African Fashion

By Jessica Muganza,  Rwanda


Fashion is a timeless language that transcends scientific reason. It  creates a voice which speaks to all the senses and the person within. It is when you tell the world who you are through your clothes.

I remember the first cultural show at ALA. What a day! Vibrant colours, authentic designs and texture palates. I could barely recognise my new classmates! In the Ghanaian Kente, the Maasai Kanga and the Senegalese Yere Wolof, every one looked so different, so elegant, so African…. such a sharp contrast from our everyday jeans and t-shirts. I felt so proud to be in the midst of the overwhelming diversity; I felt like I belonged. I thought the feeling would eventually fade away as we progressed through the year but I felt the same excitement during the following cultural show.

My friends at ALA rocking African fashion during the cultural show. From left to right: Hind Ourahou, Zakia Stili, Rima Tahini & Kenza Bouhaj

Then I realised this feeling was not so unfamiliar. I had felt it before without paying attention. I felt it during traditional weddings, when the girls gracefully wore the Umushanana and the men laid their Mwitero on top of their immaculate shirts. I feel that pride, that belonging, every time I put on my big woven black earrings, my colourful beads and my kitenge dress. I feel that sudden unbreakable connection to the continent – too bad it’s just occasional!

In some parts of the continent, African clothes are worn more frequently. I always smile when I watch Nigerian movies and see the men rolling up their Agbada( like it or not, that’s swag!). Unfortunately, it is rare in most African countries to find a person choosing an African outfit instead of a suit the morning before their business meeting, or to find a person choosing traditional clothes over jeans when they want to relax.

Why is this?

Some call those African outfits primitive or too traditional. They think there is no place for traditional clothes in the modern world and prefer to remember them on occasions such as traditional weddings or other “out-dated” celebrations. Others believe that African outfits are not as comfortable or fashionable as shorts and crop tops. But African clothes are no less “businessy” than a tailleur and if you have ever worn a pair of Senegalese pants or Moroccan shoes at some point you know there’s nothing as comfy.

I was thrilled when a friend showed me a tumblr of his cousin’s project. Matthew Rugamba is a young Rwandan who created House of Tayo, a clothing line which aims at showcasing the African sophistication, style and flavour through contemporary, locally made clothing and accessories. It also seeks to combine elegance and class with a strong sense of African heritage and iconography. Matthew is one of the  many talented young designers around the African continent. They are those people who have an indescribable connection with the sewing machine or those who etch remarkable drawings in their sketchpads. These young people represent the potential of the African fashion industry and it’s high time that we give them the opportunity to utilise this potential.

The opportunity I’m talking about is not only in terms of capital. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but for every business to be successful it needs customers; it needs a market. In other words, these talented Africans need you and me so that they can shine. They need me and you to believe in their products and they want us to buy them just the same way we readily buy Levis and Louis Vuitton! Even some famous names in the fashion industry worldwide such as Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of Vogue Italia, have already recognised the potential of the African fashion industry. With emerging fashion designers like Mustafa Hassanali, Frank Osodi from Nigeria and Stella Atal from Uganda, there is nothing that is keeping this industry stagnant other than its market!   We have to believe in our stylists and you don’t need to become a fashionista to support the African fashion industry. It’s as simple as having a few rich fabric and colourful outfits in your closet and wearing them with pride!

There is another problem to this though. Take me for example; those who know me must be wondering why I’m preaching the adoption of African fabric while I myself wear it rarely. But the plain truth is, most of the time contemporary African outfits are too expensive! I remember asking angrily to a Senegalese designer in Kigali why his prices were too high. He asked me to put myself in his shoes; he had only ten permanent clients in the whole of Kigali and therefore had to maintain very high prices to make profits. It did not help that he had only a few skilled stylists to whom he paid ridiculously high wages. This is a huge challenge for our African designers. They find themselves in the dilemma of providing services to people at cheaper prices while making sure that they survive and feed their families. We have to find the means to harmonise the two. If more people buy, if labour is equipped with the necessary skills and if the African designers collaborate and decide to buy materials in bulk or find other ways to alleviate the cost of production then we will surely experience growth in this industry.

For us to promote our artists, fashion blogs and magazines will be instrumental. According to a prominent fashion blogger in South Africa, contemporary African fashion is still referred to in blanket terms like “ethnic” or “tribal” and this trivialises its complexity and originality. These terms are vague at best and fail to tell the story of African styles. However, some really young fashion bloggers have currently got the world’s attention because they have deconstructed the meaning of what it is to ‘know fashion’. “They are representing voices we’ve never cared to listen to” she says. So why not get more of these voices who will write constructive things that Africans can relate to more than magazines like Seventeen. We could do it our way! Afroklectic, one of the few African fashion blogs, put it nicely: “Africa is the soulful song of a chosen people within novels, poetry, paint, clothing, jewellery and dance. We are an eclectic cohort of designers, writers, artists, performers and entertainers. We are Africans … pushing aside the tired misconception of what Africa is not.”

I am not saying we’ll get there in one day; we can’t turn into Dior or Ralph Lauren overnight. Imagine the African Fashion Week being hosted in Africa and not in New York and people flying in from all over the world to see what the continent has got for them. I can’t wait for African fashion trends to take over our African market. I can’t wait for the African print fabric to be produced in Africa instead of being manufactured in Netherlands, as it is the case now. I can’t wait for the first African fragrance which I believe will be as legendary as Chanel no 5. If the history of fragrances started in Ancient Africa, with aromatic oils, why not revive that? Africa surely has the next Jean Paul Gautier or Yves Saint Laurent.

I know some might be thinking that Africa has other issues more serious and pressing than fashion and I agree. This, however, doesn’t mean that as long as we haven’t achieved the Millennium Development Goals we cannot promote other sectors. Looking at the big picture, those women in our markets to whom we give our clothes to mend will have the opportunity to explore all their potential (we all agree that they can do better than mend, given the chance). Also, our young talented designers will not have to silence their God-given gift and force themselves to study chemical engineering or law just because their parents have a valid reason to tell them that the love for fashion will not be enough to make them successful in this tough world.

Ultimately, this will give Africans the faith in their own products. The African brand will be respected and demanded first by the African people and then by the rest of the world. We would be creating an industry that will not collapse because the people who will do it, will do it best – it’s their passion. If we give a chance to this industry, we will impart pride in our own fashion and culture; we will promote and our African fabric and fashion trends and we will be celebrating our diversity through our clothes just as we do through music, literature and dance.

So it’s time for a wardrobe makeover. Let’s give our stylists a chance!


Jessica Muganza, originally from Rwanda, is a second year at the African Leadership Academy(ALA) in South Africa and will be attending Tufts University in September 2012. She is passionate about Healthcare and in the long run plans to actively participate in the eradication of child mortality in Africa and in the world. She is also a fashion enthusiast.