The V&A in London brings together the most diverse continent in the world in their exhibition, Africa Fashion. Featuring forty-five designers from over twenty countries, the museum is showcasing the creativity, influence and tradition of African fashion. Over two hundred and fifty objects are on display, including seventy new acquisitions and countless personal archives of iconic contemporary African designers; now on view until April 16, 2023.
The Vanguard section features the first generation of African designers to gain global attention. It showcases their inspiration, creative process and rise to fame. This section includes Shade Thomas-Fahm’s re-imagining of the traditional Nigerian ìro and Kofi Ansah’s work with African and European aesthetics. Commonly referred to as “Nigeria’s first fashion designer,” Shade Thomas-Fahm is known for championing Nigerian textiles and moderised traditional West African attire. Her work focuses on using fashion as a source of economic freedom and easing the process of getting dressed for women. Meanwhile, Ghanian designer Kofi Ansah’s work sources local fabrics and draws inspiration from African and European fashion. He brought African fashion to the world stage, having created a garment for Princess Anne and collaborated with Vogue Italia’s Franca Sozzani.
The Vanguard also highlights the work of visionaries Chris Seydou, Alphadi and Naïma Bennis, paying respect to their legacies. Like Kofi Ansah, Chris Seydou was also crucial to the international rise of African fashion. Born in Mali, the designer worked intimately with African textiles – such as Mali’s bogolan fabric – to create haute couture pieces. His work shined a spotlight on Malian textiles by modifying them to be more versatile for design and creating a space for them in contemporary fashion.
Nigerian designer Alphadi uses fashion to address important social issues. Founder of the International Festival of African Fashion, Alphadi gives African designers an opportunity to come together with other international powerhouses, including Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo and Jean Gaultier. He is also a UNESCO Artist for Peace and uses his platform to discuss topics such as child marriage in Niger.
Naïma Bennis’ pieces blurred lines in more ways than one – her work combined tradition with modernity, and masculinity with femininity. Her signature black cape used signature Moroccan bzioui – which was traditionally used for male garments – to transform the masculine bernous into an elegant outer piece for women.
The exhibition’s first section, Minimalism, showcases a look by Moshions. For this ensemble, the fashion house drew inspiration from Rwandan royalty – by combining the traditional shoulder sash Umwitero and beadwork and embroidery from Imigongo aesthetics, Moshions has tastefully adapted traditional Rwandan motifs for modern fashion.
Mixology takes us on a journey to West Africa. This section features IAMISIGO’s Gods of the Wilderness, an ensemble from their Spring/Summer 2019 collection. This piece is inspired by West African abstract performance art and masquerade costumes. IAMISIGO’s Creative Director Bubu Ogisi uses fashion to explore spiritual concepts, putting a contemporary spin on traditional patterns to design techniques to bring her vision to life.
Along with celebrating cultural diversity, Africa Fashion also explores religion and gender norms associated with the continent. In Sartorialists, costume designer, stylist and photographer Gouled Ahmed challenges oversimplified depictions of non-binary Black Muslims by mixing garments from the Horn of Africa with modern materials. Here, they portray the multi-faceted layers of identity.
The exhibition, however, also explores other mediums. Capturing Change features photographic portraits that document fashion and emotion throughout African history, specifically focusing on themes of freedom and decolonisation. This section includes the work of Sanlé Sory, a Burkinabe photographer who has portrayed the exuberance of African people during the first decades of independence. His work is symbolic of the emerging agency, self-representation and Black and African visibility during that time. Capturing Change also highlights the work of other notable photographers, such as Michel Papami Kameni, Rachidi Bissirou and James Barnor.
Africa Fashion is a culmination of centuries of history and creative genius. It is the United Kingdom’s most extensive exhibition to date, and explores integral themes in African history, from liberation years to radical social change to the Africa we know today. It’s vibrant, it’s dynamic, it’s rich – and it’s about time we celebrate it.
Africa Fashion is now on view at the V&A, Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL (UK) until April 16, 2023.