JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) — When Michelle Obama and Beyonce Knowles attended high-profile events in clothes made by African designers, it was a sure sign that the continent’s vibrant style has arrived on the world stage.
The showcasing of clothes from home-grown African designers in stores in New York, London and Tokyo is a sign of a broader change of attitude towards a continent which is earning a brighter reputation beyond stories of war and disease.
It has proven difficult for Africa’s home grown designers to break into the mainstream fashion market because the perception has often been that products from the world’s poorest continent are of low quality or just not cool.
Global fashion designers like Yves Saint Laurent took inspiration from Africa decades ago and more recently brands like Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior have embraced the continent’s style and broadened its appeal.
But consumers now want products made by Africans, not replicas produced by Western clothing chains, according to Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, who owns Ethiopian shoe company, soleRebels, which has a dozen stores from Singapore to Greece.
“The global consumer today is hyper-aware. They want authentic and innovative ideas delivered from the authors of those ideas,” Bethlehem said.
“We have always had incredible design and production talent here, but it was invisible. That is changing.”
In 2010, the first annual New York African Fashion Week gave home-grown designers the chance to showcase their work on the world stage.
Global celebrities have endorsed African designers including Nigerian label Maki-Oh, Ghana’s Osei-Duro and South Africa-based retailer Kisua.com.
Nigerian lawyer-turned-designer Duro Olowu has become a well-known name in fashion circles and has a collection at U.S. department store J.C. Penney and his own boutique store in central London.
“It was a good thing to see international designers putting African fashion on the map,” said Ghanaian entrepreneur Samuel Mensah, who quit his job as a fund manager to launch online clothes retailer Kisua.com.
“Now we’re starting to see Africa taking ownership of its own cultural assets. African designers are being noticed. They are stocked in international stores.”
CHALLENGES AT HOME
While attitudes abroad have changed the industry is also trying to meet latent demand for quality fashion among the growing middle-class at home.
“The change has been brought about by global developments, both economical change and a communication change,” said Roger Gerards, creative director at Vlisco, one of the world’s biggest producers of African fabric.
“People see other countries and other cultures more easily than 20 years ago because of social media,” Gerards added.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the second fastest growing economic region in the world behind Asia and has a rapidly growing middle-class who have more access to world trends as mobile phones and the Internet reach tens of millions more people every year.
The industry has chosen to focus on middle-class consumers who value traditional manufacturing methods and local materials because it cannot compete with cheap mass-produced imports.
The lack of investment in infrastructure and a failure of African governments to agree favourable trade agreements with each other have seen imports continue to rise.
China has grown its share of Africa’s clothing imports from 16 percent in 2001 to 55 percent in 2013, while intra-African trade has remained flat at around 10 percent of imports, according to International Trade Centre data.
Even companies that are showcasing African talent often have to rely on resources outside the continent. Vlisco is based in the Netherlands, while Kisua.com only gets half of its materials from within Africa.
“It is easier for me to serve a client in New York or London than in Lagos or Nairobi,” said Mensah, who struggles with reliable warehousing and postal services in Africa.