How should we understand the term “African fashion”? This is a question Beatrace Angut Lorika Oola, founder of the “Fashion Africa Now” platform, is frequently asked. She has made it her mission to generate awareness for fashion and design “Made in Africa”. One result of her efforts is the Wildling Shoes model Onu, a product of the partnership she initiated between Wildling Shoes and the sustainable Nigerian label, NKWO.
In her guest article, Beatrace Angut Lorika Oola articulates her answer to the question so often asked about African fashion, she explains global correlations in the fashion industry and describes how the effects of colonialization are still inherent to systems today:
“There’s not one single definition for African fashion yet, but rather a variety of concepts. But one thing that’s certain is that it’s a fashion movement and not merely a trend. I came up with the following definition myself, and I find it quite vivid: ‘African fashion is a visualization of transformed traditions representing the African lifestyle from an African/Afro-diaspora perspective. It reflects the culture and identity’.
Contemporary fashion and design have become drivers of cultural, economic and political development in many Fashion Africa cities. The clothes are worn mostly by young people who seek to develop their own design forms and to join forces with other figures from music, art, dance, education, business and politics in each of the African countries to work on social changes and build new societal forms. One of the most common phrases that pops up in interviews with designers and artists essentially goes, “Africa is the future”.
ONU: Collaboration as a mutual renaissance
The collaboration that I curate between Wildling Shoes and NKWO goes back to an encounter at the Fashion Changers Conference in 2021. During the conference I met Christina, Lead Brand Interaction at Wildling Shoes. I quickly realized that a cooperation between NKWO and Wildling Shoes would be a perfect match, because the whole point is to establish and personify new values in fashion and to create new connections.
This cooperation is special for two reasons. First, it’s the first cooperation between a German sustainable label and an African designer. And it additionally provides a stage for expressing sustainability from an African/Afro-diaspora perspective. The Wildling Shoes philosophy – “We are Part of the Re:generation” – is augmented by terms like Re-imagine, Re-think, Re-define and Re-connect, which Fashion Africa Now embodies.
A new interplay has emerged from the cooperation where the issue is greater than simply a shoe production with a designer of African origins. It is a matter of communicating unheard, marginalized content via new narratives and providing space for stories about fashion from Africa and the Afro-diaspora to be heard.
We’re creating a shoe that breaks with stereotypes. With our ONU model
, we’re creating space for new impulses and dialog about African fashion. “Onu” is a word used by the Igbo people that means “together” in the Nigerian Igbo language. The aim of the cooperation is to intensify clarification along with a sharpening of awareness and the perspective for change in the sustainability industry, to initiate a dialog about Re-define Fashion and to raise the profile for African fashion and for networks that are rethinking and critically scrutinizing fashion.
What’s the problem and where’s room for improvement?
But let’s start at the beginning. Why exactly are rethinking and critical scrutiny so important? For one, it’s because fashion designers and others in the African fashion supply chain aren’t yet adequately profiting from international development. Reasons for this include limited or no access at all to international know-how in the fashion industry and to the market. Other problems exist with cheap secondhand clothing from the Global North that supplants and ruins local textile manufacturers, and with cultural appropriation when for example international luxury fashion brands like Burberry, Louis Vuitton or Marni, to name just a few, use traditional African culture patterns without seriously reflecting on their significance or giving any credit to their creators.
This gap between societal groups that profit in the Global North and marginalized groups in the Global South stretches back to capitalist “colonial tradition”. Cultural appropriation reflects and solidifies capital structures, without respecting the value of the culture that’s being exploited.
The Industrial Revolution and globalization created a financial system rooted in the exploitation of people and raw materials and in excessive consumption and disposal.
Sustainability and African fashion
The origin of this capitalist system is racism, the exploitation and colonialization of indigenous peoples and African countries. The cultures of the BIPoC (Black Indigenous People of Color) already practiced a sustainable lifestyle in harmony with nature before it became a “trend” in Western countries. The need for sustainability today has only emerged because of the exploitation and expropriation of the countries in the Global South. These power structures and the racism, which function as a “driver” for the fashion industry, still exist today. The structures are maintained through global politics and international trade agreements that prevent countries in the Global South from making their own models of production and growth a reality.
Structural racism in fashion?
Structural racism is the result of historical and social processes that were influenced by many factors. It can’t be traced back to an individual person. Instead, it’s a complex problem that’s maintained by structural, institutional and individual factors.
Examples of this are historical events such as colonialization, slavery and the exploitation of labor forces, all of which have contributed to the repression of and discrimination against certain groups of people on the basis of their race. Even today, many systemic obstacles remain that result in discrimination against people because of their race.
It’s important that we cooperate as a society to combat structural racism and work toward a more just, integrative future. Racism is a problem that exists in many areas of society, and the fashion industry also contributes to reinforcing and solidifying racial stereotypes and prejudices.
Decolonization vs. Deconstruct Fashion
The decolonization of fashion is a process in which colonial practices, structures and narratives that have permeated the fashion industry are called into question with the aim of investigating how colonialization has influenced fashion, for example through the exploitation of resources, labor and cultural appropriation.
To decolonize fashion, the power and control of the dominant Western perspectives and practices must be replaced by a focus on the voices and experiences of marginalized communities including Blacks, indigenous peoples and people of color.
Key aspects for the decolonization der fashion
This involves a redefinition of beauty standards. The decolonization of fashion means questioning the Eurocentric beauty norms imposed on the industry and being mindful of different body types, skin colors and cultural forms of expression.
But decolonizing fashion also includes examining the ways in which fashion is dependent on exploitative practices and child labor. It means promoting fair trade and ethical production practices.
The decolonization of fashion also includes having being aware of and avoiding the disrespectful or exploitative use of cultural symbols or practices. Instead, the voices and experiences of marginalized communities, including BIPoC and people from the Global South, must be placed centerstage, and they must be given the power to design fashion narratives and practices.
“Deconstruct Fashion” – Structural transformation for real change
Fashion Africa Now stands for inclusion, representation and diversity in fashion, and I think the movement has gained its aesthetic power and that it’s important to communicate this aesthetic from an African/Afro-diaspora perspective. It is necessary for these reasons to break down and redefine old patterns of thought, and we therefore call for the return of the narrative. In other words, a new generation of designers of African origin is rethinking contemporary “African fashion”. A confident self-image and an aesthetic from an African/Afro-diaspora perspective is presented, outside the realms of (neo)colonial thought patterns and beauty norms. So our work is therefore the beginning of “Deconstruct Fashion”, the breakdown and reinterpretation of fashion; a new confrontation, historical and contemporary, guided by the African/Afro-diaspora perspective.'
It is important to understand the origins of African fashion and its traditional aspects in order to interpret them correctly. Here in Europe, we have the African diaspora and an increasing number of people who are growing up with different cultures. This represents purchaser potential that has not been closely examined up to now. These purchasers have a growing interest in consuming products that reflect their identity, redefine our current understanding of the mainstream and lend a wholly new significance to ethnic fashion.
Sustainable, high-quality fashion for people who are at home in more than one culture. I have consciously explained why it is necessary to “deconstruct fashion”, and I offer a position, Deconstruct Fashion: a fresh, new observation of specific aspects or “individual components” such as gender and racism structures within sustainable fashion (production). “Deconstruct Fashion” should be understood here as a process of transformation.
Cultural appreciation means that one makes a sincere effort to nlearn something new, listen to, rethink and reinterpret something about a different culture. The point here is to understand and respect the cultural beliefs and traditions. This new interpretation and the new confrontation, historical and contemporary, guided by BiPoC perspectives, is the core of the transformational process of Deconstruct Fashion. This transformation will only become truly effective by changing the structures of the system.
Collaboration as a solution approach
The future of fashion lies in collaboration and an awareness for sustainable practices. This is the vision behind the ONU model
. It is a call to action and a call for change, in that it tells the hidden stories of African fashion and creates new connections.
ONU represents the power of collaboration and dialog to change the perception of African fashion and sustainability. Through careful, conscious design based on the principles of Re-generation and Re-definition, a new narrative is created for fashion in Africa/Afro-diaspora and Europe.
ONU provides space for untold stories that are often falsely interpreted or ignored in the fashion industry, while encouraging a change in thinking.
The collaboration between NKWO and Wildling Shoes is not only the first of its kind between a German sustainable label and an African designer, but it’s also the stage for a platform for new values in the fashion industry.
is not merely a shoe, but a movement. It’s a movement aimed at transforming the fashion industry by pointing out the connection between fashion and sustainability, culture and history.
It’s a movement that promotes dialog and shines a revealing light on previously unseen stories in the fashion industry. In contrast to 15 years ago, this collaboration works today because what unites NKWO and Wildling Shoes are values, mediation and a regenerative approach. In addition, the foundation of Wildling Shoes is rooted in an idea of community, and this is the basis for African fashion. Fashion from Africa has always come from an idea of community, since everyone is equally integrated into the processes that are involved. In the WastePreneurs initiative, it can already be observed whether a member collects garbage, writes a business plan, or washes or dyes fabric remnants – they are all appreciated members within a community.
An invitation to everyone to get involved
So, what can each individual do and what has to change at the political and economic levels? Every individual can take a variety of steps to promote a more just, more sustainable fashion industry. For example:
- Acquire information from BIPoC platforms such as Fashion Africa Now. Informing ourselves about problems in the fashion industry such as the exploitation of labor forces, environmental destruction and cultural appropriation is an important first step in promoting changes.
- Buy BIPoC: Conscious decisions about what we buy and where we buy it from can help deliberately promote more sustainable fashion practices. This also involves supporting brands that are produced in the Global South and are seeking access to international sales markets.
- Awareness about the problems in the fashion industry and advocating for changes can contribute to promoting a more just and more sustainable fashion industry. This can involve spreading information on social media, confronting brands to promote better practices or participating in protests and other forms of activism.
Together as a part of the Re:generation
To summarize, we can say that by taking a critical approach to our experiences and challenges, we can grow and develop further, bringing about a transformation in the fashion industry. The future of African fashion is dependent upon numerous factors, but there are some steps that can be taken today to bring about a positive change. One possibility is investing in the education of fashion designers from African origins. The build-up of BIPoC platforms, fashion schools, the creation of jobs and the provision of resources such as know-how and technology can contribute to strengthening the local textile and clothing industry. Finally, political measures can also contribute to promoting the African fashion industry, for instance by renegotiating trade agreements to create fairer conditions for African countries and their economies.
Together with NKWO and Wildling Shoes, we call on you to take part in this movement and to sharpen awareness for African fashion and sustainability. Let’s create a new future for fashion, together."
Cover image: Christian Hedel