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African Fashion as the Next Fashion Capital: Evolving the Concept of Hybrid Modernity

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Last year at TedxDumbo in October, I spoke about Africa as the next Fashion Capital. I believe this notion fully and it has some roots in the timing of what is going on the continent. This decade, most African countries will hit 50 years of independence. This is a historic milestone and I feel it will determine if Africans can redefine what their role and future will be in the world as nations. Will African countries escape the label and perception of Africa as the world's poorest continent? I believe that they will and there needs to be a focus on building and improving cities and not rural areas.

According to a report by the UN Habitat, "The State of African Cities 2010: Governance, Inequalities and Urban Land Markets," African city populations will more than triple over the next 40 years and this is vital as it determines where socioeconomic activity will occur: "For the first time, in 2009, Africa's total population exceeded one billion, of which 395 million, almost 40 per cent, lived in urban areas. This urban population will grow to one billion in 2040, and to 1.23 billion in 2050, by which time 60 per cent of all Africans will be living in cities."

African cities are both colonial and modern. They have evolve from traditional cultural histories and patterns overlaid with colonial and modern re-mapping. Cities like Lagos, Accra and Johannesburg have outgrown their original boundaries and expanded beyond the population capacities. In these cities, as an Afropolitan -- an African who has always lived in a metropolitan city -- I see African cities as a mix of Africa and the West, hybrids.

I am a child of Africa and I grew up like my father with a vision of the African Grand Plan -- one that came with our independence of a continent of nations that would determine its future, determine its goals, opportunities and place in the world for its future generations. That is the Africa I dream of and I am making my mission to create. And in the spirit of that grand plan, I look to change Africa's image and perception through fashion and design.

I believe the future for Africa is in fashion and design and it is one of the places to start. It will set the stage for change and transformation in African cities. And when it comes to fashion, all signs are pointing to Africa as the next "big thing." According to the New York Times, African fashion began retrending globally with the launch of ARISE Magazine in 2009. This trend continues to shape the evolution of fashion cities like Accra and Lagos.

At TedxDumbo, I proposed the notion of Hybrid Modernity as a concept to adopt in fashion and design. I define it as the juxtaposition of traditional African materials, craft and design techniques with Western modern conceptualization, materials, design and techniques. Hybrid Modernity is influenced by African and Western aesthetics resulting in a hybrid explosion of design. It combines bold patterns and color from African heritage with streamlined Western modern shapes. Simply, it is a hybrid of culture that is a powerful push toward the future and key to this idea is the use of traditional methods of production in fashion. Thus, the notion of Hybrid Modernity is potentially the future of Africa with a focus of cities as places of exploration.

As I look across Africa, there are change makers practicing Hybrid Modernity and working on the potential of Africa as the next fashion capital. Precious Moloi-Motsepe, the Executive Chairperson of African Fashion International in Johannesburg, is one such person and organization. African Fashion International (AFI) presents African fashion and creative talent in a manner that makes local talent globally relevant and ensures that the world has market access to African product and design. Through the organization's promotion, curation and support, AFI ensures that the international community responds positively and commercially to African-designed products, which are available, unique and on-trend. Most importantly: African Fashion International believes in using fashion as a communicator for social change. This is a catalyst to make fashion vital in Africa.

Another institution doing similar work but focused on formal education is the Vogue Style School of Fashion in Accra, Ghana, run by Joyce Ababio. In August 2012, I wrote on this blog that

"Vogue Style School of Fashion and Design is being marketed to reach the whole West African market, and also seeks to attract students in the US and Europe. For a student interested in African Design, this is the place to come to. There are no schools like Vogue in West Africa and there is a demand for quality design training, and when it comes to innovation, a close competitor is Yaba College of Art in Lagos, Nigeria which produces very innovative artists and is starting to do the same in fashion but is marketed only to Nigerians."

Joyce Ababio is the designer who began exploring Kente Cloth in a modern context -- and her school is focused on using African textiles in a modern way -- a bridge to the future.

African cities are old and new and the possibility of the re-mix can provide a place to explore and create new ways of thinking. Two designers I see whose work is on the verge of this concept, Hybrid Modernity are Duro Olowu, Nigerian Designer and Aisha Obuobi, who is Nigerian but lives and works in Accra, Ghana, working with her label Christie Brown.

Duro Olowu, Nigerian Designer

New York magazine says:

Duro Olowu is a fashion designer based in London, UK. Since 2004 Nigerian-born Duro Olowu has impressed the right people with his vibrant mix of African prints, seventies tailoring, and unlikely color combos. A high-waisted patchwork boho dress -- known as the "Duro" -- put the brand on the fashion map, and became a cult item in 2005 after being discovered by American Vogue editor Sally Singer and Julie Gilhart of Barneys.

Olowu is Inspired by a truly global heritage -- his father is Nigerian and his mother Jamaican and his work is defined by the publication Ecoterre as "a visual feast of reclaimed silks and vintage fabric trims in eclectic, contrasting patterns." I call his work is Hybrid Modernity -- in his choices and use of African color, textiles and traditional techniques. He mixes and matches African prints with contemporary modern and British patterns. His sophisticated exploration and juxtaposition of fabrics marks a re-interpretation of African fashion. His travel back to Lagos keeps him grounded in presenting African street fashion elements as luxury level.

Christie Brown by Aisha Obuobi.

Christie Brown is a Ghanaian based women's fashion brand. The label was founded in March 2008 with the launch of the brand's first run way show in Accra. Creative Director Aisha Obuobi began her love affair with fashion at an early age. However, the real motivation came from watching her grandmother Christie Brown, a seamstress, create rich and vibrant garments. Christie Brown focuses on innovative accessories all inspired by the African culture and art.

Aisha Obuobi's accessories show necklaces that are hybrids of traditional African textiles in the mist of fur and crochet. She is re-proportioning the traditional African Textile Strips and leftover material as a concept and method used across Africa. This is the beginning of Hybrid Modernity.

My TedxDumbo talk also included two architecture pioneers in Ghana and Nigeria. See more here. I concludce with the assertion Hybrid Modernity offers the opportunity to speculate and create new notions of African fashion that is applicable to the future of cities. Cities are old and new and the possibility of the re-mix can provide a place to explore and create new ways of thinking. I ended the talk with two questions:

What if African cities were the fashion capitals of the world?
What if African designers are pioneers of new hybrids in fashion and architecture?

Watch my TedxDumbo presentation here: