Thomasina R. Legend
Heritage is more than the inherited traditions, monuments, objects and combined cultures; it is also the range of activities, meanings, and behaviours that we draw from them. Heritage includes much more than preserving, excavating, displaying, or restoring a collection of old things.
African fashion has been defined by the interplay between traditional African heritage and its re-interpretation into contemporary fashion. This ongoing interplay of contemporary fashion with historic cultural reference points expressed through native textiles has contributed significantly to shaping the African fashion narrative.
In fashion, it's incredible to witness how African fashion designers are embracing traditional crafts, aesthetics, craftsmanship, and how these are being brought back from extinction and used to celebrate culture, heritage and history. Here is a list of some top African fashion designers who honour traditions while still doing things their way.
Onalaja is a fashion label founded by Nigerian designer Kanyinsola Onalaja who sought to bring traditional African design aesthetics into the contemporary fashion world. Her designs are inspired by African culture and represent a re-imagined representation of Africa, free of the stereotypes often propagated in the West. Each piece is composed of a combination of hand-weaving, embroidery, print work, and painting, with her four central tenets being craftsmanship, fabric manipulation, intricate experimentation combined with heritage. Onalaja explores themes of culture and women's role in society through the lens of fashion and art. In her conversation with The folklore, the designer stated that African influence is something she held dear and tries to reinterpret the Africa we don't see. According to her, It's about creating stories that have to do with her heritage. Africa to Kayinsola is very three-dimensional, so she tries to represent that through her work. Infusing Italian aesthetics with her cultural heritage, the designer keeps things clean, but with some sexiness, which she strongly believes is the Italian way. The Nigerian heritage comes through with the textures, the embellishments, the 3-D elements of the fabric, or the hand painting. The Italian aspect definitely comes through the silhouette.
Lagos Space Program
Inspired by traditional West African crafts and his identity as a queer Nigerian man, Adeju Thompson, founder of Lagos Space Programme, delves into in-depth research of the Nigerian Yoruba heritage for his latest collection, which is also a testament to slow fashion, he fuses every influence - Yoruba masquerades, workwear and local architecture, the result being a collection of adire print shoes, scarves and dresses, bronze accessories (creating an image of the divine queer) and cropped-wide legged trousers. His latest collection involves bronze items, which were cast in a workshop in Benin by a seventh-generation caster and in collaboration with the artist Dunja Herzog. He uses traditional crafts to imagine what he calls a "sartorial project exploring African futures". The masks in the collection are reminiscent of those that call upon the spirit during Yoruba masquerades, such as Gẹlẹdẹ. He uses Yoruba culture as a lens to explore his own sexuality and the patriarchal society he lives in. Aṣọ Lànkí, Kí Ató Ki Ènìyàn, which translates "we greet [a] dress before we greet its wearer" can be considered Thompson delving deeply into understanding the depth of heritage that flows through in both language and dress. His work deconstructs societal norms and champions a new African future in an increasingly patriarchal society.
The Maxhosa brand has carved out a unique place in fashion both locally and abroad. The knitwear inspired garments celebrate the Xhosa rite of passage. They have become go-to garments for woke celebrities on the red carpet, including "Black Panther" cast members. MaXhosa's modernist knitwear has graced the catwalks of New York Fashion Week. African craftsmanship is celebrated as ferociously as designer Laduma Ngxokolo's heritage. Everything - from dyed fabrics, beadwork to avant-garde headwear - is produced in-house.
Nigerian designer Lisa Folawiyo has used her prominence in global fashion to highlight the ability of the African aesthetic to stand out. Using "Ankara" (West African cloth), the designer pays homage to her love of the textiles in her pieces.
Lisa Folawiyo creates contemporary silhouettes with nods to traditional African aesthetics. Each garment boasts a handcrafted and unique history from inception to construction. The brand's expert beading craftsmen hand embellish each item, on average a 240-hour process that reflects the focus on design integrity. Lisa Folawiyo's pieces have appeared on Lupita Nyong'o, Thandie Newton and Solange Knowles.
Kenneth Ize is devoted to preserving the traditions of Nigerian craftsmanship. He takes a local handicraft and merges it with modern design to create a new aesthetic. Previous collections saw him call upon Viennese lace-makers in a nod to many West African women. Clothes are made using a Nigerian fabric called Aso Oke, a heritage craft of Yoruba origin. Ize says he wants his clients to feel the "soul" inside his clothes.
Mzukisi Mbane, founder of fashion brand Imprint, has managed to focus his design aesthetic on streetwear and lifestyle, while upholding luxury fashion standards. Designer Mzukisi Mbane creates fashion-forward lifestyle pieces rooted in street wear and vintage influences. The Cape based designer started his distinctively African brand Imprint. He explains how important heritage is to his fashion story and how he stays true to his African roots.
Imprint's collections are marked by a desire to tell the stories of the African ancestors through iconic prints. His African bridal dress was named The Most Beautiful Object in South Africa in 2019. The designer's collections are very personal to him and have a lot of ancient African techniques. Each collection celebrates Africa as a significant player in reinterpreting couture to the world.
Loza Maleombho was born in Brazil and raised in Côte d'Ivoire. She models her clothing line on the cultures and subcultures of her heritage. Her signature silhouettes play on the concept of old and new by fusing contemporary design with traditional techniques. Her designs also shape an Untold Narrative of African Women and redefine standards for women in the continent.
Loza Maleombho's designs have been worn by celebs like Beyoncé and featured on Vogue and Forbes. She interned under designers like Jill Stuart, Cynthia Rowley and Yigal Azrouël. Her work creates a bridge that communicates heritage and traditions in a modern language. All pieces from the brand are produced in a small manufacturing workshop. Cultural heritage is just as important as progress and development, Maléombho says. "The minute you break with cultural heritage, you marginalize or alienate" a portion of the population, she says in her interview to Okay Africa.
Sindiso Khumalo is a London-based fashion designer, a former architect and a self-professed textile nerd. Her upbringing as a Durban Zulu girl seems to have imprinted on her creative conscience. She smoothly translates traditional Ndebele patterns into her contemporary fashion collections. Khumalo was born in Botswana and raised in Durban, South Africa. Her SS20 collection explores the experiences of black women in the 1800s and 1900s. Inspired by her Zulu and Ndebele heritage, her textiles are created using watercolour and collage.
Her sustainable textiles play an important role in honouring and simultaneously uncovering the artistry of African prints through a modern design medium. In her exploration of these patterns, Khumalo has developed her graphic language that has become the standout feature of her clothing line.
She draws inspiration for her clothes from the colourful patterns found in Zulu beadwork. Her clothing is appreciated as art by institutions such as the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. She points to Nigeria and West Africa's rich traditions also as sources of inspiration for her work.
A trailblazer for South Africa's LGBTQ community, designer Rich Mnisi isn't afraid to experiment with clashing colours. Minimalist structures with pared-back prints and clashing co-ords - think Andy Warhol-esque Coca Cola-print suits.
For SS21, Rich Mnisi released The Hiya Kaya SS21 collection, which he states is inspired by the VaTsonga tribe's rich heritage and women. The brand is using the collection as a call-to-action for the protection of women – a message that is especially important right now in South Africa.
The eponymous brand from the 2019 LVMH Prize winner caught the attention of fashion's front-row at Paris Fashion Week. Hailing from Kimberley, South Africa, Magugu's home-grown production process remains pivotal to his collection.
Designer Magugu's clothes are a form of social commentary. He pays homage to the sartorial traditions of his ancestors. One polo shirt features an illustration of two black women consoling each other. The print is a political statement about South Africa's rising femicide rate. In his conversation with Chioma Nnadi on Vogue.com, Magugu states, "I think it's so important to celebrate that heritage in a way that can live in the modern world and preserve the craft so that it's not lost." He relies on factories and artisans based in Johannesburg and Cape Town to make his collections. His logo-embossed satchel bag is stitched in Johannesburg.
Image collage by Eyram Rafael