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African Fashion Turns to Catwalk

  • Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

When most people think of high fashion, they think of Paris, Milan and New York. But some designers think countries in Africa will be the next big trend-setters. Our reporter visited with some of the Africa's up-and-coming designers in Ghana.

"This is a dinner dress, or an evening dress," said Kwami Gyamfi.

Kwami Gyamfi designs his clothing line from a small workshop in Ghana's capital, Accra. He's got bags full of his creations, from tie-dye chiffon gowns, to linen casual wear.

... then with a slit here. Some comes with a trouser, some comes with a skirt," he said. "Like a short skirt here."

There's no name on the blue awning hanging over the one-room shop. Yet Kwami has made designing and sewing clothes his full-time job for over three years.

"I like fabrics and I love playing with fabrics," said Kwami.

He focuses on locally made fabrics, like bright, elaborate cotton prints and multicolored batiks. A pair of hot pants he has made uses bright orange and blue tie-dyed fabric.

"The things you have in the Western world, we are going to have the same things here, made by Ghanaian designers or African designers, but with our own fabric," he said. "See these shorts. I know you have all these shorts up there in the Western world, but this is a different fabric and that is where I want it to sell."

The young designer showcased his work at Ghana Fashion Weekend, the first and largest of its kind in the country. More than 30 designers from across Africa and the United States showed their collections.

Backstage before the show, models from all over Africa get ready for the catwalk. Stylists spray their hair, paint their faces and make the final adjustments on their clothes. Ghanian Patricia Ekomua is a part-time model. She wears a bright yellow, broad brimmed hat that's as large as an umbrella. She's dressed in a blue mesh gown.

Yeah, it looks like a mermaid's outfit," said Patricia Ekomua. "A mermaid with a sun hat."

Dressed in a rainbow of colors and patterns, other models wait for their cue. Sonia Ibrahim wears an evening gown that pairs a green African print with shimmering silver fabric accents.

"I love wearing the African wear on the runway because everyone is watching to see what new design, what are they going to do with this fabric, what's next," said Sonia Ibrahim. "Like yesterday I wore a costume that my whole face was covered. It's a traditional wear from the designer from Cote d'Ivoire. And most people don't understand, Why is her face covered? But it's a traditional wear. And that was fun."

Western designers are also watching the continent for inspiration. This year, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior rolled out shoes with African symbols. One Japanese designer had his models sporting popular African fabric. But, back on the continent, the fashion business is a hard sell. At first, Ghana Fashion Weekend had difficulty attracting sponsors.

"Ghanaians do not actually understand fashion," said Kofi Essel.

That's Kofi Essel, one of the organizers of Ghana Fashion Weekend.

"They practice fashion, but the business aspect doesn't really matter to them," said Essel. "Entrepreneurs do not feel so encouraged to really invest money into it. They don't see it as a big deal."

Even though some African designers are getting international acclaim, it is still hard to launch their brands on a global scale. There's not enough money to mass produce. Nigerian Bayo Adegbe runs the line Modela Couture. He likes to use bright sequins arranged like fish scales on his outfits. But, he says there are no factories in Nigeria that can produce enough of his designs to sell abroad.

"Somebody asked me when I went to Europe, you make fantastic collections and all that, but what if I want 1,000 of this here dress, can I get it in a month? And that was a challenge and I told him, sorry, it's not possible," said Bayo Adegbe. "And he was like, Ah, you guys are not ready to do business."

Other designers are finding success on a smaller scale. Back in his workshop in Accra, young designer Kwami Gyamfi is getting ready to move to a bigger place. His brand is getting so popular that he's hiring two more employees… doubling his current workforce. He's even got plans to build a factory of his own. For him, expanding his business is about creating jobs in Ghana.

"I want to create employment," said Gyamfi. "At least I can employ 500 people, if it's a big factory. And that is what I can do for my country."

Kwami has big plans for African design, and his brand.

"When you hear Kwami, you say, Oh yeah, that designer from Ghana, said Gyamfi. "Like you can hear Calvin Klein, you know who Calvin Klein is. You hear Armani, you know who Armani is. We need a big fashion name from Africa, and surely, I'm going to be one of them."

The African fashion industry is still young, but when it comes to creativity, local designers say they have what it takes to compete with the rest of the world.

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