Image from Nearfar
It's in the air: that African vibe is hitting music, t.v. and the fashion scene. Vibrant, colourful and wild prints are de rigeur for this summer's sun dresses; on the catwalk and in the shops.
It has taken awhile, but finally African prints have gone global. They have always been very sophisticated, combining local culture with wonderful patterns and colours. But now some big-name fashion designers are taking a serious interest in working on socially responsible projects with African craftswomen.
Image from Edun
As we have seen so many times in fashion and design: if it is going to sell then western designers have to get involved in merging the African techniques with high fashion. Real block printing or beading done by local people adds authenticity which designers can't easily knock off. However, working with craftswomen in the slums or in poor villages is complicated and the fashion companies have to be willing to stick with it.
Good intentions are not enough. In the Financial Times, the director of the Ethical Fashion Programmewarns: "If fashion companies don't fulfil their promises, the damage is severe. There are cases of micro-producers abandoning their own cottage industries to work with outsiders and then it stops and they are also deprived of the little they had before. The result is brutal. They starve."
The Ethical Fashion Programme is a joint agency of the United Nations and World Trade Organisation. It was set up to "allow international fashion companies to develop product lines that incorporate skills and materials from Africa, its communities and its designers." A glance at their website outlines some of the challenges:
--Fashion companies struggle to find small African communities who can consistently provide goods at the quality and standard necessary for the high-value market.
-- African communities need support to more fully understand the requirements of the African/international designers and of the fashion industry. They need access to training and capacity building around product design and quality management to meet these requirements.
--Local suppliers of raw materials need to be informed of international market standards to produce items of the highest quality and to ethical standards (such as organic and eco standards e.g. organic cotton or low pollution leather
Image from Bega Kwa Bega
So who is trying and what should we be buying?
NearFar is based in Sierra Leone. Its founders work with tailors in Freetown and have expanded their social responsibility to form 3 groups helping the youth and women in the area. The clothes are hot bright and completely of the moment.
Edun, brain child of Bono's wife, Ali Hewson, has been involved in ethical high fashion at the high end for a long time. They are back on the fashion scene, having sold 49% of the business to luxury brand LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy). They have launched a World Cup t-shirt line with all proceeds going to the Conservation Cotton Initiative in Uganda.
Image from Suno
Suno is based in New York but they do all their tailoring in Kenya. Their goal is provide them with long-term employment, treat them fairly, boost the local economy and showcase their artistry. Oh yes, Michelle Obama is a big fan.