Earlier this year, New York's Passion Projects invited a handful of commentators and journalists to discuss Africa's design industries and the challenges they face in expressing their creativity. This week the same discussion took place in London. A panel chaired by Jessica Brinton looked at highlights, challenges and solutions and what the future holds. Christopher Spring from the British Museum, V&A's Orla Houston-Jibo, journalist Hannah Pool and ARISE Magazine editor Helen Jennings, who we caught up with afterwards, all shared their opinions and experiences.
Governments need to get engaged – and not sell all of its resources off to China. Big brands need to work meaningfully with African producers and establish manufacturing capabilities long term. African designers need to unify to get their message heard, share skills and facilities
Dazed Digital: What was the aim of the talk?
Helen Jennings: Design Africa is a series of conversations hosted by Passion Projects, a NY-based consultancy promoting fashion with a conscience. The first was in NYC earlier this year, the London leg was the second and the next will be in Miami. The aim of Design Africa is to raise awareness among creative professionals and consumers of fashion, art and design coming out of Africa and to discuss the successes, challenges and opportunities those working within this space face.
DD: Design Africa is a broad term - what creative fields did you focus on?
Helen Jennings: Design Africa focuses on fashion, art, furniture and textiles with special attention to socially responsible production, luxury goods, African craftsmanship and the ways in which international brands can work in Africa.
DD: What was the outcome of the evening?
Helen Jennings: It was a very lively debate. We talked about the fact that African creativity has received such a lot of positive media attention recently – from L’Uomo Vogue’s Rebranding Africa issue the Observer’s New Africa supplement – and with brands such as Edun, Suno, Roberto Cavalli and Vivienne Westwood producing in Africa. There’s certainly been a step change in the way African design is perceived internationally, which is something that can be built upon. And because Africa is on the up in terms of improved infrastructures, economies, democracies, internet connectivity and foreign investment, the potential for its creative industries to now thrive is huge.
Having said that, the problems are many. Manufacturing anything on a large scale is hard because of a lack of well equipped factories, dearth of good quality local fabrics, ill-trained workforces and patchy infrastructure – roads, trains, electricity supply and so on. Many governments aren’t investing in creative industries or initiatives and there can be barriers in terms of bureaucracy, trade restrictions, corruption and red tape.
There’s also the fact that big brands are using Africa as stylistic inspiration but not sourcing from there, or even worse, are ripping off African designers completely. Plus the problem of the general public’s perception – Africa isn’t a charity case any more, and Africa certainly isn’t a country – it’s a huge continent with different artists, styles and scenes coming through. Africa is also a place to do trade, and its designers are making high end, contemporary works that tell authentic, ethical stories.
Solutions? Well. Governments need to get engaged – and not sell all of its resources off to China. Big brands need to work meaningfully with African producers and establish manufacturing capabilities long term. African designers need to unify to get their message heard, share skills and facilities. Mainstream media need to keep their positive spotlight on Africa. It goes on and on! The end game is for Africa to harness its own huge potential so that in the near future a ‘made in Ghana’ or ‘made in Kenya’ label has the same cache as ‘made in Italy’ or ‘made in England.’
DD: What's your personal relation and involvement with design from Africa?
Helen Jennings: As editor of ARISE, my mission is to celebrate and elevate Africa’s creative output. ARISE is a London-based bi-monthly global lifestyle magazine giving a platform to the best fashion, music and culture coming out of and connected to Africa. In particular we’re known for championing fashion, thanks to our African designer collective shows at NYFW, and annual Arise Magazine Fashion Week, which attracts designers from all over the world to Lagos each March. Also, my book New Africa Fashion is the first coffee table compendium of contemporary African fashion, photography and models. I’m passionate about getting across the message that fashion from Africa can’t be pigeonholed by a handful of aesthetic clichés – animal prints, headwraps, safari chic etc. It’s actually a burgeoning and varied field of fashion that is now offering a whole new realm of influences, crafts, materials and ideas to international fashion.