Usually, posts like these have affiliate links, which pay me a portion of sales made off of traffic that EcoCult sends to retailers. For this one, however, I am linking straight to brand websites even if they are carried in department stores so that the brands keep the full markup for themselves.
When I get on a video call with Amira Rasool, founder of The Folklore, which sells and represents African and Africa-diaspora brands, she is clearly caught between many emotions. On the one hand, the all-too-familiar numbed horror and exhaustion as racism and police brutality against Black Americans rears its ugly head yet again. But at the same time that protestors have poured into the streets, support — emotional and financial — has also been flowing toward Black-owned businesses like Rasool’s.
“I’ve never seen so many orders and traffic,” she says with a bemused smile. Potential business partnerships that had been scuttled due to the pandemic are now being revived due to this moment of anti-racist activism.
Aurora James, founder of the luxury footwear brand Brother Vellies, has made a call to beauty and fashion business to fill at least 15% of their shelves with black-owned brands, equal to the United States population. And you can too, with the quadruple impact of buying black-owned brands that are made in Africa in a way that pays everyone involved fairly, positively impacts the local environment, and preserves traditional skills of the continent.
It’s almost as if African brands have been building toward this moment.
“There has been tremendous growth,” Emmanuel Ekuban, known as Nuel, founder and editor-in-chief of Debonaire Afrik, tells me on a video call from Accra, Ghana. “Brands are beginning to put their stuff online, working with publications, working with production houses, and having their own store. They can now export to other countries. They have concept stores stocking their stuff in Europe. They’re crossing borders and creating a connection with the Western world.”
And these brands offer a fresh and exciting perspective to a fashion industry that seems to be stagnating. “Everything looks so new,” Rasool says of the designs. “They’re removed from the mainstream, and what may seem like a super creative thing to you is something they’ve been doing for years.”
Rasool also cautions against putting the entire continent, which ranges widely from Morocco down to South Africa, in an aesthetic box. “African fashion doesn’t look one way,” she says. “There are so many different cultures within Africa, there are so many different people within Africa, and so to designate an entire industry to one sort of image to what African fashion should look like is dismissive of all the many cultures and ethnicities that are there and how that is reflected through these Africa-based designers.”
African fashion is sustainable and slow fashion.
West Africa especially is experiencing a boom in design, and while some local brands source their fabrics cheaply from China, many are exploring sustainability from a unique perspective: supporting local production and materials, and testing ways of adding value to the tons of secondhand fashion that flows into its ports every hour. “The fashion industry in Ghana has become more open to sustainability and ethical fashion,” Ekuban says. “Most of the brands I love are ethical brands because most of the production is local women and men creating with local products. I know brands in Nigeria, Abidjan [in Côte d’Ivoire], and Mali are also using local production.”
Most importantly to this conversation, much of fashion made in Africa is inherently sustainable and slow because it is made to order by skilled tailors and seamstresses of locally produced or upcycled materials. “Out of necessity. They don’t have resources to access big factories that will mass-produce their product,” Rasool says.
The Folklore, which has about 85% of its items stocked in New York ready to be shipped out, is an exception to the rule of made-to-order. Rasool is conscious of the luxury consumer’s expectations. “Waiting a week for it to be produced and shipped is not something people are willing to do, especially when they are paying a luxury price,” she says.
If you’re shopping online, you won’t get the full made-to-measure experience of working with an Accra tailor. But if you’re looking to purchase directly from an African brand, expect a more bespoke experience, complete with the anticipation of waiting for your item to be made just for you.
African fashion is luxury fashion.
Unfortunately, missionary and charity brands have often shown the wrong side of fashion made in Africa to Americans. (Rolled paper bead necklaces, ugh.) But true African fashion has a rich heritage and involves unreplicable skills. “The continent is incredibly blessed with resources,” Omoyemi Akerele, founder and chief executive of Lagos Fashion Week, told me last year when I interviewed her for a Vogue Business story. “From cashmere from South Africa or handweaving, the bogolan fabric from Mali, and kente from Ghana. Handweaving, embroidery, spinning, embellishment — there’s so much, we can go on and on. It’s not just the looms or the dyeing process, the beauty of the continent is that a lot of things are still touched by hand. That is luxury.”
When I ask Rasool how she responds when someone tells her The Folklore’s prices are too high for them, she says that she doesn’t support anyone spending outside of their means but stands firm in the value of the product. “The Folklore has a very targeted customer base: people who make a certain amount of money. I am not for people spending an entire paycheck on a pair of shoes. That’s why when we posted how to support Black brands, I posted affordable alternatives. The reason why these things are priced the way they are is that they’re not produced in mass quantities. This price reflects what it takes for them to cover costs.”
But she wants people who ask this question to interrogate their biases, conscious and unconscious. “Are they saying the same thing about European or American brands? Are they suggesting that our prices are too expensive because they don’t associate the concept of luxury with Africa? Are you saying you’re cool with paying x amount for Alexander Wang but not for Orange Culture? When you purchase these products, they’re being made by hand, with love,” Rasool says. “The price tag reflects the amount of TLC put into the products. They use magnificent fabrics and deliver something truly unique.”
If African brands will succeed and take their rightful place on the world stage alongside other luxury and upscale brands, we’ll need to look at them with the same desire and respect that we look at Western luxury brands with. “I don’t like brands that attach aid to their brand,” Ekuban says. “I’m not going to buy Louis Vuitton because a child is hungry in Pakistan,” he points out. “Fashion brands in Africa are just like any other fashion business. Don’t buy it for aid, buy it because you appreciate something. People should buy from African brands because they love it and you want to support it. Not because a child is hungry somewhere.”
Should white and non-black people purchase and wear African fashion?
As with many things, it depends.
“Definitely yes,” Ekuban says. “Before racism, the one thing that keeps us all together is love. Every brand loves its customers. Buying from Black designers is a way to unify us together as people. It’s a cycle, you buy from me and I buy from other people.”
“White people shouldn’t wear dashikis [a traditional West African patterned men’s top],” Rasool says. “This is also a personal preference,” she hedges. “I’m sure designers want money. Personally I don’t recommend and I side-eye people who walk around in dashikis.”
Luckily, there are plenty of African designers who are inspired by their heritage, but don’t let it define their aesthetic. But when in doubt, Rasool says to avoid patterns and go for solid colors. You’re also safe to shop anything carried by The Folklore. “We purposely stock items that do not overtly represent any traditional element of African heritage,” Rasool says. “Everything on our website can be worn by anyone of any color.”
Black-Owned Sustainable and Ethical African Brands You Can Shop Now
New York & pan-Africa
The Folklore is a New York City-based multi-brand online concept store and wholesale showroom that allows U.S. based and international customers to easily shop exclusive styles from Africa and the diaspora’s top luxury and emerging fashion brands like Andrea Iyamah, MaXhosa, Loza Maléombho, Orange Culture, Simon and Mary, and Pichulik. Exclusivity and sustainability is key for The Folklore, so each season it carries a limited stock of each luxury item. Most of the fashion, accessories, and homewares available were handmade by local artisans based in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, and Cote D’Ivoire. To be clear, not all of the 30 brands currently carried by The Folklore are founded by Black people, but even if you end up choosing something from the six white-owned brands, buying through The Folklore is still a great way to support a Black-owned business, as well as dip into the best of what the continent has to offer.
AAKS was founded by Akosua Afriyie-Kumi with the goal of introducing the world to her favorite weaving techniques done by the women of Ghana while also creating sustainable jobs within Africa. Handcrafted in Ghana, A A K S creates bags in styles that maintain the spirit and durability of their ancestral counterparts characterized by bright exuberant colors. Akosua maintains a critical attention to craftsmanship, authenticity and ethical values by overseeing every stage of the design and production process.
Kente Gentlemen offers well-studied, elegant, and contemporary clothing. Every finished product is fitted, cut, and sewn from fabrics made in Africa, with a nod to the rich textile heritage and local craftsmanship. The brand is committed to its community of handweavers, tailors, artisans, and vendors in order to provide opportunities for the local economy and share the beauty of Africa to consumers around the world.
New York & Nigera
Cee Cee’s Closet NYC was created by Chioma and Uchenna Ngwudo in New York City, who celebrate the beauty of West African prints through their unique headwraps, accessories, and clothing. Everything is designed by them in New York and handmade by artisans in Nigeria.
Launched in 2016, Tongoro is a 100% made-in-Africa label based in Dakar, Senegal that sources its materials on the continent and works with local tailors. Its long-term goal is to create a new dynamic for Africa-based fashion manufacturing and foster the economic and social development of artisanal workers in Western Africa.
A unisex brand featuring 100% silk shirts designed and produced in Dakar, Senegal.
Ghana & New York
Studio One Eighty Nine, co-founded by Ghanian-American Abrima Erwiah and actress Rosario Dawson, is a fashion lifestyle brand and social enterprise. Headquartered in Ghana and the U.S., with stores in NYC and Accra, they work with artisanal communities that specialize in various traditional craftsmanship techniques including natural plant-based dye indigo, hand-batik, kente weaving and more.
New York, South Africa, Kenya, Morocco, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso
Brother Vellies was founded in 2013 by Canadian and fashion professional Aurora James with the goal of keeping traditional African design practices and techniques alive while creating and sustaining artisanal jobs. Originally focused on South African vellies made of Springbok leather, the collection is now produced across the globe in South Africa, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Italy, Haiti and New York City.
By partnering with artisan studios that use traditional African motifs and techniques to create beautiful, modern designs, this brand founded by Ethiopian model Liya Kebede carries sundresses, beach dresses, caftans, and tunics that are made mostly from natural cotton. Five percent of lemlem’s direct sales, proceeds from special collaborations, and donations advance the mission of lemlem Foundation, lemlem’s philanthropic arm, which helps women artisans in Africa thrive by connecting them to healthcare, education, and pathways to jobs.
San Francisco & Kenya
The San Francisco-based fashion startup Soko was co-founded by Kenyan-born Catherine Mahugu, along with Gwendolyn Floydand Ella Peinovich. By employing technology to provide equal access to opportunity, SOKO works with artisan entrepreneurs every day to build their businesses, improve production capacity, and sustainably increase income. Their team believes that heritage practices can be employed sustainably, so their artisans use locally-sourced and eco-friendly materials whenever possible, such as recycled brass and reclaimed cow horn and bone. None of the founders including Mahugu are no longer involved in the leadership of the company, so technically this is a not a black-owned brand, but its headquarters is located in Nairobi, 86% of its employees are Black Kenyan and 100% of its artisans are Black Kenyan. The brand says artisans working with SOKO earn nearly 5x more than an average artisan workshop located in Kenya.
SEKBI’s ready-to-wear pieces are created using bogolan, a traditional mud-based textile printing technique popular in Mali. This pigment printing method consumes very little water, making it an eco-friendly dyeing process. The brand sources high quality cotton from Italy and other parts of Europe. Its long-lasting pieces are entirely made-to-order, reducing unnecessary textile waste.
Côte d’Ivoire & France
Founded by a Côte d’Ivoire designer who was educated in France, this menswear brand uses both technologically advanced eco-fabrics and traditional and locally produced fabrics to create sleek and vibrant menswear basics. Production is based in France, Portugal, and Côte d’Ivoire.
New York, Liberia, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire
Designed in New York by Liberian Founder Robin Sirleaf using leather sourced, cut, and sewn in Africa, Sarep + Rose’s bags honor their heritage and embody a distinctive hybrid modernity. A bright juxtaposition of African materials and craftsmanship with western design and functionality, these bags aim to fuse two still-separate worlds, make a positive social and economic impact on Pan-African society while upholding its beauty and supporting generations for self-taught artisans.
Christie Brown was founded in March 2008 by Aisha Obuobi who was inspired by her grandmother, the brand’s namesake and a seamstress who created rich and vibrant garments. As a little girl, Obuobi played with shreds of African material and designed mini collections for her favorite dolls. Today, Christie Brown the brand creates pieces ranging from beautiful bespoke gowns to practical yet statement ready-to-wear pieces and innovative accessories primarily inspired by African culture and art.
London & Ghana
SIKA was founded in 2005 by creative director Phyllis Taylor with the vision that fashion has the power and potential to make a positive contribution to society. The ethos behind SIKA is not only to produce quality ‘made in Africa’ garments for the international market, but also to ultimately prove that garment production can successfully have social and environmental responsibilities at its core. For SIKA that means paying fair wages, creating employment and making a meaningful difference within the Ghanaian community. All SIKA garments are designed in London and handmade in Ghana (West Africa) by Sika’s skilled garment production team.
Founded as a luxury menswear brand in October 2014, this Accra, Ghana brand now offers some androgynous women’s designs with its signature color, warmth, energy, and sophistication with a touch of African culture. The brand sources local fabrics and fabrics from the secondhand markets.
Enzi is a premium footwear brand that seeks to challenge global perceptions of Africa through design, artisanal production and a transparent process that exceeds international fair trade standards. The shoes are designed by co-founder Jawad Braye and made in Ethiopia, where the high-quality leather is sourced.
This label is devoted to the long-established traditions of Nigerian craft and local artisanship, merging a new design aesthetic with a specifically local handcraft practice. This brand supports a small community of weavers, and works directly with a variety of artisan and design groups across Nigeria. Shop the handwoven silk scarves at the Austrian boutique Park, his purses at Koibird, and follow the Kenneth Ize Instagram for new drops.
With a made-to-order atelier in Nigeria, this brand offers refined and flowing clothing dyed with gorgeous watercolor designs.
Maki Oh is a womenswear brand that fuses traditional African techniques with detailed contemporary construction. Founded by Maki Osakwe in 2010, Maki Oh embodies the philosophies of sustainability, preservation, strength and complex simplicity, and has been worn by Mrs. Michelle Obama, Lupita N’yongo, Solange Knowles, Leelee Sobieski, Azaelia Banks and more. The brand has shown it’s collections during NYFW and has been featured in dozens of top-tier publications, including Vogue Magazine, WWD, New York Times, W Magazine, New York Magazine, and Elle Magazine. In 2014, Maki Oh was invited to the White House as one of Mrs. Michelle Obama’s favorite designers, the first and only Africa-based designer to be invited to the White House. Maki Oh was also one of two Africans to become a finalist in the first LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. Right now there is only mens shirts available on the site, but sign up for the newsletter and follow the brand on Instagram for the next collection drop.
Established in New York City in 2009 and relocated to Côte d’Ivoire since 2012 where its production now takes place, Loza Maléombho bridges Ivorian traditions with modern fashion, experimenting with the synergies between Ivorian tribal aesthetics and New York City’s urban fashion. Loza Maléombho works with artisans who have mastered their craft for generations and find ways to communicate their trade with fashionable items that are on-trend.
Anyango Mpinga is an eco-innovator who has embraced the principles of circular fashion to explore radical systems in textile design and promote conscious consumption of apparel and accessories. She founded her eponymous brand in 2015, now renowned for its reimagined white shirts; bold prints; balanced between androgyny and a bohemian aesthetic. As a forward-thinking designer, Anyango is exploring the use of emerging technologies to create biodegradable textiles. Having created a social enterprise, her initiative Free As A Human tackles the humanitarian and environmental crisis of the explorative labor practices in the fashion industry. The initiative supports the work of Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART Kenya), the first non-governmental organisation
KAYADUA is a Ghanaian based fashion brand founded in 2018 by Eyiwaa Agyekumhene. Built to inspire confidence and freedom of expression. The collections are often hand-made, and KAYADUA explores the connection between self and strength through traditional techniques such as weaving, beading and intricate processes with their team in Accra.
Hamaji Studio is an African apparel brand inspired by East African charm. It embodies a spirit of nomadic femininity in pastel hues, free-flowing silhouettes, and a sense of elegance. It also preserves ancient textile traditions and empowers and supports local small-scale artisans in Africa. The brand’s handcrafted and embroidered collections are made using natural fibers, botanical dyes, and upcycled collected vintage textiles.
Bonus: Brands to Follow
These brands don’t seem to be available for purchase in the U.S. at the moment, but are well-regarded and worth following on Instagram or via their newsletter so you know the moment they are. Some also offer their Whatsapp numbers on Instagram, so if you are truly obsessed (or a stylist) you can commission something special.
Sindiso Khumalo is a sustainable textile designer based in Cape Town. A Central St Martins graduate, Sindiso Khumalo founded her eponymous label with a strong emphasis on African storytelling. She designs the textiles in her collections by hand through watercolors and collage, drawing upon her Zulu and Ndebele heritage, and speaking to the land of Kwazulu Natal, where she is from. She works closely with NGO’s to develop handmade textiles for her collections. She has spoken at the United Nations on sustainability in fashion and is currently working closely with the International Trade Centre Ethical Fashion Initiative. Her work has been exhibited at Royal Festival Hall in London and The Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington, and has been published in Vogue Italia, Vogue UK, Elle Magazine and Marie Claire Magazine and “Africa: Architecture, Culture and Identity. She has collaborated with IKEA, Woolworths South Africa, Vodacom, The Sanlam Handmade Fair on bespoke designs. She was nominated for the 2020 LVMH prize, which was canceled due to COVID-19 and shared amongst the eight finalists. She is stocked in several boutiques in Italy and South Africa.
Designer Lisa Folawiyo perfected the art of wearing Ankara (local West African cloth) through the use of ornate embellishment. By incorporating texture with this culturally established traditional textile, Lisa Folawiyo transformed the textile and created a globally coveted print. With a strong eye for tailoring and fit, Folawiyo creates feminine and modern silhouettes with nods to traditional African aesthetics. Folawiyoʼs expert artisans hand embellish each Lisa Folawiyo piece, on average a 240—hour process that reflects the brandʼs focus on design integrity. Shown and sold globally, the brand has also been well received and worn by Lupita Nyong’o, Lucy Liu, Thandie Newton, and Solange Knowles. While Lisa Folawiyo has been stocked at Moda Operandi and Selfridges, her online shop is being reworked, so shop the SS20 collection by DMing the brand’s Instagram or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
This young designer who founded his brand in 2015 references the culture and history of Ghana with his designs.
Steve French is a contemporary fashion brand that works with local artisans to create fashion pieces that honor traditions to create new artistic expressions by drawing inspiration from the female form and abstract patterns. Right now he is working on his Gucci fellowship, so his pieces aren’t offered for sale, yet. But as you can see above, he was recently worn by Naomi Cambell for a photoshoot!
Larry Jay is a unisex ready-to-wear Ghanaian clothes and accessories fashion brand. Inspired by nature and various African cultures and arts, it draws its major inspirations from the 1970s. It aspires to cater to the fashionably conscious individuals, and be ethically and socially responsible to its environment.
XIPIXI was brought to life in 2012 after António Macheve Jr. returned from New York to his hometown of Maputo, Mozambique, where he felt the need to fill a gap in the global menswear industry and build a high-end brand for gentlemen made in Africa for the global market. He named it XIPIXI, which means “cat” in the local dialect, and also is a slang term for a man.
Designed using mathematical concepts or algorithms, DIARRABLU is on a mission to iterate for sustainability while highlighting the African continent’s rich colors and unique patterns through practical and versatile pieces. The brand’s collections are marked by strong structural cuts, bold prints, colorful accents, and sustainable solids. Their unique design process is the result of innovative mathematics through the use of algebraic graphs and geometric transformations to create iconic prints. The majority of DIARRABLU’s pieces are produced in Dakar, Senegal and the brand’s ethos is focused on sustainability, wanderlust, tradition, and algorithms. Made from fabrics like TENCEL (along with some polyester), the pieces are known for being convertible, adjustable, and wearable across various sizes for a prolonged lifecycle.