African designers making their mark on international fashion scene

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There are plenty of clues: the success of Thebe Magugu, the first African designer to win the LVMH Prize in 2019, who is now preparing to be the first designer to create a collection for AZ Factory following the death of Alber Elbaz; the book ‘Swinging Africa, le continent mode’ by Emmanuelle Courrèges, published in France in November 2021 by Flammarion; the new Révélations biennial art exhibition scheduled in Paris on June 9-12 2022, which will be followed by ‘Africa Fashion’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (from July 2022 to April 2023), a major exhibition devoted to African designers, from the immediate post-WW2 period to the present day. Clearly, Africa is on the agenda all over the world.

“It’s all happening on the African fashion scene,” said French journalist Emmanuelle Courrèges, who grew up in West Africa and founded Lago54, a platform for promoting and showcasing African fashion, and also works as press officer for Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi. “Little by little, a number of players and now also investors are realising that not only there is great potential [in Africa], but also a need to make space for voices that are imagining the future. Nelly Wandji and I arrived very early on, eight years ago with Moonlook and five with Lago54, at a time when African fashion only interested a handful of people. We broke new ground, helping create what is happening today,” she added.

Africa’s evolution has been on the radar of financial analysts for some time. “In recent years, economic diversification has made it possible for a middle class to emerge in Africa, thereby stimulating demand for consumer products, services, and luxury brands,” wrote consulting firm Deloitte in its study ‘Consumption in Africa, the market of the 21st century’, published in June 2015. “The rise in consumer demand, combined with an annual growth rate close to 8%, is expected to increase Africa’s GDP by approximately $1.1 trillion by 2019. Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Mozambique are among the fastest growing markets, and large economies such as Nigeria, South Africa, Morocco, and Egypt continue to perform well. Africa’s opportunity for consumption growth rests on five key factors: the rise of the middle class, population growth, the predominant presence of younger generations, fast urbanisation, and the rapid adoption of digital technology,” added Deloitte.

More than ever in 2022, Africa’s star is shining bright. “Finally, the continent it taking back control of its image and narrative,” said Laureen Kouassi-Olsson, founder and CEO of Birimian, an investment firm that specialises in providing financial, strategic and operational support to luxury and premium brands of African heritage. “[Africa] is a land of opportunity, where brands have understood contemporary challenges but are fostering their own values, inspired by history and craftsmanship. With Birimian, I’m demonstrating that African fashion is on the map and can be profitable,” she added. Barely a year after being set up, Birimian has forged a partnership with the French Fashion Institute (IFM) to create a collective programme supporting African designers at every stage in their development. And the latest edition of the Première Classe Tuileries trade show in Paris welcomed seven of the collective’s labels: Christie Brown, Kente Gentlemen, Mille Collines, Rich Mnisi, Shekudo, This Is Us and Umòja. “The feed-back we received was positive. The buyers present [at the show] made it clear to us they needed to see new things, and they did place some orders,” said Kouassi-Olsson. Further proof of the current interest in Africa is the fact that Birimian has recently teamed up with Trail, an independent European private equity firm whose portfolio includes 12 companies, among them Wella, APM Monaco and PR agency Mazarine, specialised in luxury and premium brands. The goals for Birimian and its African labels are to develop an industrial approach producing greater added value, to promote operational synergies and also, for Birimian, to open a Parisian branch based at Trail’s offices.

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