlaps and confusion and, most importantly, allow international press, buyers, designers and sponsors to schedule properly. Lagos Fashion and Design Week, AFI’s Johannesburg Fashion Week and Dakar Fashion Week are leading the way, but would clearly benefit from such a calendar.
More training for African designers
In top institutions like the LISOF School of Fashion in Johannesburg, Vogue Style School of Fashion and Design in Ghana and the Ethiopian Institute of Textile and Fashion Technology, existing training programs must be strengthened. Governments need to push the implementation of fashion programs in local universities.
In most African countries, unemployment rates are often over 20 percent (and even higher when it comes to youth unemployment). Practical and short-term training programs could put a massive amount of young Africans to work in the next few years.
It should be noted that NGOs and fashion organisations — like the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, AFI's Fastrack and Next Gen, and the LFDW Fashion Focus — are already creating training and job opportunities across the continent.
Ultimately, to build a strong industry, we need to debunk the idea that fashion design is not a full-time job. This message can be conveyed to the masses through education.
More commitment from African media
There is not enough quality media specialising in fashion, beauty and textiles on the continent. Access to specialty information is therefore extremely complicated for the African consumer, even if the Internet has made things easier. There is an immediate need to strengthen existing print, TV and web media like the website I co-founded, Fashizblack, and its peers: Stylemania, Africa Fashion TV, Spice TV, Africa Fashion Guide, The Style HQ and HauteFashionAfrica, to name a few.
Along with financial investment, these titles need more expertise when it comes to distribution, adaptable business models in complex yet booming markets, and qualified human resources.
Africa’s mainstream media has to acknowledge fashion for the vital industry that it is — and give it a platform.
Professional, seasonal rendez-vous
Fashion shows are plentiful across Africa. Organisers occasionally squeeze in meetings with buyers or include a showroom in the mix, but it is necessary to have at least one seasonal pan-African professional fair where business can be conducted in a proper setting.
Designers, factories, atelier owners, buyers, PR experts, members of the media and investors need a place for trade. Held over a few days, with a firm willingness to partake in business discussions and conferences, stakeholders in Africa’s fashion industry could create opportunities for each other and shape the industry.
Finance challenges facing African designers are nothing new. In fact, designers around the world face similar issues. However, African designers often lack basic financial structures and the financial initiatives on offer are relatively small and scarce. At present, there is Vlisco, which created its Fashion Fund in 2013, and South African Fashion Week, which hosts a talent search with a cash prize each year. Elle South Africa has also helped young designers kick start their career each year for over a decade.
For venture capitalists and business angels to be willing to ride along and start investing more in our fashion designers and supply chain, we need better financial organisational structure around them. If we want to see African fashion reach its full potential, a much bigger pan-African designer competition should be organised annually, as well as the establishment of a dedicated venture capital fund to ensure proper financial and strategic mentorship of the nation's top talents.
We need to start working towards making these aspects of African fashion a priority. The return on investment might exceed all expectations.
Laura Eboa Songue is the co-founder of FASHIZBLACK Media and the fashion cluster pilot of the AfricaFrance Foundation which was ratified by the French and African Heads of State and Government in 2013.
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