There is a new narrative emerging from Africa and it has nothing to do with war or famine. It has to do with high end fashion. In the posh grandeur of Paris' Hotel Bristol over tea and mignardises, the inaugural collection of fledgling fashion brand Aschobi was recently unveiled to press and buyers including the highly influential retailer Maria Luisa Poumaillou.
Aschobi is the brainchild of Parsons-trained, Paris-based designer Adama Kai. Sierra Leonean by birth, Ms. Kai spent a peripatetic childhood shuttling between Africa, Europe and the U.S. in accordance with her mother's diplomatic postings. Not surprisingly, she has the open, easy manner of someone who knows her way around the embassy cocktail party circuit.
That polished multiculturalism is evident in her designs. Produced entirely in France, her collection in mostly solid, muted tones has probably more in common with l'avenue Montaigne than a boisterous Freetown market. In fact, anyone hoping to see updated versions of traditional tribal garb in bright, clashing prints might be disappointed. "People hear that I'm from Africa and immediately expect to see bright prints" notes Ms. Kai. "I'm not going to do something just because it's expected of me. I need to be true to myself and my brand."
Origins aside, Ms. Kai grapples with the same issues any designer might face whilst building a fashion business. Those issues include, ironically enough, runway diversity. After she posted images of the Bristol fashion presentation on the Aschobi Facebook page, a number of her followers demanded to know why she hadn't cast more black models. The subject is a tricky one for any designer to handle but perhaps even more so for a black woman: "I'm designing for a busy, urban working woman with a rich, full life. What matters to me is that she looks good and feels good in my clothing whatever her skin colour," explains politely Ms. Kai, adding "I can't please everyone. I need to do what feels right to me."
Ms. Kai is of course keenly aware of the delicate dance she needs to perform to avoid being labeled an "African designer" rather than a designer who happens to be from Africa. "If I want my business to grow, my work has to be judged on it's own merit regardless of where I come from or the colour of my skin." True enough. There are however issues that are indeed inherent to being a designer from Africa. Following a CNN reportage about her young brand, Ms. Kai had to respond to critics who suggested her energy would be better spent helping feed Africa's starving children than making expensive garments. On this point, Ms. Kai is adamant: "What I'm doing is just as important for my country than someone who builds a school. My clients back home are proud to wear my clothing. They're proud of what I'm doing." She adds "We all need to aspire to something better for ourselves."
The fledgling designer is not alone to believe in the power of fashion as a force for change in Africa. Influential Vogue Italia editor in chief Franca Sozzani dedicated the May 2012 issue of her magazine to glamorising the burgeoning design scene there and as pointed out in a recent New York Times piece penned by Suzy Menkes, fashion has been identified as a key area of economic growth. Moreover, the upcoming 2012 IHT Luxury Conference will focus on the promise of Africa both as a source of labour and materials but more crucially as a growing market for fashion and luxury goods. In short, there is money to be made and spent on the dark continent and the West has begun to take note.
Of course, progress is rarely (if ever) achieved overnight. It also requires more than just a handful of success stories to create momentum and effect lasting change. If Ms. Kai's venture succeeds however (and I personally believe it will), she may very well become a part of the new narrative on Africa, one that centres on resourcefulness and creativity rather than poverty and its aftermath. More power to her!
The Luxe Chronicles