Words Helen Jennings
I was recently invited to Columbia University’s 9th annual African Economic Forum (AEF), which this year embraced the theme Africa Reclaiming Africa: Changing The Rules Of Engagement. Two days of illuminating speeches and panel discussions covered subjects including education, tourism, telecommunications, health, creative industries and traditional medicines, with the focus on identifying ways professionals and financiers can build a level socio-economic playing field between Africa and the rest of the world.
Nigeria’s Central Bank governor Lamido Sanusi was a keynote speaker. His address tackled the challenges facing Nigeria’s future growth. As the second largest economy in Africa, yet with 90 per cent of the population living on US$2 a day, he urged for a move from primary to secondary sectors in the fields of agriculture and energy, the removal of fuel subsidies, the empowerment of women in business and improved infrastructural and trade links across Africa. He also vowed to continue his very public flight against corruption in the banking sector. “Banks may be too big to fail but bankers aren’t too big to jail,” he said, much to the audience’s approval.
My contribution to the AEF was to form part of the panel African Fashion: Creativity, Entrepreneurship And The Path To Success. Joining AMFW 2012 model of the year Georgie Badiel, Heritage1960’s Enyinne Owunwanne, Suno designer Max Osterweis and BET journalist Lola Ogunnaike, ours was a lively and well attended debate.
Among the hot topics thrashed out were areas designers need to improve on in order to grow their brands beyond a local client base. Owunwanne stressed the importance of a “meaningful business plan” and a full embrace of social media and e-commerce platforms. Osterweis, whose label has its production and textile roots in Kenya, said it was as essential to know the movers and shakers in fashion as it was to “form relationships with mills, factories and even zipper manufacturers”.
Badiel highlighted the consistent lack of work for black models in mainstream magazines and advertising campaigns and revealed plans for her own lingerie label, Georgie’s Garden. “I have to manage my own career because as a black model I have to fight for a space to express myself,” she said. Meanwhile I discussed the rise of African lifestyle magazines and the significant role ARISE plays in translating fashion from the continent for a wider audience.
There was dissent among panellists as to the value of Vogue Italia’s current approach to promoting African creativity, on the value of having an ever-expanding number of African fashion weeks, and the feasibility of forming a pan-African fashion council. But it was when discussing the ways in which international labels take aesthetic inspiration from Africa that things really got heated. Ogunnaike joked that Burberry Prorsum’s spring/summer 2012 collection, which features several colourful wax prints, looked like it could have been “taken off the back of a market woman” yet I pointed out that the brand’s official press release for the season omits any reference to African inspirations. A Twitter storm ensued.
One thing everyone was in agreement on however, was that despite the current shortfalls within the industry, the rise of the African luxury fashion market is becoming a truly exciting and unstoppable journey.