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African designers shine under Hollywood spotlight

By Katia Dansoko Touré
Posted on Tuesday, 30 April 2019 11:25

Tracee Ellis Ross wearing Claude Lavie Kameni at the American Music Awards. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Guests at the American Music Awards last October were already hyped to see what host Tracee Ellis Ross would be wearing – in 2017, the actress and daughter of Diana Ross made a spectacular 11 wardrobe changes in the course of the evening.

This time she only changed 10 times, but she made even more of a statement: every one of her outfits was by a black designer.

The most sensational was a majestic mermaid dress with double bell sleeves and ruffles to the floor, its “scales” shimmering in a blue and red wax print. The dress was by Claude Lavie Kameni, a Cameroonian-born designer and founder of the brand LavieByCK.

Kameni, who had already made waves by dressing Janet Jackson in a wax print crinoline for the music video of her single Made for Now, posted a photo of the mermaid dress on Instagram and got 32,000 likes. A few snaps later, the 24-year-old designer finally published the information everyone was waiting for: “The dress that @traceeellisross fell in love with was from our 2017 fall collection” and “This gown will be available to pre-order on Sunday!!”

Ten days later, it was already sold out while the designer sourced new shipments of the now iconic fabric. Over the past decade, particularly with the explosion of social media, a designer’s reputation can be made overnight. Celebrity stylists now have access to a world of fashion way beyond the big names in couture and can seek talent from anywhere in the world – including the African continent.

Tribute to African heritage

Black Hollywood stars have seized the opportunity to do more with their looks than just appear stunning on a red carpet. By turning to these creators they are making a statement about black talent; far beyond mere marketing, they are paying tribute to an “African heritage”, an expression of shared roots, that delights their fans.

“When Hollywood stars decide to wear a creation from the continent, they make a strong political and social gesture,” says Italian-Haitian designer Stella Jean, known for her fusion of classical Italian tailoring with African fabrics and Haitian themes. Rihanna was the first celebrity to wear one of her designs when she appeared at the White House in an Ankara-printed shirt dress in 2014, during President Barack Obama’s second term.

Other personalities followed, like the film director Ava DuVernay and actresses Tiffany Haddish, Issa Rae and Zendaya. “I don’t think it’s just a question of advertising a brand or a designer, but rather of promoting a creative and dynamic Africa,” Stella Jean continues.

It’s not just a question of advertising a brand or a designer, but rather of promoting a creative and dynamic Africa

This was clearly what motivated the singer Solange Knowles when she chose to shoot the video for ‘Losing You’ in South Africa in 2012. As well as introducing the wider world to pantsula dancing and culture from the townships, Knowles – Beyoncé’s younger sister – enlisted the help of Asanda Sizani, then fashion editor of Elle South Africa, and featured on the cover of the magazine wearing South African designers.

Wakanda in wax

African motifs exploded into mainstream fashion last year, thanks in part to the influence of the film Black Panther. The phenomenon first appeared at the film’s premieres, where Angela Bassett, who played the role of the Queen of Wakanda, showed up in a tailored suit by the Ivorian menswear designer Alexis Temomanin (Dent de Man).

Then, in February 2018, she appeared at the American Black Film Festival to promote the blockbuster in a dress by Mangishi Doll – the ready-to-wear line by Zambian designer Kapasa Musonda. The outfit, at an affordable $169, sold out in a few days. “The 50 or so dresses left in two days – our fastest sale to date. The customers were from the US, Europe, Australia, but also from the African continent,” Musonda recounts with delight.

Based in Zambia, Musonda obviously had all the tools at hand to sell internationally. But this unpredictability is one of the main challenges for African designers suddenly thrown into the limelight outside their own country. It is one that Sam Mensah Jr., a Ghanaian entrepreneur, has tried to solve with his e-commerce platform KISUA. Styled as “a sustainable platform for African craftsmen and designers to access the international market”, KISUA handles the development, production and distribution.

Alexis Temomanin, designer for the label Dent De Man. Cattermole/Getty Images

Designers then receive a portion of every sale. The only downside for designers is that the clothes are branded KISUA, so when Beyoncé is spotted wearing them – as happened in 2014, twice in one week – the brand gets all the kudos, even if the designer gets the added profits that come from a sudden rush to buy. “Beyoncé tops the list as the personality that most allows African creators to shine internationally,” says Senegalese designer Sarah Diouf.

And she should know – she is one of the young African creators, along with Selly Raby Kane from Senegal and Loza Maléombho from Côte d’Ivoire – who have found themselves in the spotlight thanks to the US singer. Last July, Diouf saw Beyoncé on Instagram wearing two of her designs for her brand Tongoro: a top-and-trouser set at €150 ($170) and a dress at €120.

“In the days that followed, orders came flooding in. We usually produce just 50 to 60 examples of each design,” she says. Today, the phrase ‘as worn by Beyoncé’ almost serves as a calling card for African design. During her visit to Johannesburg for the Global Citizen Festival in December 2018, the pop star showcased the work of a good 10 designers from the African diaspora.

Stamp of approval

She did not fail to thank them all on Instagram. Among them: Adama Paris, Quiteria & Georges, Rich Mnisi, Afrikanista, Peulh Vagabond and Tongoro. But the singer is not the only celebrity acting as a five-star press agent. Cameroonian designer Kibonen Nfi can count on Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, a fan of her creations, who has been seen around Manhattan in her Kibonen NY line.

In France, Malian designer Mariah Bocoum has been noticed by the press thanks to dressing her sister, the singer Inna Modja. Finally, the world of showbiz is not the only one where African fashion is being shown to the world. Prize-winning writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also support the designers of their home countries – among the exclusively Nigerian brands she has chosen to wear are GREY, The Ladymaker and Moofa.

And Alain Mabanckou has extended the fame of Le Bachelor, a tailor and boutique well known to Parisian sapeurs, with the rest of the world. As for political figures, US former first lady Michelle Obama is a Nigerian ready-to-wear fan (Duro Olowu, Maki Oh), while Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May showed up in Nigeria in August 2018 in an Emmy Kasbit jacket by Emmanuel Okoro.

Even if May did not rock the jacket like Chimamanda did the trousers from the same collection, Okoro told BBC Pidgin: “My Instagram follows don jump wit like 2,000 new followers.”

This article was first published in Jeune Afrique

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