Growing up in Ghana, it’s impossible not to find yourself immersed in fashion. An endless stream of colours and fabrics is a constant presence; there’s a palpable affinity for design and style. Every day, on my way to primary school in Cape Coast, I’d walk through the city’s market, which was like wandering through the world’s most beautiful textile museum. There were the shops and stalls, yes, but also living exhibits: the stylish women who worked on their stalls wearing kaba and the wide-eyed patrons who perused the latest prints and photo catalogues for inspiration on what to wear for an impending event or church service on Sunday. These sensorial memories stay with you.
After graduating in economics and statistics from university in 2006, I returned to these experiences, tinkering with screen-printed T-shirts, before finding my way to embroidery. Almost a decade later, I aspired towards a more challenging career and left for South Africa to study fashion design. Unbeknown to me, I had enrolled in a fashion-merchandising programme, which would later lead to an MA in fashion design. Perhaps stimulated by my background in economics, I found the unintended pathway piqued my interest in fashion’s global supply chain. I realised quite quickly I wanted to immerse myself in the rich tapestry of African fashion and support the next wave of designers to impact their respective economies, rather than just making clothes of my own.
The way younger people design and dress here is in constant flux. It’s part of a wider reimagining at the intersection of culture and history, which is seeing Africans questioning their identity. My full name is Kenneth Kweku Nimo. I stick with Ken because it is easier for people outside my culture to pronounce. If I had my way, I’d just be Kweku Nimo. Increasingly, young Ghanaians are dropping Christian names once forced upon their parents and grandparents under colonial rule and are embracing the traditional names of their community and cultures. You can’t help but question what else was lost when Africa was subject to imperialism. That is why this new generation is also changing the way they think about what they wear, and how it’s made.
This intersection of identity, colonialism and fashion in Africa is nothing new. My city of Cape Coast was a key location in the transatlantic slave trade. Colonialists didn’t just violently export African people, they brought with them clothes, textiles and luxury items. Traces of these imports are still visible in the way we dress today.
When missionaries arrived, women who subscribed to Christianity were welcomed by white European women, who taught them needlework and dressmaking. After the end of colonial rule, cultural activism was a key part of Africa’s rebuilding. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of an independent Ghana, proclaimed the birth of a new African not in a suit, as might have been expected, but a fugu, the traditional smock. Nkrumah’s ideology of freedom transcended being unshackled from colonial rule to encompass the reclamation of an African identity.
Nkrumah’s impeccable style and proficiency in the semiotics of fashion were unparalleled, as he aptly adopted indigenous clothing styles in a repertoire of diplomatic gestures. Look at how Nkrumah wore a peculiar kente cloth synonymous with forgiveness when he danced with Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, in the grand presidential ball. He also stimulated the fashion industry through import-substitution policies and sponsored Ghana’s first professionally trained designer, Chez Julie, to study in Paris. By the 1990s, pioneering Ghanaian designer Kofi Ansah was taking modern African style on to the global stage. Fashion became a catalyst for a new identity in a continent that for too long had been subjected to centuries of European acculturation.
Today’s new cohort of designers is going a step further – not just questioning western dress forms, but searching for and breathing new life into lost aesthetics, craft and processes. Social media and pop culture are essential catalysts to this phenomenon. Instagram accounts showcasing restored photographs of sitters from old films invoke a nostalgic past, but also serve as an inspiration to contemporary designers.
Under colonial rule, Africans were refused access to their own resources and restricted in their freedom to cultivate businesses. Imported European textiles were favoured by those in power, benefiting their domestic economies, which saw the systematic dismantling of the infrastructure that had existed before. Through research, innovation and a relentless quest for excellence, contemporary designers are defying the odds to overcome historic challenges that have plagued the textile and apparel supply chain since colonisation.
The vanguard of contemporary African designers is moving away from the cliché of African prints to adopting and valorising indigenous textiles. From the late 18th century, an influx of imitation prints arrived from Europe and soon became desirable. But these were in fact not African but from places such as Manchester and the Netherlands. Now, there’s a scepticism about these materials, with designers critical of their origins. These might have been the garments of their grandparents, but the new generation are looking back further, opting for locally woven textiles for their collections. And, rather than replicate what’s happening in the west, we value our own local market. We produce for our own context, while proudly exporting designs to a global audience, too. Workshop mood-boards are no longer composed solely of pictures of Paris and London fashion week runways. Instead, African images act as inspiration and references, whether for couture or more accessible daily dress.
There’s Nigerian designer Tokyo James applies impeccable Savile Row tailoring to aso-oke fabric. Kente Gentleman of Ivory Coast makes exquisite modern suits from hand-woven kente cloth. Capetown-based Lukhanyo Mdingi, who won the coveted Karl Lagerfeld Award at the 2021 LVMH prize, champions indigenous materials and fashion production. Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi is celebrated globally for his dexterity with textiles, such as the akwete, faso dan fani and kente, while South African brand Maxhosa Africa explores the colourful beading and handpainting traditions of the isiXhosa. Across the continent, we are witnessing designers in constant collaboration with producers to support local industries and historical processes. The results are nothing short of high-fashion, modern designs which show real reverence to our cultural heritage, too.
As told to Michael Segalov
Africa in Fashion: Luxury, Craft and Textile Heritage by Ken Kweku Nimo is published by Quercus on 5 May at £30