October is Africa’s fashion month. Across the continent, from Addis Ababa to Lagos to Cape Town, fashion week organisers plan week-long events every October to celebrate Africa’s designers. But this year, as for so much of the world, things have gone differently.
African designers, as with all independent designers in the time of Covid-19, need all the marketing support they can garner. And, in a fledgeling industry, the role of the fashion show in promoting designers and encouraging customers to buy African is fundamental. That’s been a problem in 2020.
Lucilla Booyzen and her team have planned SA Fashion Week for over 20 years — making it the oldest fashion week in Africa. They built South Africa’s fashion landscape from the ground up, SA Fashion Week helping to promote a broader apparel sector valued at $1.26 billion. Previously, South Africa’s designers and fashion followers would gather in a physical space, but Covid-19 restrictions pushed the team to create a digital showcase this time around.
SA Fashion Week featured a programme of 27 digital runway shows from 22 to 24 October, followed by the SAFW Trade Show in the Crystal Court at the Mall of Africa in Waterfall City, Midrand. The SAFW Pop Up Shop is another feature, running from 27 to 29 November, also in the mall’s Crystal Court.
The switch to digital was not too radical a leap, Booyzen says. “We always had a strong digital presence, so it was a natural path for us to follow. Covid, inadvertently, created a scenario where we were all forced to rethink and re-strategise, not only our personal lives but, more radically, our businesses. With lockdown restrictions around the live event, ideas around a digital fashion week began to materialise into a reality, and we lunged, head and shoulders, into new territory.”
Over in Ethiopia, East Africa, Hub of Africa founder Mahlet Teklemariam weighed the feasibility of going digital for Fashion Week this year. She considered that 2020, being the 10th anniversary of Hub of Africa’s catwalk shows, deserved a big celebration but the devastating effects of Covid-19 left Ethiopian designers in too vulnerable a spot for the event to proceed. By August, it was clear that many of the 30 participating designers were struggling with production difficulties (Covid-19 restrictions affected textile imports) as well as a challenging political climate. The team made the difficult decision to postpone.
Hub of Africa is not the only fashion platform that had hoped to celebrate milestones in 2020. Although Lagos Fashion Week’s producer Style House Files had staged fashion shows in Nigeria since 2008, the year 2011 was when regular seasonal fashion shows were launched, making 2020 the 10th anniversary as well. “Covid-19 brought along questions about the state of the fashion industry in Nigeria,” says Omoyemi Akerele, founder and manager. ”But our initiatives, over the years, to promote local artisanship provided us with opportunities to stay relevant despite the turmoil from Covid. So we hosted digital events still and had planned for a hybrid fashion show come October.” The team have used initiatives such as their Woven Threads exhibitions and Fashion Focus Fund to keep conversations going during the pandemic.
However, in October, Nigerians took to the streets to protest police brutality in one of the biggest protests in living memory. For Akerele, these protests were not initially a deterrent. A victim of police brutality herself, she added her voice to the cause and considered ways that Lagos Fashion Week could interweave political commentary into the 2020 Programme. The team commissioned photographers hoping to use their platform to draw more attention to these issues.
On 20 October, horrified Nigerians watched a massacre live on Instagram, with members of the Nigerian armed forces opening fire on protestors campaigning against police brutality. Two days after the massacre, in which at least 12 protestors were killed, the Lagos Fashion Week Official team announced the indefinite postponement of 2020 Fashion Week. “The events of the last few days have borne a deep sense of grief. With this grief guiding our steps and out of respect to those that have had their lives unjustly taken from them coupled with the current state of affairs in the country, Lagos Fashion Week 2020 is postponed,” the organisers posted on Instagram.
The impact of fashion weeks
As in the West, the pandemic crisis has prompted debate across Africa as to whether traditional runway shows still have value — or if they ever did.
But the designer fashion industry’s issues are more fundamental in Africa. Last year, Nigerian designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal of Orange Culture called for support from Nigerian banks, which often host fashion events of their own. Among his proposals: grants for designers (rather than loans with high interest rates) and financial and structural support for sustainable fabric development and textile manufacturing, fashion education and labour acquisition.
Hub of Africa’s Teklemariam says the industry in East Africa (compared to West and South Africa) is still looking to move on from an educational phase. “Our first few years of business were about promoting the industry. It was hard to focus on the transactional end of things for designers when even retailers here [in Ethiopia] were yet to start carrying Ethiopian designers en masse. At that point, fashion education was more important for us. We’re glad to see that this decision to educate has been working and designers are now getting global audiences like Vogue Italia and even Beyoncé.”
Publicity is all-important to raise the profile of designers, both individually and collectively. Ghanaian designer Darkor Ofosu-Dorte of Darkor’s who showed at Glitz Africa Fashion Week in Accra, Ghana (6-8 November), says: “As a new designer here in Ghana, I needed a platform that would push me into the public eye. Participating in the show came with some costs as I had to put a pause on business as regular, but I knew that publicity could help generate revenue, so I took this leap and so far it has.”
For African designers — whether or not they care for runway shows — the investment required to show is way lower than Western fashion capitals. To show at Lagos Fashion Week (LagosFW), designers pay just N50,000 ($120). The cost of hiring models, make up artists and catering is mostly covered by LagosFW. The biggest outlay, therefore, is likely to be the production of samples. By subsidising catwalk expenses, LagosFW incentivises designers to show, thereby creating global market opportunities.
Maison ArtC was founded by Israeli and Moroccan designer Artsi who lives, works and creates in Marrakech.
© Maison ArtC
It is accepted that at this nascent stage of the fashion industry in Africa, fashion week producers have to take on more active roles in supporting designers. “We unearth the designers, making sure we catch the best talent when they graduate through our competitions,” says Booysen of South African Fashion Week. “We then nurture them, introducing them to the buyers, the media and new clients. Our social media platform speaks only about the designers – our mission is to make them household names and desirable labels, labels that South African consumers want to wear. We support them and take them to market with the Trade Show, our wholesale platform, and the Pop Up Shop, our retail arm.”
Beyond designers, many others rely on the success of these runway shows and fashion events. Lagos Fashion Week involves at least 800 people ranging from photographers and models to caterers and cleaners. These runway shows provide important job opportunities in a country with a relentlessly high unemployment rate (over 27 per cent, having tripled in five years). Positioning the local industry as a driver for wealth creation matters to Akerele and the team because it facilitates development of the Nigerian manufacturing and textile industry as well as indigenous craftsmanship.
What happens next?
While Akerele says it’s unclear when Lagos Fashion Week will take place, the team has not stopped supporting designers. The current focus is on helping designers improve visibility before press and buyers. They are onboarding lookbooks, line sheets and portfolios on partner platforms such as Tranoi and Le New Black, and are launching a collaboration with Moda Operandi to ensure designers are still able to generate revenue from global as well as African buyers.
In Addis Ababa, Teklemariam is not yet confident about digital. She explains that although internet use has grown considerably, there are still many difficulties with accessing social media. Her team is currently working with sponsors to see how to support designers despite the absence of a show this year.
SA Fashion Week’s digital show was a success that has put digital at the forefront of the conversation for the team, Booyzen says. “Through this valuable exercise, we have learnt that the digital platform opens new channels and lengthens the time frame of exposure from what normally occurs within a week to a number of months.”
Booyzen is convinced that digital’s impact will endure. “There is no doubt that even after Covid has passed us by and we return to more traditional formats, that the digital component will be here to stay and form a major role in the build-up and outreach of the event.”
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