Can Fashion Stimulate an Africa Renaissance?

07/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Johannesburg, South Africa. The start of a new week and I am still mentally digesting Arise Africa fashion week. The eight-day extravaganza was organized by Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe, chairperson of African Fashion International and Nigerian media tycoon Nduka Obaigbena.

The intention is that the once yearly fashion week will create a platform where Africa's best designers can show off their work. I was only in Johannesburg for four days worth of shows. The event drew around 50 designers from 20 different countries on the continent who sent their creations zipping down the catwalk on mostly African models and a few stars that were flown in for handsome amounts from international destinations. Between the individual spectacles, socializing, air kissing and networking, I could not help but wonder why a fashion week for a whole continent was needed. Dr. Moloi-Motsepe says that the African continent is a place that several people look to for inspiration. (Who could possibly forget Ralph Lauren's 2009 African spring collection?) Dressed in an iridescent African inspired garment herself she went on to say "It is about time that we start to use our own inspiration to show the world that something good can come out of Africa."

Jan Malan is one person that knows how to find the good in Africa; Malan has been producing fashion shows on the continent for seven years. He is also the brain behind MNET face of Africa -- the continents biggest model search, which launched the career of now top model Oluchi. Over a rushed lunch, Malan said he thought the twenty-first century would be the African century. His hope, like many others is that the Arise Africa Fashion week will unify the continent and bring forth a new identity. "We as Africans want to be recognized for something great. We sometimes wonder are we ever going to get there?" I guess the "will we ever get there?" attitude is a function of Africa's history.

We all know that the images of Africa seen by the world are far from fashionable. With all the problems that plague the continent, coupled with the current economic turbulence some people are asking if a lavish, no-expenses-spared fashion week is what the continent really needs. But Dr. Moloi-Motsepe is looking at this as a long-term investment. She believes that the fashion week was not just about fashion it is about creating commerce in Africa, so the continent can have a slice of the multi-billion dollar pie generated by clothing and textiles.

I was not successful in finding out how much money was spent on the big (investment) bash. The organizers of Fashion week are keeping tight-lipped. However from what I saw, I know it was not cheap. Forget renting the space, which is a five floor convention center, mainly glass, in one of Johannesburg's' trendiest districts -- Sandton. Imagine around four shows a day for eight days, approximately fifteen models per show, hair team, make-up team, a lushly furnished media room, (where finger food was circulated during show intervals), dynamic lighting, elaborate sound systems and large plasma screens. I guess all this stuff is a given for any fashion week any where in the world, but the difference for this event was that most, if not all of the designers were flown to Johannesburg and put up by the event's organizers. Participating designers had to simply turn up with their collections, fit them on models and send them down the ramp.

But despite the generous attempt made by the organizers, there were visible cracks during the week. Some collections were great and others were un-watchable. I spoke to several people just to get some insight and see if I was the only one that saw the discrepancies. Many saw gaping holes which included dodgy hair and make-up on the models.

I was sharply reminded by several people not to be judgmental as I have a tendency to be. But I realize now that my judgment was only because I too want so badly for Africa to be known for something other than poverty, strife and violence. I really want people to see the beauty of the continent and I want the people of the continent to see their own beauty.