Fashion’s New Continent By K magazine

Image courtesy of Kering and Ethical Fashion Initiative

Image courtesy of Kering and Ethical Fashion Initiative

Is ‘‘humble luxe’’ just another buzz word or is it making a difference, particularly in Africa?
K magazine explores….

A scarlet red cuff made from the fur of a springbok, a finely quilled olive green cardholder fashioned from ostrich skin, and a pale gold evening bag stitched out of leather and suede made from the skin of a blesbok, with a springbok horn charm and 18 carat gold chain. These exotic items may be considered the height of decadence for some, but are they also helping transform Africa’s economy?

The accessories are all made by Okapi, the label founded by Hannelli Rupert, daughter of luxury goods tycoon Johann Rupert. The brand’s Aziri handbag can retail for as much as £8,000, but with the company’s entire production process located in South Africa, they claim to be helping bring positive change to the country.

Image courtesy of Kering and Ethical Fashion Initiative

Image courtesy of Kering and Ethical Fashion Initiative

When Bono and his wife Ali Hewson set up EDUN, their intention was to run a luxury label that produced clothing and accessories in Africa, an ideal that would have the benefit of raising the profile of the continent’s trade. But they ran into manufacturing problems, and financial losses resulted in the shift of production to China – ironic given that imports from Asia are one of the biggest threats to the development of Africa’s textile industry. In 2013 however, they opened new factories in Madagascar, Kenya, Tunisia, Morocco and Uganda, and 85% of their items are now produced there.

So are there genuinely humble motives behind the luxury market’s interest in Africa, or is it merely an attempt to capitalise on the world’s fastest growing middle class?

Made in Africa

Africa’s spending power is increasing; indeed since 2011, Forbes has been publishing an annual ‘‘Africa’s 40 Richest’’ list, while Nigeria is currently the world’s 26th biggest economy. Boutiques in Lagos’ chic Victoria Island neighbourhood stock international brands like Gucci and Balenciaga, as well as home-grown ones like Maki Oh, famously worn by Michelle Obama. In South Africa, Johannesburg’s exclusive Sandton City shopping centre is undergoing a £25 million expansion, with Alexander McQueen and others set to open concessions in 2015.

For brands starting up fair-trade initiatives in developing countries, it also means precious PR: one of the industries most associated with wealth and status is demonstrating responsibility. As the message trickles down, a ‘‘Made in Africa’’ trend is emerging – humble luxe could become the next boho chic.

Cynicism aside, there are tangible benefits to working in Africa. Stella McCartney realised it gave them an opportunity to create original items while giving valuable skills to the people crafting them. In 2010, the brand began collaborating with the UN International Trade Centre’s Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) to make a range of tote bags in Nairobi; this has since grown to include backpacks and make-up bags.

Image courtesy of Kering and Ethical Fashion Initiative. Photo credit - Tahir Karmali

Image courtesy of Kering and Ethical Fashion Initiative. Photo credit – Tahir Karmali

The EFI provide training on a local level, which enables artisans to make high quality items, and not solely for the luxury market. “The increase in quality allows our producers to diversify themselves, including in very basic lines of work for the domestic market such as school bags and products for the tourism industry”, says Simone Cipriani, EFI’s head and founder. “The most specialised workers receive offers from other companies as they are now a point of excellence in the workforce of Kenya. This doesn’t only refer to production skills, but also to logistics and management.”

Ninety per cent of the 5,000 people employed on the project are women, and in a country where only 30% of the workforce is female, this is a meaningful effort. Moreover, in Kenya’s patriarchal society, few women have economic independence; as a result of this initiative some have set up their own investment group.

Me-too production

In the case of Okapi, the company’s localised structure means they are able to give jobs to everyone from the farmers and vets, who look after the animals providing the source materials, to the skilled leather and metal workers, who produce the accessories. It seems this system of traceability is being encouraged by the arrival of international brands, unlike some of the sweatshop conditions seen in the Far East.

“What we are seeing emerging is that you can get cotton that is grown in Arusha, an area in Tanzania, turned into fabric in Arusha, then dyed and stitched and shipped out of Arusha as a local garment,” says Conall O’Caoimh, director of Value Added In Africa, a charity that builds relationships between local producers and European retailers.

According to O’Caoimh, these ways of working set an important example. “They create a model, an openness and an interest, so they open real collaboration with European markets. The other thing that happens is that other African producers see it and say: ‘I can do that as well’, and that’s part of how we see change. It happens when African producers see the success of their peers and then give it a go.”

Image courtesy of Kering and Ethical Fashion Initiative.  Photo credit - Tahir Karmali

Image courtesy of Kering and Ethical Fashion Initiative. Photo credit – Tahir Karmali

How can luxury brands ensure they make a positive change in the long run? Committing beyond just the one range of clothing or accessories is essential, along with investing in local crafts. “What Africa lacks in large-scale manufacturing capacity it more than makes up for in the ability to create hand-crafted goods using little-known techniques,” says Helen Jennings, fashion journalist and author of New African Fashion. “What needs to happen now though is for commitments to be made long-term, so that production capacity is built that local designers and makers can also plug into.”

Humble luxe could signify a new dawn for fashion, one where (as is typically the case in Italy, for example), employees are paid a fair wage, craftsmanship is favoured over mass-production and fully traceable, sustainable practices are the norm. “The tradition has been that Africa gives away its raw materials, and really those economics of colonialism are still in place”, says O’Caoimh. “But that’s the thing we’re trying to shift; it’s a high bar we set ourselves, but the transformation that it can bring about makes it worthwhile.”

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