The Fashion Continent ‘avoids the western gaze

Emmanuelle Courrèges’ earliest fashion memories are of personal expression: as a student in the Ivory Coast, she and her classmates swapped their navy uniform skirts for sarouel pants of the same color, a style typically worn by men that allowed freedom of movement and a hint of rebellion. She remembers admiring how Aminata Traoré, Malian Minister of Culture and family friend, she combined traditional garments with accessories from young designers to create “innovative and original silhouettes”. Her first visits to designer Chris Seydou’s workshop in Abidjan were also formative: her atelier was a meeting place for the most elegant women of the region.

“I was lucky enough, thanks to my family, to grow up surrounded by African intellectuals, journalists, sociologists and artists who have nourished my thinking”, says Courrèges, a French journalist who contributed to She, Marie Claire And Vogue Italy, and spent the first 18 years of his life between Cameroon, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. Although her work has covered a broad swath of social and political topics, fashion has been an interest for decades, as a craft, business, and cultural barometer. “Fashion is a language”, she tells me. “I’ve always thought that clothing and style are great ways to tell us about society and the state of the world.”

Zineb Koutten wears an Aybee jacket. Photographed by Joseph Ouechen.

Moroccan artist Karim Chater photographed by Mohcine Harisse.

Your new and thoughtful book, Africa: the continent of fashion (Flammarion), invites readers to explore the complex landscape of contemporary African fashion: each chapter highlights designers and artisans who push boundaries, expert boutique owners, photographers, stylists and young creatives who are inventing their own versions of what fashion ”means, and lead a movement that Courrèges compares to Swinging ’60 in London. “This book is not just a book about clothes,” Courrèges points out. “It is about how the fashion of the designers and the style of the young bear witness to the changes taking place on the African continent, but also to the dreams, needs or passions of these new generations”.

The book is a timely project, as designers from various African countries are starting to gain global recognition: South African designers Thebe Magugu and Sindiso Khumalo have both received the LVMH award, Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi is on the official Haute Couture calendar , and Nigerians Kenneth Izé and Maki Oh show off at the Paris and New York Fashion Weeks, respectively. But as Courrèges writes in the book, even with greater visibility, African fashion “remains incomprehensible to many”.

“There is still a lot of work to be done to get the creators’ voices heard and break down the clichés,” he says. Part of this involves a nuanced understanding of the legacy of colonization, which she and her subjects clearly address in the book: “Seventy years ago, in some countries, you were forbidden to speak your language. Being yourself was something that was often prevented, “he says.” What designers are doing today is not only beautiful or bold, it is also revolutionary. They are inventing an incredibly rich language, drawing their vocabulary from all the cultures of the world. “.

The book cover features fashion designer Lafalaise Dion with a headdress designed by herself. Photographed by Daron Bandeira. © Africa: The Fashion Continent, by Emmanuelle Courrèges, Flammarion, 2022.

Another important theme of the book is how many designers and artisans approach sustainability not as a growing trend to be achieved, but as an intrinsic part of what people in their communities have been doing for centuries. (“The Western world has a propensity to think that everything that is done elsewhere is the consequence of what he created himself,” jokes Courrèges.) He quotes Ghanaian label Studio One Eighty Nine, which uses GOTS certified organic cotton grown. in Burkina Faso for her beach dresses and the Senegalese designer Selly Raby Kane, who creates patchwork skirts with recycled fabrics inspired by profound legacies of transformation and resourcefulness, as examples of brands for which sustainability is a central principle.

The models wear clothes and accessories from TSAU, a brand from London-based Ghanaian artist and designer Bevan Agyemang. Courtesy of Flammarion.

Those critical remarks are balanced by a visual feast: the cover features designer Lafalaise Dion with a headpiece of her own design; inside, you’ll find hundreds of inspirational images from runways and lookbooks, as well as street-style shots from Accra to Lagos. Also in the mix are featurettes about artists such as Hassan Hajjaj, Trevor Stuurman and Laetitia Ky, who share their sincere thoughts on creativity and representation.

While your immediate conclusion after reading may be that you should add more African designers to your closet (if you need ideas on where to look, Courrèges recommends Industrie Africa, The Folklore, Elle Aime Creatives and Moonlook), Courrèges hopes his work stimulates reflection, discussion and action. “Just because we don’t understand or see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” she says. “If we accept to decentralize the Western point of view, we discover the exceptional richness that lies behind these creations. In an increasingly saturated fashion sector, where many brands all do the same thing, where we continue to look back to the 70s, 80s or 90s, what African designers bring to the table, their speech, their vocabulary, their fabrics, their vision of the world, is something profoundly delightful ”.

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