Image credit: Diarrablu
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African fashion brands and craft has been having a moment. Partly, it’s due to the swell of support during the protests against police brutality in 2020. But a larger part of it is that African fashion is beautiful: exquisitely tailored, exuberant, original, and high quality. And more and more, you can order it right online.
“There has been tremendous growth,” Emmanuel Ekuban, known as Nuel, founder and editor-in-chief of Debonaire Afrik, told me on a video call from Accra, Ghana in 2020. “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.”
These brands offer a fresh and exciting perspective to a fashion industry that seems to be stagnating. “Everything looks so new,” Amira Rasool, founder of The Folklore, which sells and represents African and African-diaspora brands, told me in 2020, as the movement to support Black fashion entrepreneurs and creators took off. “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.”
But Rasool 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 said. “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 said. “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 said.
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 said.
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 in 2019 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 asked Rasool how she responds when someone tells her The Folklore’s prices are too high for them, she said 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… 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 said. “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 said. “I’m not going to buy Louis Vuitton because a child is hungry in Pakistan,” he pointed 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.”
Can white and non-black people purchase and wear African fashion?
As with many things, it depends.
“Definitely yes,” Ekuban said. “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 said. “This is also a personal preference,” she hedged. “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 said. “Everything on our website can be worn by anyone of any color.”
Black-Owned Sustainable and Ethical African Brands You Can Shop Now
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Besida is an Atlanta-based clothing brand owned by a Nigerian native. All of its fabrics are sourced from local markets or textile distributors in Nigeria, which are then ethically made into clothes in the same country.
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 [email protected].
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.