Luxury brands such as Rolls Royce, Rolex and a handful of others have always taken pride in their craftsmanship in a world where mass production is the target. Mercedes Benz's AMG brand comes with engines that bear the signature of the engineer who put it together.
This is something the originality of African fashion can identify with. Vivid colours, bold prints and regal aesthetics — African brands occupy a realm of their own. Their designs are bold yet timeless, and meek dressers might step away for how loud they physically look. The expressive designs and styles that embody the fashion style are something designers from other regions cannot lay claim to.
However, the concept of luxury, usually embodied by the timeless symbols of style and delicate craftsmanship has been considerably shifting in the last few years. Changing perceptions of consumers, a conscious millennial market have been part of the forces impacting the concept as we know it.
The concept of luxury has been synonymous with words with craftsmanship, time and rarity. The word itself, however, has a different meaning from one country or culture to another.
This is especially relevant in South Africa, where the meaning of luxury varies widely from one person to another, depending on their culture, background and demographics.
“I think when we say, ‘African luxury’ today, it should be in the context of description rather than definition, as there is really nothing like an umbrella African luxury definition that covers the socio-cultural, historical, economic and social contexts of all the continent’s 55 countries,” said Uche Pézard, the Paris-based founder and chief curator of Luxury Connect Africa and a speaker at the 2019 Condé Nast Luxury Conference in Cape Town.
She added that the diversity we boast throughout Africa and the diaspora is a great push for such unique perspective.
“Where luxury once used to be synonymous with exclusivity, and aspiration, today it resonates with a much younger consumer through pillars of authenticity, emotional connection, uniqueness, and environmental consciousness.”
In an interview with Maverick Life, Kenyan jewellery designer Ami Shah, the word “luxury” means increased sustainability and more transparency in a brand’s production processes.
“Many of the challenges that the big international fashion brands face – environmental and human impact of production, the throw-away culture of consumerism, the constant desperation for newness – are things that we, as African designers can traverse, navigate around and conquer.”
Shah explains that many designers are telling substantial stories about their heritage, often bringing into their work local materials and traditional craftsmanship.
“It’s this country/region-specific narrative that I believe is compelling and should be protected but also should be created with a view to engaging with international audiences… whether it’s across the continent or beyond.”
In an interview with Luxury Society, Suzy Menkes, Vogue International editor, said, “There are two reasons why ‘Africa’ and ‘luxury’ should appear in the same sentence. The first is a new vision of what luxury means in the 21st Century. Consumers, particularly in the Western hemisphere, are beginning to prize objects touched by human hands – and the handwork in Africa is exceptional. From the work that the Tuaregs have done for Hermes to the bags that are created in Kenya for Ilaria Fendi and for Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, African hands make artistic pieces, often with the added bonus of being sustainable and also ethical (…)."
There has been a misguided temptation by most analysts to look at Africa as a single market. It has shown a lack of understanding of how the continent is structured and the unique cultural heritage of it's diverse population.
Chidera Muoka, a Lagos-based Nigerian creative director, consultant and writer said, “We need to protect the individual uniqueness of fashion in each African country. We should stop making this mistake of defining Africa as one. Nigeria isn’t Ghana, Ghana isn’t Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone is not Rwanda, Rwanda is not Zimbabwe. We are different people; we have different styles; we have different techniques; we have different languages.
"It is highly important to protect the individuality and the uniqueness of fashion in each African country. You cannot classify a whole continent; it is a mistake that has been made repeatedly. We cannot classify this continent as one because our diversity gives us so much to offer. The music is different; the language is different, our style is different, and this makes every one of us unique.”
On some levels, there has been a shift in how designs made and crafted on different parts of the continent, especially coming from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana or Ethiopia, are being received internationally. This is thanks partly to the internet and social media, that give a better visibility to local creatives, and allow them to reveal their unique work to the world without having to wait for an editorial in a magazine or a nod – and a contract – from international buyers. The industry has made efforts to be more diverse, opening its ranks to a generation of young designers, artists and creatives who are reshaping the luxury business, shaking established conventions and passé house codes.
The recent nominations of fashion designers Thebe Magugu of South Africa or Kenneth Ize of Nigeria, as finalists for the prestigious LVMH Prize, the changes implemented by British-Ghanaian Vogue UK editor, Edward Enninful towards a better representation in the leading fashion and luxury magazine, or the appointment of US fashion designer, entrepreneur and DJ Virgil Abloh, as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection in March 2018, are a few of the significant moves that are changing conversations and signalling a shift.
“Mainstream media depicts African fashion through the lens of very specific regions, thus ignoring not only the beauty of its vast diversity, but the economic, political and cultural nuances that are crucial to entry from market to market. On the other hand, we share the same narrative – so joining forces as a continent through cross-border conversation and entrepreneurship plays an important part in strengthening our overall industry.”
Header Image Credit: Maverick Life