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The Fashion Week Phenomenon

May 16, 2015

Part 1 in a series from our England/Canada via Zimbabwe Contributor

As fashion weeks proliferate around Africa, it gets harder to get excited about them or remember why they are important, or whom they are serving. African fashion has become a revolution, and so rightly it should with our history and how far we have come. It still blows my mind that fashion has bought me back to the motherland. In my day, there was nothing more than a school fashion show, and simply to see a stream of African designers showcasing their beautiful work on a fashion platform is overwhelming.

When I decided to become an advocate for African fashion, I quickly realised that the glitz presented in the media was far from the reality. While the global interest in African fashion may seem to open new democratic forms of cross-cultural exchange, there is a disturbing side to these developments. The majority of African designers who have successfully managed to break into the global market have studied abroad and do not live in Africa. This is seen at African Fashion Weeks in the West, which showcase the industry’s designers. While this may appear to be a great platform, my thinking is that it encourages those with the talent to stay abroad. As a result, they fuel their successes in a country that is not their own.

Over the last few years, some fashion weeks have been a phenomenal success, establishing Africa as a fashion continent. Fashion weeks attract credible media coverage, boost the brand of African designers, and potentially bring an economic boost to the country hosting. While this may be the case, I have yet to get my head round the aim of the event, which I sometimes think is slightly misguided. A lot of money is spent in organising fashion weeks, and I am of the opinion that all the money could be put to better use by training and supporting designers in producing better quality products before even thinking about showcasing.

Essentially, Fashion week should be about visibility and increasing sales. It is important to promote one’s designs to the press so that they can promote it to a wider audience and perhaps catch the attention of buyers and retailers. Fashion week can be glamorous, but it is really a platform for commerce. Slowly but surely, African Fashion weeks have provided an avenue to grow in visibility, but commerce has taken a back seat.

Strangely enough, there seems to be a loophole in the class hierarchy that represents a group being treated like dirt—designers. These people amount to less than nothing soon after fashion week. I had the random opportunity to sit backstage at an African Fashion Week venue last year and witness a room full of excited emerging designers about to face the greatest humiliation of their lives! They had the idea that they were going to be part of something, part of fashion, and I wondered how many of them were dreaming about being discovered by somebody “famous.” They didn’t realise that their 15 seconds of fame had tragically ended on that runway.

There is clearly a wide gap that points to a dire need to control these numerous Africa fashion weeks around the world that do nothing to add a consistent foundation to the development of the industry. If the African fashion industry wants to be seen as credible, it needs to start putting itself in a strategic business position, and the first step is introducing a functional structure. The truth is it is a complete waste of time to continue hosting fashion weeks that the world is not interested in. It is also a loss of money, especially if no business comes from it.

The fashion week phenomenon does not seem to be going away anytime soon. As I write this, more platforms are being created. While that scares me, I realise that fashion design is an important element of popular culture and hugely impacts our society. For now, I look forward to the fashion week season – I hope one day these numerous factions can eventually become one as an industry.

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