African Artisans with Global Designs
By Robb Young
LONDON Whether as dazzling couture war paint on a Paris catwalk or as logo-embossed tribal baubles beckoning from the windows of Via Montenapoleone, the "ethnic African archives" have long been a popular source of inspiration at the big designer labels. Genuine, highly crafted, African-made fashion, however, has not always been so easy to come by.
Now a new generation of enterprising African artisans are reclaiming the privilege of referencing Africana for the global marketplace through modern, cosmopolitan designs and shrewd business models.
The Ethiopian textile designer Sara Abera is one of the pioneers behind this budding movement. She has retrained hundreds of traditional tibeb weavers and succeeded in reinventing this multi-colored cloth found on shamma robes into an upmarket brand of sophisticated accessories.
"During the past few years, realizing that the worldwide trend was towards handicrafts, I decided to develop this tradition and present to the rest of the world the beautiful work of anonymous but hard-working and very talented craftsmen," says Abera. After making small adjustments on the looms, adding new color schemes to the tibeb, rigorously improving quality and pairing with the designer Arnold Haas, she launched an international line, Wubet, in 2004 from her original Muya brand.
Conventional approaches to building an African fashion trade may not yet be mature enough to make much global impact, but in the current climate of cheap, skilled, industrial competition from Asia, heritage and local craftsmanship are two added values that African brands are exploiting for that crucial point of difference.
"The key to success is turning these timeless skills into contemporary products," says Liz Wald of EDI, an American importer of African products, including Abera's.
Long before her handbags tempted holiday-makers from boutiques in Saint-Tropez and the Italian Riviera, Abera recalls that her first big job was to make festive gowns for 500 Ethiopian orphans awaiting adoption in a camp outside Addis Ababa.
Janet Nkubana, herself a Rwandese refugee who grew up in exile in Uganda, has now returned and hired widows of the 1994 genocide to invent fresh accessories made from time-honored staples like sisal, papyrus and banana leaf. Last May, she scored a key distribution deal with Macy's department store where her first 10 shipments of Gahaya Links sold out within a month.
Though they may not be directly caught up in the crossfire of some of Africa's harshest realities, these businesswomen deftly navigate around them. "Entrepreneurship is part of the answer. I don't care who you are, where you are from, or what happened. All I need is business," says Nkubana. "It's high time we valued our products. We have the raw materials; we should stand to compete."
Wald agrees. "I don't think Africa can be the low-cost producer in many categories so they are smart to focus on high quality and slightly higher prices. The challenge will be to stay ahead of, or at least even with, countries like India and Vietnam who also have great textiles and a long tradition of quality and appealing designs."
Rwanda Knits is a program funded by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development that distributed knitting machines across the country in order to spur economic regeneration three years ago. Since then, its director, Geofrey Katushabe, has initiated a range of limited-edition mohair scarves for Diane Von Furstenberg's flagship New York boutique.
Not all success stories are contingent on outside funding or incentives. "Our business in Siwa employs about 25 staff members, but supports more than 150 enterprising women. We provide them with designs, samples, and raw materials as well as workspace, unless they choose to work from home," says Laila Neamatalla, a Cairo jeweler whose Siwa Creations project has expanded into womenswear and home textiles.
Neamatalla has begun to collaborate with international designer labels by liaising with the seamstresses and embroiderers she employs in the Siwa Oasis on the western edge of the Egyptian desert. Most recently, the Siwan women stitched traditional motifs into couture garments and accessories for the Italian atelier Ermanno Scervino.
Maverick marketing is yet another method that entrepreneurs are using. In 1996 when giant international fashion brands were still dithering about the role of the Internet in their retail operations, the Senegalese fashion designer Oumou Sy was opening an e- commerce site to sell accessories abroad. One of Africa's most well- known fashion designers, Sy had made private clients in Europe after she appeared in several high-profile exhibitions there.
Such self-made artisans and designers isolated from any organized fashion industry are often those first out of the starting blocks. Capitalizing on handicrafts, cottage industries and traditional techniques, they experiment with product development, negotiate microfinancing and find clever partnerships.
Successfully branding a single business or product is one thing, but branding the nation is quite another. Fledgling fashion weeks in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, though enjoying some notoriety as cultural events, have yet to achieve much serious commerce for the tenderfoot designers rallying behind them. The majority are dressmakers in the made-to-order business, catering to a very local clientele. Of those that are capable of producing in quantity, few have tweaked their quality, design and color palette enough to appeal to consumers outside Africa, in stark contrast to the more adaptable entrepreneurs.
Even South Africa's fashion week, admired and emulated by its neighbors for a decade, still struggles to deliver any significant export. "Our aim is to be relevant in our own country," reasons the director Lucilla Booyzen. "Should we be able to over time cross over into an international market, it will be great, but until then our focus lies in building our local industry."
But what is the right dosage of heritage for progressive African fashion? How far before you tip the scales? "I don't think it is a matter of taking an African design and translating it into Western style," says Julia Doig, a Kenyan who transformed the colorful kikoi beach wrap into a dynamic brand of its own name that can be found in Harrods, Selfridges, Le Bon Marché and in resort outlets around the Caribbean.
"When we started the Kikoy Company, we didn't want to market our kikois as an ethnic garment. We feel that kikois are wonderfully versatile to anybody and everybody - in a more universal sense than specifically tribal or African,"Doig said. Machine-woven but hand-finished, they are knotted and fringed by women outside Nairobi.
"By giving the craftspeople the respect that they deserve, as well as the means to keep their ages-old traditions intact, there's a precious inheritance to future generations," says Abera.
"This has the potential to become a model," says Werner Pilz, who stocks Abera and other African designer products in his Vienna boutique, Habari.
Nurturing indigenous artisans for Africa's future brands makes good business sense in a crowded market where building a rock-hard brand identity is paramount. "It's not only globalization that has had an enormous influence on fashion," says Pilz. "It's authenticity."