Afropolitan: African Fashion Scene Bursting with Energy

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Fashion is a significant global business: some estimates place the world’s clothing industry at US $900 billion a year. Clothing – like food – is something everyone requires, so fashion can be an accessible way for small-scale entrepreneurs and craftspeople to earn income and eventually tap into larger marketplaces. Through clever use of the internet and online shopping, small-scale fashion designers and clothing makers can access global markets and earn income from around the world. Initiatives like ShopAfrica53 (http://www.shopafrica53.com/) are helping people to get online and establish small web shops.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the size of western Europe. A bitter, decade-long civil war that officially ended in the rest of the country in 2003, and that has claimed several million lives through fighting and disease, still burns on in the eastern border provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu. As a result, Congo is now home to the world’s largest UN peacekeeping mission.

In the face of this civil strife, a group of very fashionable gentlemen bring colour and style to the country while also pioneering a way to make money and improve standards of dress in the country. Members of “La sape,” or La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Société_des_ambianceurs_et_des_personnes_élégantes) — the society of tastemakers and elegant people — wear designer fashions either bought in Europe, or handmade in Congo.

They are inspired by Paris’s society world of parties, social events and fashion as they see it in magazines. It is a hybrid style: French colonialism (the Congo is a former French colony) mixed with individual interpretations of the in ‘look’.

All in the last place in the world you would expect to find such cutting-edge fashion: a place where slums and warfare are the everyday norm.

The gentlement of La Sape are featured in the new book Gentlemen of Bacongo (http://www.trolleybooks.com/bookSingle.php?bookId=118) by photographer Daniele Tamagni. He chronicles in loving detail this bright fashion phenomenon. The cover of the book features a man in an elegantly tailored lipstick pink suit and pink bowler hat – testament to the eye-catching styles on display.

But rather than a local fancy, the look refined by these gentlemen has become the inspiration for designers in Europe, like Britain’s Paul Smith (http://www.paulsmith.co.uk/).

“A Congolese sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body,” Tamagni said.

They also are the living embodiment of a distinctive modern African style.

Their suits are either designer or handmade copies. The sapeurs have strict rules to go with their style: never wear more than three colours together for example.

Tamagni says there is more to the phenomenon than just appearances. Sapeur Salvador Hassan “thinks that a real sapeur needs to be cultivated and speak fluently, but also have a solid moral ethic: that means beyond the appearance and vanity of smart, expensive clothing there is the moral nobility of the individual.”

Says Hassan, “The label is not important, what is important is to be able to dress depending on the taste of the individual.”

For a sapeur, the saints are Pierre Cardin, Roberto Cavalli, Dior, Fendi, Gaultier, Gucci, Issey Miyake, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace and Yohji Yamamoto.

Unlike the followers of some other fashion styles, they do not worship violence and gang warfare.

Some find the clothes in shops in Brazzaville and Kinshasa but most try to get them from Paris.

So how do they afford these clothes that sometimes cost in the thousands when most are unemployed? They have turned their passion for fashion into a business too. They rent the clothes out for around US $25 a day to earn income. They also save their money to travel back and forth to Europe selecting the best clothes, which they then carry back to Congo and sell for a good profit.

In another development, African fashion magazines are also playing their role in shifting perceptions.

The African look has attracted a new wave of magazines to capture it and promote it. The new glossy magazine titles – Arise (http://www.arisemagazine.net/) (published in London), HauTe (http://www.fashionafrica.com/), Helm (http://www.facebook.com/pages/HELM-Magazine/41931572531) and True Love – are good examples of this new wave.

“Honestly, upwardly mobile African readers are crying out for this magazine,” Helen Jennings, editor of Arise, told the New York Times. Arise is a Nigerian style monthly started by Nigerian media mogul Nduka Obaigbena, who also publishes Nigeria’s leading newspaper, This Day.

“Because the local magazines aren’t as high-end or progressive, and no other international titles speak directly to an African readership, Arise has really caused a stir,” said Jennings.

Jennings calls the magazine’s mix of content “afropolitan”: blending pan-African and global content.

The magazine’s debut issue features the models Alek Wek, Naomi Campbell and Liya Kebede. Stories run the gamut from electronic music to football academies, and the rise of Nollywood, Nigeria’s home-grown film industry.

It features African designers and is distributed in seven countries to 60,000 readers.

Along with new magazines, more and more African designers are now getting attention on Africa’s – and the world’s – catwalks. They include Lisete Silvandira Bento Pires Pote, who started as a designer in 1998 and has been featured in many fashion shows in Angola and around the world. Her clothes are now worn by singers and actors.

Other Angolan fashion designers include Elisabeth Santos, Vadinho Pina, Tekasala Ma’at Nzinga and Shunnoz Fiel (whose appearance in a World Press Photo is drawing attention to the Angolan fashion scene) (http://www.worldpressphoto.org/index.php?option=com_photogallery&task=view&id=1463&Itemid=224).

From Botswana, Koketso Chiepe has been so successful, she opened a fashion shop in London this past summer. Chrystalix is a Cameroonian fashion designer who uses raw materials found in the Equatorial forests of her country. Another Cameroonian design label is Kreyann and sells from its boutique in Douala clothing made from rich materials like silk.

In Ghana, young pioneer Aisha Obuobi has revitalized the use of African prints in fashion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0M2rEQ0Wehw).

A list of fashion weeks across the global South (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashion_week) offers many opportunities to witness this creative surge across the continent.

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