The Africa Edit: Do We Need An Africa Fashion Month?
The traditional fashion calendar has held sway in the international fashion industry for decades. Today, as fashion week experiences a possible revamp, along with an increasing number of similar platforms across the continent, we wonder whether the African landscape is poised to reap the benefits of its very own fashion month.
Recently, the second instalment of the GT Bank Fashion Weekend took place in the thriving capital of Nigeria, just two weeks after Lagos Fashion and Design Week. This marks the end of the fashion week season in West Africa, with Mozambique Fashion Week and Swahili Fashion Week scheduled for December.
Whereas in Europe and the United States, from February to March, the fashion cognoscenti descend upon at least four of the industry’s most prominent events, hosted in their respective eponymous capitals for what is broadly known as Fashion Month; starting with New York Fashion Week, then on to London, followed by Milan, and closing off a month of one-upping showmanship at Paris Fashion Week. Then the cycle begins again in September.
What each city-based event brings to the fashion landscape is an idiosyncratic quality that sets them apart. However, what they have in common, is a guaranteed wide gathering of the industry’s haute monde who adhere to a long-established system in which they are firmly placed – The Fashion Calendar.
Fashionably on Schedule
Knowing where to be and when is crucial to the relevance of fashion insiders across the industry’s spectrum; for many reasons including marketability, publicity and networking.
The concept of an industry-wide event diary entered the fashion milieu in 1945, with the induction of The Fashion Calendar by publisher and expert scheduler – Ruth Finley. With a vision to streamline what was then, and today, an increasingly packed roster of events and fashion shows, as well as bring cohesion and structure to the manufacturing industry, Ruth’s Fashion Calendar quickly became a mainstay on the fashion scene. As an indispensable resource for fashion events the world over, the Calendar is loyally followed by (most) designers, editors, buyers, influencers, and dilettantes alike.
Following its acquisition by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 2014, the Fashion Calendar has since emerged as “a uniting leader in the industry,” according to its website. Since then, this platform has taken on an ecumenical quality, thus heralding the rise of wider inclusivity across the industry. What’s more, fashion weeks marked as ‘important dates’ on The Fashion Calendar hardly overlap, ensuring a seamless and in sync existence for the industry’s top women’s and menswear shows – including Pitti Uomo, Haute Couture Week, Bridal, Pre-Fall, and Resort shows – with the exception of a few outliers.
Over the course of Fashion Month, be it at the beginning or the close of the year, over six hundred events outside of fashion week take place in all four of the world’s top fashion capitals. Talks, cultural events, exhibitions, parties, trade shows, and store openings take advantage of the vast international crowds that their city’s runway shows pull.
It is this kind of unity and inclusivity that arises from an integrated month of fashion events, helped by cooperative communication between the CFDA, Fédération Française de la Couture (the Prêt-à–Porter des Couturiers, and des Créateurs de Mode), the British Fashion Council, and Italy’s Camera Nazionale della moda Italiana; who each carry influence over the outcome of the Fashion Calendar and ensure that their respective trade platforms offer a matchless experience to what is relatively the same elite fashion audience.
Cohesion, Collaboration & Co-Creation:
In an industry in constant flux, the usual glimmer of fashion week has begun to take on a dulling effect, as insiders begin to raise questions about the sustainability of such a platform. Therefore, the very notion of fashion week is rapidly changing; in format, timing, duration, and geography. Luxury brands and ready-to-wear powerhouses are rethinking their approach to this annual affair, in search of creative – and increasingly digital – ways to market their wares on and off the runway.
Despite all the hoopla around the future of fashion week and its corresponding calendar, what can be gleaned from the established industry is the cohesion, collaboration, and co-creation it has borne.
The latter three c’s have helped to bolster their growth and further consolidate Fashion Month as a requisite component of the industry. By allowing each showcase its time in the spotlight, the jet-setting fashion crowd can fully experience and appreciate what distinguishes each city – on and off the runway – all within the span of a month.
It was not until the early naughts – when fashion weeks and events became commonplace on both sides of the equator, thus giving rise to similar incarnations in cities across the globe – that African fashion weeks actively decided to throw its collective hat into the ring. Their entrée signalled a growing realization that African fashion may indeed be big business with lucrative home-grown brands to boot.
To date, at least eleven fashion weeks have emerged (some newly formed) to prominence in varying degrees, namely; the aforementioned Lagos Fashion & Design Week (Nigeria), Dakar Fashion Week (Senegal), AFI Jo’burg Fashion Week and AFI Cape Town Fashion Week (South Africa), SA Fashion Week (South Africa), SA Menswear week (South Africa), Glitz Africa Fashion Week (Ghana), Swahili Fashion Week (Tanzania), Kampala Fashion Week (Uganda), Collective RW Fashion week (Rwanda), Hub of Africa Fashion week (Ethiopia) and Mozambique Fashion Week – all growing in tandem with the buoyant development of their city’s economy.
However, Africa’s fashion industry is fractured at best, weighed down by the intermittent churning of the industry’s waking cogs. What it lacks, along with much-needed investment and training, is more cohesion and collaboration in what is still an embryonic industry with a disjointed value chain.
Owing to this, the African fashion industry has yet to harness the potential aggregating power of a unitary fashion month, a template it could adopt to its own needs. What’s more, the increase in fashion-related events sprouting across the continent reveals that a united approach is all the more necessary.
From Individual Weeks to an Africa Fashion Month?
As the Founder of Kampala Fashion Week and the Ugandan Fashion Council, Gloria Wavamunno, is all too aware of the need for a borderless and more collaborative industry. “As the African fashion industry ripens, a scheduled Africa Fashion Month would help organise and join us together better, I believe.” She adds, “Saying that, [I’m] not sure if joining the already [established] international fashion months or having one entirely for ourselves on the continent would be the best direction.”
Allana Foster-Finley, founder of AFARA GROUP & Head of Business Development for Kisua.com shares a similar sentiment, “I think a fashion month is necessary as the current structure is so scattered. I would suggest a month that aligns with the international buying season for transitional apparel where buyers and international fashion media have the time to move around the continent.”
Moreover, “it will create a unified presentation of what’s on offer from Africa. It has the potential to emulate market weeks that take place in NY and California.”
Wavamunno also points to the need for stronger communication between the relevant regional parties and fashion councils. By knowing which fashion week will take place when, and sharing information on their home-grown brands, each party can help raise the profile of their designers, as well as keep them on the buyer’s radar.
Additionally, there is much to be gained by forming a structured network that is conducive to seamless co-creation. “If as a designer I wanted to make bomber jackets, but I don’t have that ability due to lack of materials in Uganda, and I see someone in Kenya making these jackets, I could collaborate with him or her, [thus] introducing my audience to this designer and vice versa,” says Wavamunno.
Rather than work in regional silos, collaborative efforts could lead to a cross pollination of ideas and resources, best practices and quality standards. Furthermore, creative upstarts who lack the financial and reputational weight to draw a sizable audience or showcase their wares on international platforms, could benefit from a high-fashion month that attracts maximized attendance.
Never mind the benefits such a fashion month could bring to tourism (according to a 2015 statistic by Women’s Wear Daily, Milan Fashion Week generates a 90% occupancy rate and an average of 16 million Euros for hotels in Milan and nearby provinces), but also consider the trade opportunities such aggregated exposure could bring, helping to further consolidate the fashion industry with its more established industrial neighbours.
“It is of huge importance that we as Africans have a coordinated system of fashion weeks. I believe this would help in securing and firming the African fashion industry as a tool for, not only economical, but also social development…celebrating cultures, creativity and diversity while creating employment,” says Rio Paul, fashion stylist and entrepreneur.
In strengthening the value chain, having a dedicated fashion month may allow for a reasonable lead-time between product development, showcasing well-considered collections, marketing, placing orders, production, and delivery – thus establishing a system that operates in pace with the industry’s consumption habits. “Designers can then have a strategy for the development of their goods knowing that they will have access to buyers thus sustaining their business and helping them to scale for international engagement,” says Foster-Finley.
While Fashion Month takes place twice a year in Europe and America to cater to seasonal trends, one Fashion Month may well be a more logical approach for Africa’s platforms, given that the continent is warm during much of the year and most African designers do not adhere to a strict seasonal model.
Therefore, a season-less or transitional Fashion Month may be suited to an industry that is still in its infancy. This may further place Africa in a unique position where minimal consumption and less wastage is concerned.
But what of the likelihood of Africa’s leading properties to agree to an annual fashion month that is fixed on the calendar?
“I think with the right persuasion most fashion weeks could be willing to have a ‘fashion month’, as we have seen this season that most fashion weeks were hosted between October and November. But some were hosted earlier in June, like the Collective Rwanda Fashion Week, and some would be hosted earlier in December, like Mozambique Fashion week and Swahili fashion Week,” says Paul, who thinks the ideal time for an Africa Fashion Month is between October and November.
Given that Africa hosts several fashion weeks, establishing a fashion month might encourage more industry insiders to schedule off time to do the fashion week rounds across the continent during a given and specified time.
“By having one fashion month, Africa would have an identity, positioning itself in the global fashion calendar that allows us to know what time and when to expect creations from our continent’s talent. Meaning it would be easier for buyers, media and all involved to plan [ahead] and be part of these fashion weeks,” says Paul.
Taking a cue from the prescient African proverbs that often call for unity, Leanne Tlhagaone, founder of Refashion Africa, adds, “The proposition of an Africa fashion calendar month is based on the basic premise of ‘we are more powerful – and stronger- together than we are an individuals.’ A sound refrain for an industry still in search of a sense of place within itself and the broader international landscape.
Beyond Fashion Month
At a time when African design is finally getting its due on the global front, and is regarded as virgin territory for international brands setting its sights on new markets, a candid look into the state and relevance of fashion week, and the ecosystem on which it depends, is all the more important.
Creative Director at Spree (Online fashion retailer), Chris Viljoen cautions that there are other challenges in the industry that need to be addressed beyond the prospect of a Fashion Month, “The main problem is that there is no showroom culture.” The commercial aspect of fashion week, apropos of the relationship between buyers and designers is still lacking, leading to a rudimentary and unproductive value chain.
Much like a clearinghouse, Chris believes that the role of fashion weeks is to act as an intermediary between buyers, designers, editors, and the media – or at the very least – create a favourable environment for trade opportunities as a marketer and a centre of information for stakeholders.
Moreover, Viljoen urges the continent’s platforms to factor in the “full circle experience [and] entire chain of events” from the ramp to the after-service activities. Creating a space where buyers can view garments up close, meet the designer, check for quality, discuss price points and volumes, place preliminary orders, and ensure timely delivery, are ultimately what define the business end of the industry.
In the same vein, Rio Paul echoes Viljoen’s sentiment, agreeing that buyers need to closely experience brands that showcase on the continent’s foremost platforms, to better understand how they “can cater to their brands’ preferred market.”
Whatever prevailing issues need to be solved in the industry, it should be noted that our mature peers above the equator have long had the benefit of hindsight, giving them the added advantage of revising and rethinking their approach to fashion week, as is the case today.
In many ways, the African fashion industry has much to offer. As it comes into its own, the industry may reify its potential to cement its place into the wider fashion system. But to get there, it needs to work more collaboratively to witness the untapped commercial potential of its designers, and to reap the possibilities that lie along the contours of the African fashion industry, waiting to transcend the very barriers that hold them back. It needs a united front, a solid foundation, and a sustainable joint force – the answer of which might just lie in our very own Africa Fashion Month.