I have been an aficionada of West African fashion ever since I travelled to Togo and fell in love with African prints. Before being on West African ground, I did not realize how beautiful and fashionable the local fashion is in this part of the world. Many people are unaware of this because of our socially embedded notion that fashion is a European phenomenon associated with destinations like Milan or Paris. We also grow up with aid fundraising campaigns of starving children that impregnate a stereotypical and misconceived image of Africa in our minds: “the dark continent”. Often mistaken as one country, it is still perceived by some as a place of starvation, malaria, dirt roads and tree houses.
But in reality there is another side to the story: Growing middle classes, beautiful beaches, delicious food, music, dancing and a thriving fashion scene. In West Africa, you will not just find colorful prints but also astonishing, groundbreaking aesthetics in couture that may or may not include cultural elements. It is said that West Africans are at Africa’s forefront of dressing in local fashion daily – a de-colonializing process which I have explored specifically in Ghana that has a unique story of dressing.
Ghana is known for its fabrics that tell stories through its prints and designs. In earlier days, you could communicate through the cloth you wore, for example, if you wanted to send a message to someone you were fighting with. Ghana’s woven kente fabric can carry the same design as a former president or first lady would wear, referring to people from Ghana’s history. When Ghanaians wear Ghanaian cloth abroad, others can identify their origins which sometimes acts as an icebreaker for strangers to connect, which I myself have experienced a few times.
When the West began to dump secondhand clothes in Africa in the 80s, Ghanaians turned to old jeans and Adidas or Nike t-shirts. Besides that it was considered new (fashionable), unique and different, it was also cheaper than local (mostly handmade) fabrics that needed additional tailoring. Most local fabrics were sold in a fixed (high) number of yards and would not be cut in halve for those who could only afford smaller quantities. When local fashion became unfashionable, it had devastating consequences for the local industry. Nonetheless, the secondhand western fashion trend did not last and in recent years, Ghanaian fashion inspired by local cultural heritage has become fashionable again. Some Ghanaians have told me they would not be ‘caught dead’ in kentewhen they were younger. Today, this has changed due to a renewed popularity of local fashion. There are many factors that have influenced this, one being that Western fashion stopped being unique because it became the norm. Another reason is that cheaper, mass-produced fabrics were imported from China, which were available in flexible number of yards in retail, which made low-cost local fashion more accessible. The fact that West Africa’s “local” fabrics are often produced by Dutch (who brought textiles to Ghana during colonial times) and now also by Chinese, has often been criticized. Yet, many Ghanaians have emphasized to me that it generates a local industry, especially in those cases where productions are based locally.
Ghana is home to numerous fashion designers who tell stories of their Ghanaian heritage in their unique designs. Just like anywhere else, these are re-inventions of local stories. Like Burberry continues to create new designs with elements of their heritage prints, Ghanaian designer Gavachy uses a touch of his own custom-made Kente, like a Kente belt on a denim dress. Burberry’s recent campaign featuring Adwoa Aboah, a model of Ghanaian heritage, showed Aboah with her Ghanaian family. All are wearing local, matching dresses, which is typical for Ghanaian family events, but instead of the typical wax prints, these are made in Burberry prints. I find that the picture really illustrates how this British heritage is not any different from the Ghanaian heritage in terms of being both traditional and modern. Yet, we tend to draw a separation here only in non-Western fashion.
It is positive to see how Vogue now reports about fashion in Ghana such as Accra’s “street style paradise”. What I find even better is that local fashion media work to promote Ghanaian brands, for example Glitz Africa Magazine and Fashion Ghana who are also behind Glitz Africa Fashion Show and Accra Fashion Week. These media events are an important part in the process of spreading the reality of fashion in Ghana to the rest of the world – and for Ghanaians to tell their own story. Together, actors from this movement work to break stereotypes by showing that their local fashion is much more than just busy prints.
This change has a massive impact on Ghana’s economy through the creation of employment. The fashion industry is full of microenterprises and entrepreneurs with an essential number of females. It is a way for locals to fight for change in their country and to radiate power in a system that undermines their capabilities. African fashion has become a hot topic in the development community with initiatives to boost economic growth in African countries through the strengthening of African fashion industries. However, this often focuses on facilitating manufacturing in Africa to Western brands as an alternative to the Asian market. These efforts can lack a focus on the empowerment of African designers which is problematic because it does not enable equality between actors. Western designers are the real beneficiaries who profit from African laborers and sometimes even from African culture when appropriating it. The lack of financial resources and infrastructure as well as the stereotypical misconception that fashion is a Western phenomenon, makes it difficult for African designers to compete in the global system. I know of Ghanaian designers who have been invited to showcase at fashion shows in Europe, but they could not find the means for such travels and consequently had to turn down these opportunities for international exposure. Talent rather goes global with the help of Western actors such as Swiss Hanimanns, a fashion agency for African brands, who use their privilege to help those who are marginalized in the system.
I believe that de-colonizing fashion in Ghana begins with supporting local actors in their mission to change the misconceived image of Africa. Letting locals define their fashion and sharing its stories to the rest of the world. Allowing the local industry to radiate power through this narrative to combat inequalities in the global fashion system.