With African fashion in vogue, home talent shines



* Burberry, Louis Vuitton have Africa collections


* African designers starting to gain global status


* World has changing attitude towards Africa


* African countries struggle to trade with each other


By Joe Brock and Helen Nyambura-Mwaura


JOHANNESBURG, Feb 6 (Reuters) – When Michelle Obama and
Beyonce Knowles attended high-profile events in clothes made by
African designers, it was a sure sign that the continent’s
vibrant style has arrived on the world stage.


The showcasing of clothes from home-grown African designers
in stores in New York, London and Tokyo is a sign of a broader
change of attitude towards a continent which is earning a
brighter reputation beyond stories of war and disease.


It has proven difficult for Africa’s home grown designers to
break into the mainstream fashion market because the perception
has often been that products from the world’s poorest continent
are of low quality or just not cool.


Global fashion designers like Yves Saint Laurent took
inspiration from Africa decades ago and more recently brands
like Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior have embraced
the continent’s style and broadened its appeal.


But consumers now want products made by Africans, not
replicas produced by Western clothing chains, according to
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, who owns Ethiopian shoe company,
soleRebels, which has a dozen stores from Singapore to Greece.


“The global consumer today is hyper-aware. They want
authentic and innovative ideas delivered from the authors of
those ideas,” Bethlehem said.


“We have always had incredible design and production talent
here, but it was invisible. That is changing.”


In 2010, the first annual New York African Fashion Week gave
home-grown designers the chance to showcase their work on the
world stage.


Global celebrities have endorsed African designers including
Nigerian label Maki-Oh, Ghana’s Osei-Duro and South Africa-based


Nigerian lawyer-turned-designer Duro Olowu has become a
well-known name in fashion circles and has a collection at U.S.
department store J.C. Penney and his own boutique store in
central London.


“It was a good thing to see international designers putting
African fashion on the map,” said Ghanaian entrepreneur Samuel
Mensah, who quit his job as a fund manager to launch online
clothes retailer


“Now we’re starting to see Africa taking ownership of its
own cultural assets. African designers are being noticed. They
are stocked in international stores.”





While attitudes abroad have changed the industry is also
trying to meet latent demand for quality fashion among the
growing middle-class at home.


“The change has been brought about by global developments,
both economical change and a communication change,” said Roger
Gerards, creative director at Vlisco, one of the world’s biggest
producers of African fabric.


“People see other countries and other cultures more easily
than 20 years ago because of social media,” Gerards added.


Sub-Saharan Africa is the second fastest growing economic
region in the world behind Asia and has a rapidly growing
middle-class who have more access to world trends as mobile
phones and the Internet reach tens of millions more people every


The industry has chosen to focus on middle-class consumers
who value traditional manufacturing methods and local materials
because it cannot compete with cheap mass-produced imports.


The lack of investment in infrastructure and a failure of
African governments to agree favourable trade agreements with
each other have seen imports continue to rise.


China has grown its share of Africa’s clothing imports from
16 percent in 2001 to 55 percent in 2013, while intra-African
trade has remained flat at around 10 percent of imports,
according to International Trade Centre data.


Even companies that are showcasing African talent often have
to rely on resources outside the continent. Vlisco is based in
the Netherlands, while only gets half of its materials
from within Africa.


“It is easier for me to serve a client in New York or London
than in Lagos or Nairobi,” said Mensah, who struggles with
reliable warehousing and postal services in Africa.

(Editing by James Macharia and Elaine Hardcastle)