“What the hell do you know about fashion?”
That’s a fair question, asked by my uncle on Sunday as he was reading my bit in the SBP on African Fashion Weekend, which hits Dublin on April 2,3 and 4.
Personally, yeah, I’m no mannequin. I actually had to apologise to the stylish Stha Ngwenya, the organiser of African Fashion Week, for my appearance on the day we met. I have to do that a lot, actually, particularly when I’m on a motorbike and dressed to suit. Fashion is like fancy dress to me. It’s something that I don’t really do that often, but I’m aware that it’s there and that I find an effort. My girlfriend is more concerned with it, and much better at it than I am.
But I’m always interested in anything African, and particularly any positive African stories, having done a thesis on the lack of them in the Irish media.
And this is a good one.
And on the day, I hope to be near the catwalk, wearing the one tailored shirt that I own, applauding in a genteel fashion. As one does, when one’s involved in fashion. Dahling.
There’s a famous Granta magazine article about writings on Africa that, unsurprisingly, says little about haute couture.
In mocking tones, it details all the stereotypes one should hit when describing anything African. The only reference to fashion states: ‘‘If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.”
Stha Ngwenya is not one to fit any stereotypes, least of all those pertaining to dress code. When I meet her in a bar off St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, she is crisply turned out in stylish professional attire and ready, as always, to upend standing perceptions.
On April 2, Ngwenya will open Dublin’s first African Fashion Weekend in Thomas Prior Hall, beside the RDS, bringing together African designers from around the world to showcase clothing lines inspired by diverse cultures.
Designers from countries such as Cameroon, Madagascar and Senegal will send designs down the catwalk in front of Irish eyes for the first time. But anyone expecting safari wear, garish ethnic wraps and or zebra-based designs should check their preconceptions along with their coats.
‘‘Africa is rising in terms of fashion,” says Ngwenya, a Zimbabwean who has studied and worked in Ireland for the last ten years.
In bringing designers to Ireland, she hopes to reverse the idea that fashion in Africa is solely an imported concept.
‘‘Traditionally, fashion comes from everywhere else into Africa,” she says. ‘‘But in doing my research, I realised there was a whole lot more going on. There are a lot of designers who don’t just design African clothes or African material – some of the designers we are working with have been showing on international catwalks all around the world.”
African designers are no longer content to send models out swathed in kaleidoscopic tribal print.
‘‘We are a progressive people, and I think that progressiveness will be evident in the show,” says Ngwenya.
‘‘Everyone is influenced by so many different things.
The collections that we are showing vary a lot, and the African designers based in Africa, or elsewhere in the world, are just as good as any designer.”
Eric Raisina will be the star of the Dublin show.
Born in Madagascar, Raisina splits his time largely between Cambodia and Senegal, when he’s not showing in the major fashion capitals. His textured designs give no obvious nods to the stereotypical ‘Safari Africa’, but the continent’s influence is evident in the edging of his fabrics, the shading of his colour palettes and the sweeping natural lines he prefers. Raisina’s reach is global, with his designs found in high-end boutiques in cities such as Shanghai, Turin, Johannesburg and Connecticut. He has also been part of the African Collective, a successful design collaboration which has been part of New York Fashion Week for the past three years.
‘‘Our aim was to get designers to Dublin from everywhere in Africa,” says Ngwenya, who also organised the Miss Zimbabwe pageant in 2009.
By organizing high-quality events with an African twist, Ngwenya is determined to push western perceptions of her home continent beyond the traditional third-world view.
‘‘All of this is very important in helping help people realise that, as much as there is poverty in Africa, there is a whole lot more to it,” she says. ‘‘You’d be amazed at how people don’t really have enough knowledge about the simple things – like the simple fact that Africa is a continent, not a country.”
Ngwenya’s nationality, too, often prompts people to make assumptions: ‘‘The natural assumption is that I left [Zimbabwe] because things were so bad. The reality is that when I came, things were not that bad – they were actually okay at that point, and I came to Ireland as an ordinary person.”
Ten years down the line, she is clearly buoyed up with the buzz surrounding the show, and the prospect of welcoming some of her favourite designers to Ireland.
‘‘I love fashion, I love to dress up and look nice. And from all of the work that we’ve done we’ve realised that some countries in Africa have become really strong in design,” she says.
She tips South Africa as the current hotspot for African fashion. One of her major supporters, Africa Fashion International, hosts four major fashion shows a year around South Africa, and last year held the first ever pan-continental African Fashion Week.
The South African event featured many designers who have made the leap to fashion hubs around the globe, and count celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith among their fans.
‘‘For them to recognise that we’re doing this work is very important to us,” said Ngwenya, who pointed out that Nigeria, too, is a major couture hub for the continent, with a large, comparatively wealthy population stimulating demand for couture.
Momo is one of the major labels to come out of Nigeria, and former model Theo Omambala is one of the country’s best-known faces abroad. Theo, as she is known in fashion circles, writes widely on African designers, and has been advising the Dublin team ahead of their inaugural show.
With all the support that has come from Africa to help make the show happen, Ngwenya and her team are hoping to be able to give something back – they’ve teamed up with Trócaire, and all the proceeds from the VIP section of the show will go to the charity’s Lenten appeal.
‘‘It’s something that I think is important, that as individuals and Africans we are able to support ourselves and pitch in and help when we can,” she says.
With that, and the fact that the show is just two weeks away, Ngwenya sashays out of the hotel bar. Her graceful exit is a perfect embodiment of the message she is hoping to get across: L’Afrique, c’est chic.
African Fashion Weekend runs on April 2, 3 and 4. Tickets (€25) are available through Ticketmaster, more details at www.africafashionweekenddublin.com.