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Livia Firth on the Creativity, Potential, and Innovative Solutions Powered By Youth Beyond the Global North

Beyond the big fashion capitals of the Global North lie creativity, potential, and innovative solutions, powered by the youth – if we care to look.

This month, the fashion week circuit is starting again, with designers in New York, London, Milan, and Paris showcasing their latest collections. But how do we look beyond these same old cities, same designers, same Global Northcentric visions? What happens in the rest of the world? What is going on in Africa, for example? According to Dr Christine Checinska, who curated the landmark Africa Fashion exhibit at the V&A in London last year, the continent’s contemporary fashion scene is “incredibly inspirational and innovative. African creatives today are changing the shape of fashion. We would almost describe it as a fashion revolution. Now is the time to engage.”

In October last year, during Lagos Fashion Week in Nigeria, Unesco launched The African Fashion Sector: Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities for Growth report. It noted that “the fashion sector in Africa is brimming with opportunities, driven by the rise of the middle class, a young and growing population, rapid urbanization, and the emergence of digital technologies.” However, “several challenges remain, including a lack of investment and infrastructure, limited educational systems, insufficient intellectual property protection, as well as difficulties in accessing new markets and sourcing quality materials at an affordable price.”

South African sustainable textile designer Sindiso Khumalo

I remember talking to Sindiso Khumalo, a South African sustainable textile designer and a recipient of the 2020 LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, when she won best independent designer at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in 2021. “The biggest struggle is access to materials or trade shows,” she told me at the time. “But, I’m positive. For me, the future is about more brands that are intimate with people and the planet, rather than loads of big brands.”

Nkwo Onwuka, founder of the sustainable brand Nkwo

Thanks to Fashion Trust Arabia, I now know designers and brands such as 2023 finalist Nkwo Onwuka from Nigeria, whose philosophy of less should be at the center of everyone’s fashion approach: “The philosophy of less asks: What’s the use in creating more than we can use if it causes us to live less of a life?”

But it’s difficult to learn about all that is happening on a continent with 54 countries and thousands of cultures, languages, and traditions. This is where two formidable and dynamic women come into play: Zara Odu, founder of platform Roundabout, and Jackie May, founder of platform Twyg. I had the fortune of meeting them both recently over Zoom and you won’t be surprised to know that I wish our conversation could have gone on forever!

“I am passionate about building an ecosystem focused on circular economy principles, conscious design, sustainable materials, local sourcing and production, and waste management,” Odu says. “African makers and entrepreneurs are actively innovating, and together we can build a powerful knowledge base that will benefit everyone.” Her mission is clear: “Inspiring new solutions by highlighting exciting developments across the continent and creating opportunities for collaboration and partnership. We also need to facilitate access to expertise and tools and build bridges with global communities, so that we can codesign innovative new ideas that are relevant to African issues, materials, and opportunities. We need to help brands access the materials they need, build supply chains, create jobs, and encourage a system where sourcing and producing locally in Africa is viable and rewarding,” she continues. “I wonder if there is anything similar in Europe or the US, and if this fashion spirit can be replicated and serve as inspiration?

May says she’s noticed a change in consumer behavior. “More and more young Africans want to buy local designers. There is a new appetite and interest. This is why Twyg’s manifesto is rooted in decentralization. We maintain an interest in big brand stories, but we are excited by the innovation and experimentation of outliers and independents who break from the herd and who make a difference. We also share work that gives voice and life to forgotten techniques and fabrications.”

May, who is a dynamo of ideas, launched South Africa’s annual Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards in 2019, as well as the African Textile Talks in Cape Town, “because every conference here is always with Global North speakers,” she says. “It’s the battle we have, where we keep looking to Europe for technology solutions, for example, and we’re not looking on the continent for African appropriate alternatives.”

Odu confirms this, saying there is such a wealth of knowledge, talent, and craftsmanship on the continent, “but the challenges are how to nurture that creativity and develop the raw materials so brands can become household names, relevant globally, and so that the industry can stand on its own feet.” Perhaps the answer lies with the younger generation, I ask. “There are still people who want to walk around wearing international designers, but there’s been a shift – it’s really promising and encouraging. We need to get people to buy African designers, as right now we compete with fast fashion brands who are colonizing our consumers. On a more philosophical level, to build healthy societies and communities, it is important to see yourself reflected in the things you buy and know that they are made by the local community and are creating jobs for the people you live among.”

Originally published in the February 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

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