How much are you willing to pay for local fashion?
“We can choose to recognise the value of our heritage and take control over the distribution of our culture, or we can let the hunters tell the story of how they slayed the beastly lions,” writer Lineo Segoete so aptly argues. Think of it this way: how much are you willing to pay for something that is truly and authentically yours? This may seem theoretical, but this question is pertinent for our local fashion industry. There’s been more than one instance of “African” designs being packaged by multimillion-dollar fashion houses and sold for a pretty penny. The retail prowess of the brands behind them means thousands of people have flocked to consume these garments. But when it comes to local fashion, is this still the case? Designers including Laduma Ngxokolo, Thabo Makhetha, and Mzukisi Mbane taking the “African” fashion wave in their stride, showing that homegrown fashion has some serious potential. Not only are these designers making their own textiles and original, traditionally infused designs, they are making their mark on the local and international fashion industry — as seen with their appearances in stores and on the runway at fashion weeks locally and abroad.
But when it comes to local brands such as these, there seems to be an air of reluctance to buy into luxury African products, which are viewed by some consumers as too expensive and inaccessible. Let’s face it: we’ve all drunk the international fashion Kool-Aid. Whether it’s Zara and H&M or Gucci and Prada, we’ve fallen under the spell of the international imports and relentless trends that are churned out of the multi-billion dollar machine that has come to dominate the global fashion conversation. So where does that leave the beloved “African fashion” that has us up in arms when we see it appearing on a runway or the high street?
The producers of African fashion are trapped in a perpetual cycle of competitions. Brands such as Louis Vuitton have used Masaai Shuka and BaSotho blanket prints; Stella McCartney used Ankara prints in a show with only one African model; and, even worse, a pair of MaXhosa-looking socks appeared in Zara. Luxury and fast-fashion brands take the sartorial nuances of African fashion and African narratives, turn them into commercial commodities, and sell them back to us and the world rest of the world.
“We need to find glamour in our own identity, stories, and heritage. The only reason why these brands appropriate our culture and make fashion from our heritage is because we are not taking pride and ownership. So they take it from us, mass produce it, then sell it back to usMzukisi Mbane
“We need to find glamour in our own identity, stories, and heritage. The only reason why these brands appropriate our culture and make fashion from our heritage is because we are not taking pride and ownership. So they take it from us, mass produce it, then sell it back to us,” says Mzukisi Mbane, designer of Cape Town-based brand, Imprint, known for its striking use of print and colour. “I’m all about pushing for our African heritage and identity to be mainstream in Africa, and not the alternative,” he says.
If we don’t feed the African industry, the perpetual cycle of eating from the proverbial hand of the international fashion industry will continue, and local designers won’t be left with any bargaining chips in the international market. Who are we without the talent that speaks for us and represents us on the global stage? Luxury African fashion that is rooted in heritage and culture is our unique selling point, and, therefore, our only true stake in the international market. Yes, local fashion may seem expensive — depending on which brands you are looking at — but let’s not underestimate the buying power of the South African consumer. And let’s not forget that local designers have a tiny percentage of the resources, workforce, and funding that fashion conglomerates do. Local designers have to work so much harder to create a quality luxury product that can compete with global players. “Most of the time we have to carry all the costs of producing fabric and prints. The cost of labour locally is more expensive than producing in China or Bangladesh, as most international brands do,” Mbane says. “Most times we tend to produce small units in-house, as most of our people don’t see value in local brands. Producing fewer units keeps costs up and price tags high.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom for local designers, who have had to learn how to cut through the noise and use their unique African voices to be heard. According to the three designers we spoke to, there is a market for luxury African fashion — both locally and internationally — and it is, in fact, growing, despite the current retail climate. “We have so much support, and I do think it is because the brand has people who have invested in more ways than one. We represent an African lifestyle brand, whose heritage is an authentic homage to the continent, and people resonate with this,” says Laduma Ngxokolo, designer of MaXhosa — a brand known for its brightly patterned, knitted textiles. But African fashion is about more than just its printed fabrics, which were initially created by Dutch textile maker, Vlisco, for the Indonesian market. African fashion is about heritage and culture — and preserving tradition through clothing. Fashion has become part of and a way of expressing our collective culture and heritage across generations and over time — whether it’s through vibrant coloured prints and beadwork, or hides and headscarves. “People have come to me and said, can I wear this even though it’s not my culture? And I need to explain that there is appreciating culture and then there is appropriating culture… When someone from the outside who doesn’t know the story or the history, comes and takes it for their own profits, or for their own gain, that’s where I feel like people are crossing the line,” says designer Thabo Makhetha-Kwinana, the creative force behind Thabo Makhetha BaSotho blanket capes and coats. “I have always loved being able to put a piece of history or a piece of culture into a garment because I feel like that’s what makes it timeless. It’s not a trend — it’s something from the past, translating for the future.”
Our current conundrum is the result of the fast-paced, globalised, and social-media-driven world that we live in. Today, boundaries of space, time, and culture have virtually disappeared. Not only has everything become hyper-visible, but the rate of cultural exchange now moves at 140 characters a minute, with words like “ownership” and “appropriation”, becoming quick-fire responses that appear on our screens and echo in our real lives. But heritage itself is a valuable cultural commodity: we have to take back control, because our narrative is our power. “Heritage is our language, music, and colours, and well as an expression of who we are as African people,” Ngxokolo says.“My own heritage is the inspiration I draw from. I work on knowing my own culture, and I am also am inspired by Africa as a whole. With my work, I want to preserve the essence of heritage by creating modern designs." It’s easy to copy an aesthetic, but international brands can never sell our actual heritage. Their copies are exactly that: they are stripped of their original context. As for the big fashion houses that take and use “inspiration” at will, they too can get it right sometimes. “You do get international brands that get it right. They go to the countries and they work with the people in those countries. They don’t just take the culture from the community: they are making sure that these people are benefitting and getting something from their work; they’re not just taking it for their capital gain,” Makhetha says. Brands such as Brother Vellies and Loewe are examples of those on a better path. Brother Vellies creates sustainable jobs for African artisans by working with them to create distinct shoes and handbags using traditional, handcrafted techniques such as Bogolon printing from Mali, weaving from Burkina Faso, and lacework from Nigeria. Spanish luxury brand Loewe has just launched a special edition of its signature elephant bag featuring handcrafted beadwork created in collaboration with women from the Samburu Trust in Northern Kenya. But it’s not enough to call out brands on Twitter for copying something that is emblematic of our culture. Not only do international brands need to become more conscious creators of cultural commodities, we too have to slow down and become conscious consumers who thoughtfully participate in our own economy and fashion industry. “I feel like sometimes with social media, people just want to be heard. You know, I can say one thing, I can show one thing ,and I can support one thing, but when it comes to my pocket, ah, I’m not there with you,” Makhetha says. “I think people forget that if we are not valuing our own things and fighting for them, we’re going to lose everything.”
This article first appeared in the September issue of S Magazine