Our report from the Condé Nast International Luxury Conference in Cape Town

In just over a decade Johannesburg will be considered a megacity with a population of over 10 million people, according to the UN. And by 2035, the ten fastest growing cities in the world will be African. With the rise of the African middle class and the largest millennial population, the continent is feeling the gaze of the international luxury industry. To confirm this, this week the fifth annual Condé Nast International Luxury Conference was held in Cape Town, hosted by the inimitable fashion journalist and Vogue International editor Suzy Menkes. Previously the conference has been held in Lisbon, Muscat, Florence and Seoul, making this its first edition on the continent.

“Africa should have the luxury goods, tech and everything that the rest of the world has,” Naomi Campbell said from the stage. And later addressing the luxury fashion industry as a whole, she added: “It’s not about looking at Africa as a trend now — you have to wonder why you have ignored Africa for this long.” While international brands have hesitated to establish themselves across the continent, a gap is widening for locals and this comes with a rare opportunity, according to Roberta Annan of the African Fashion Fund. “Africa has the propensity to leapfrog,” she said. “Because we’re so nascent, we can define what sustainable luxury is. Africa can drive this journey.”

In the driver’s seat are a number of initiatives proving fashion can create socio-economic change, especially for women and for the artisans whose human touch is the real marker of luxury. Yvonne Fasinro is the founder of the Adara Foundation, which teaches women on low incomes in Lagos the art of handcrafted batik, dip-dye and tie-dye using cotton, silk and chiffon. Fasinro said that when they’re making these fine fabrics, they’re thinking best in class: “Will Tom Ford feel it and want to work with it?”

In Accra, Abrima Erwiah and Rosario Dawson run the CFDA award-winning label Studio One Eighty Nine (read our interview with them here [ http://nataal.com/studio-one-eighty-nine]). This powerful duo were inspired by their travels through Africa and meeting tenacious women artisans to set up an ethical label that would create jobs. Using locally sourced and crafted materials, Studio One Eighty Nine works to create fashion from field to factory and that is now sought after all over the world. The label hopes to add value to the idea of luxurious goods developed on the continent. “Why is it that the ‘Made in Italy’ label is so strong but in Ghana people negotiate until the product is under-appreciated, until it’s basically free?” Erwiah asked.

“Creativity and talent on the continent is not rare but opportunity is”

Simone Cipriani, the passionate founder and head of Ethical Fashion Initiative (read our interview with him here [http://nataal.com/ethical-fashion-initiative]) agreed. He has worked for over ten years to develop sustainable supply chains for the global luxury industry by connecting craftspeople from developing countries such as Burkina Faso, Kenya and Haiti to international brands. Forget about bringing luxury goods to Africa he said, “We need work! We need jobs! We need opportunities! We need investment!” The EFI has also just partnered with Annan on the €100 million Impact Fund For Africa to provide support for a range of African artists. “Creativity and talent on the continent is not rare but opportunity is,” Annan said.

In the business of creating opportunity is Uche Pézard, the founder of Luxury Connect Africa, a trade exhibition during Paris Fashion Week that brings African luxury to the European fashion capital. “It’s no secret that Africa has always been the inspiration of the world,” she said, “but now it’s being spearheaded, defined, propagated and spread by the sons and daughters of Africa.” Sons like Laduma Ngxokolo, who described his brand Maxhosa Africa as a platform to imagine what the Xhosa people would wear in this day and age if their territories had never been colonised. His traditional beadwork-inspired designs are a shining example of African culture as interpreted by its rightful custodians.

Ngxokolo now shows and sells globally and is a highlight of Lagos Fashion Week, which was founded by Omoyemi Akerele. She concurred by insisting that what’s crafted on the continent is the definition of luxury. “It’s luxury because it involves natural resources and human skills passed down from generations,” she said.

The resounding theme of the conference was that it is this excellence coming out of Africa that the luxury industry must recognise if it wants to evolve and stay relevant. Menkes stressed at the end of the two day event that while the people that matter most in the luxury industry see Africa as the next frontier, the take-away shouldn’t be about them sweeping in from Europe or the US. It should be that they see that Africa has a population of creatives pushing forward their own inventive ideas. Folake Coker of Tiffany Amber, who’s now celebrating 20 years in booming business, spoke of the fact that she has been told that her label has made it cool to wear ‘Made in Nigeria’. At the close of every fashion show, she replays a song in her head, a riff on Diana Ross: “The African woman is coming out. I want the world to know. Got to let it show.”

Published on 23/04/2019