The trouble with African Fashion Week or Events

Let me start by saying that there are so many African Fashion Week or Events, from New York to Lagos, London, to Washington D.C. While I applaud all the efforts the organizers are doing to promote Fashion from Africa, the plethora of African Fashion Weeks/Events represents an opportunity only for organizers who are savvy enough or committed enough to jump on board a “me to” bandwagon. Almost, none of these events or weeks help the African Fashion industry.They do not create jobs or even begin to address the huge youth unemployment rates in Africa. Many are also for an elite class of people.  These African themed fashion weeks or events are great for that one day of love or lust for all things fashion from Africa. But it ends there.

The lack of millions of dollars that have not been raised by these events, not for the organizers themselves or the designers that parade their events are unquestionable evidence of the trouble with African Fashion Events/Weeks. The invasion of these events have not translated into profits or raised awareness of fashion from Africa, not for the global fashion industry or even major or mid-sized retail stores, a vital step in ensuring that African Fashion emerges as a global profitable force to reckon with.

African Fashion Events/Weeks spearheaded by a select few reveals much darker realities about marketing, consumerism, leadership, and the perils of limited vision and mission. With the exception of few, almost all of these organizations are solely managed by a single individual, who often are not qualified to be leaders of African Fashion (see here for an insight on why African Fashion Leaders are made, not born). These organizers are as bad as managers (because they are not leaders) can get, with no mission or vision or marketing analysis on what it will take to make African Fashion succeed in the global fashion industry. The structure and entitlement attitude of some of these organizations as well as their lack of success reveal sometimes unfortunate realities of why African Fashion has a long way to go.

Many of these African themed fashion week or events are not in it to create sustainable lasting changes for Africa. Instead, they are in it to promote themselves. African Fashion Weeks or Events are held in scores of cities around the work and likely the most well known and effective elements of these events is their lack of profits or even employment that translates into long-term careers in African Fashion. Take a look at their staff the next time you visit one, chances are they are volunteers. Even though the events may attract people from everywhere, in many cases, they seldom garner media or popular attention even from everyday people on social media sites like instagram in comparison to other similar fashion weeks like New York Fashion Week.

By the numbers, African Fashion should be a successful industry on it’s own. Take for example, the print maker Vilsco. This dutch-based company has grown into a successful global brand with a turnover of about $414 million in 2013, according to The Business of Fashion. Its customers, African women and their enormous buying potential, something Vilsco has managed to capitalize on. Yet, beyond the sale of these prints, almost no designer or even African Fashion Events/Weeks has managed to be as successful as the brand Vilsco. African Fashion itself is often characterized by a moving definition, which those familiar with the industry will recognize as characteristic of an emerging industry. What counts as fashion from Africa to some does not make the cut for others. Although using fabrics from within or outside Africa are key to some of definitions of African Fashion, other focus other sorts of innovation and transformative change.

For me, in positioning Isioma’s Style Report as the voice of African Fashion, I am not interested in small peripheral changes, like yet another African Fashion Event/Week, but instead in deep, sustained transformations that tilt towards profitability for all, and not just the organizers of these fashion weeks or events. My approach is to characterize fundamental changes in the prevailing wisdom on African Fashion, paying close attention to the leaders making a difference, with a clear strategy, vision and a mission, not just in words but in deed. Until we finally begin to address these factors, I am afraid that the trouble with African Fashion has only just begun. Visit any upcoming African Fashion Week/Event for proof.

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