‘African Fashion and fashionability on Instagram’ by Enrica Picarelli

The context: Africa in the mainstream

Last May British-Ghanaian designer Ozwald Boateng hailed the era of “Africanism” from the pages of Vogue UK  claiming a spot in the limelight for the generation of Africans who are diversifying fashion with works that foreground their heritage and individuality. Indeed the 2010s are the decade African fashion made it to the mainstream, the moment the West discovered Africa once again, this time as a land of conspicuous consumers and unspoiled creative resources.

In 2016 CNN spoke of the continent as a “real powerhouse” in an article covering the exhibition and book “Fashion Cities Africa” (2016), which introduced to the wider public the bustling scene of four African style hubs: Casablanca, Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg. These and other locations have also served as backdrops for music videos and fashion films and editorials by prominent artists and brands. Some examples include the video of “Losing You” (2013) by Solange Knowles, a controversial series by Stella McCartney shot in Lagos by Nigerian-Jamaican photographer Nadine Ijewere (2017), and the editorial shot “Gidi gidi bu ugwu eze” (Unity is Strength) (2017) directed by Akinola Davies Jr. for Kenzo in Enugu. Just a few days ago, Coca-Cola announced four capsule collections realised in collaboration with South African designers, including Rich Mnisi who styled Beyonce on the occasion of her participation to the Global Citizen Festival in Johannesburg. This was not the first time the American diva was seen wearing African brands, nor is she the only celebrity who has been sourcing from local designers. Many others, including Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Mick Jagger, Theresa May, and Prince Astrid of Belgium have opted for them.

From their part, African designers are seizing this opportunity to reach beyond their local base, gathering communities of taste and highlighting diversity and inclusivity. This broad outline reflects a shift in perspective that needs unpacking as it adds further layers to the debate on fashion’s impact on identity and globalisation.  More importantly, it calls for in-depth analyses that will map the complexities of such an heterogenous ecosystem. The 2010s have been a decade of sustained development and growth of several national markets: according to the African Development Bank the worth of the apparel and footwear market in Sub-Saharan Africa is currently at 31 billion US $. This figure is not lost on Naomi Campbell who has called for the launch of an African edition of Voguethus further advocating for a more prominent role of Africa in global fashion. But this does not mean that the African fashion industry has overcome its structural shortcomings. To the contrary, Campbell’s statement prompted many to underline that the sector continues to struggle to sustain itself. This shows that the jump from global near-invisibility to hyper-visibility does not necessarily equate exposure with revenue. At the same time, it directs attention to cultural capital as a factor that economists often overlook in the debate on the value of fashion.

Figure 1 Justice Mukheli and Innocent Mukheli @I see a different you, South Africa.

The research environment: African fashionables on Instagram 

Fashion spreads all over the world via images. Images create a narrative around clothes that, in the 2.0 culture triggers conversations and interactions across national and sociocultural barriers. In late 2013 I began mapping a sector of the large visual ecosystem associated with the scene of street fashion in some anglophone African countries (and to a lesser extent the diaspora), focusing first on some Tumblr blogs and eventually migrating to their respective Instagram profiles. Early on I detected a few emerging influencers who were developing a distinct visual style that self-consciously played with the motifs of hipsterism to showcase a distinct brand of African self-styling, quickly gaining them a following of thousands. I began gathering material about them on my blog, Afrosartorialism, and interviewing them in an attempt to learn more about a different side of the African fashion scene than what I found on the corporate press. 

I mapped a cluster of 174 Instagram users out of a pool of 694 accounts dedicated to fashion and visual arts in anglophone African countries and the diaspora. According to the most recent data I gathered between May 15 and May 29 (2017), the mapped profiles attract about 2.5 million followers on Instagram, with the most represented nations being South Africa (53 accounts), Kenya (34 accounts), Nigeria (23), and Ghana (15). In the last 18 months the 174 profiles have generated more than 3 million interactions, while the interactions associated with the total number of web articles focusing on them on other social media (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Pinterest, Reddit) has been less than 100,000 in 12 months. This confirms the relevance of Instagram as the most effective platform for their self-marketing and positioning.  

Finally, the data also captures the social value of the profiles. 3 of the accounts are middle influencers, having between 100,000- 1,000,000 followers, 55 are micro influencers, with between 10,000 and 100,000 followers, and 73 are mini influencers counting between 2,00-10,000 followers. 44 have less than 2,000 followers. These figures show that an effective, informal/casual market exists in the shape of social influencing that has the potential to establish the users as trendsetters and tastemakers. 

Of course these data refer to the segment of the population that has access to internet and social media and the means to create and appreciate digital works which is not the majority in any African country. However, there has been a 20% year-on-year increase in active mobile and social media use which suggests that the African creative economy is already a digital economy.

Figure 2. Saddam Khalfan, @vurdu, Tanzania.

From fashion to fashionability

The accounts that I began following gather style vignettes that capture the authors in various interiors and urban locations like street markets, food courts, schoolyards, cafes, and street junctions, showcasing the everyday context of African cities as sites of intrinsic, but undocumented aesthetic value. Their visual work, that at first included only fashion editorials and more recently has spanned also fashion films and performances, downplays glamour for a version of empowerment that brings the authors in the foreground as re-shapers of fashion stereotypes, or “mtindo” (style movers) as they are described in a recent publication focusing on Kenya. These works document instances of fashionability, the experiential dimension of dress that expresses an “aesthetic sensibility involving discerning skills from a variety of sources in creating an overall look that results in pride, pleasure, and experiences of feeling good”’. Indeed, the blogs showcase garments and accessories as elements of a more articulated experience of time and place that shifts and evolves in tune with the moods and daily experiences of the fashionables. Unlike fashionistas who profess and perform a cult of luxury objects, these social media users stage aestheticised performances of commodified vernacularism that feature a mash-up of fashion referents that include punk and jazz subcultures, afrofuturism, dandyism, heritage cultures, haute couture and more.

The cityscape is a common framework of their fashion shootings, as is the imperfect allure of anonymous city-dwellers. For racialised peoples the world over, cities are a space of agency, where mobility and immobility draw the limits of self-authorship. Urban alienation has always stimulated sartorial experimentation and a complicated engagement with authoritative aesthetics. The images of the bodies of the African fashionables I study and that of the city script each other to lead a fashion-driven remodulation of entrenched structures of visualising Africa. Their performances that deliver a site-specific outlook on life and the self, relying on self-styling as a strategy to design and render visible their self perception. The representations of urban fashionability that I document take issue with this history of black sartorialism, weaving personal and racial memories into aestheticised representations of everyday spaces and experiences.

Figure 3. Velma Rossa and Oliver Asike @2manysibling, Kenya.

Afrosartorialism: a visual commentary on African stereotypes 

Through the years the scope and focus of the accounts has shifted constantly, making it hard for me to come up with a final description of what these users engage in. However, I could see a narrative forming around these representations of hipsterism that create a specific iconography of African modernity where styling conjures fictions, dreams, and imagined realities about single individuals and communities. In fact, it is important to stress that these visual productions are not intended as an objective reproductions of reality, but are hyped figurations of life in a variety of contexts where Western notions of beauty, elegance, and glamour are not necessarily the norm. Those accounts produce a cultural work that uses the techniques, means, and visual language of fashion to tell visual stories about Africa for a strictly local, mostly middle-class, certainly black audience. 

They all show a desire of using self-styling to express a non-stereotyped view of the continent and its lifestyle that mashes-up referents and signifiers from local and international sources. This is why I think it is better to refer to them collectively as storytellers rather than designers, stylists, or performers, which are some of the labels that have been applied to them, but they might disagree. I have come up with the neologism Afrosartorialism to describe the cultural production connected with a digital subculture of style that focuses on bringing African fashion aesthetics to a global audience viatime and place-specific visual stories that use composition, imagery, and technique to comment on what it looks liketo be African in a globalised world.  

The storytellers I have interviewed are all engaged in clearing space for difference in the global imagination and make images matter for self-affirmative action in Africa. Most of them are engaged in forms of cultural entrepreneurship that aim at uplifting local communities via fashion-focused initiatives that may include thrift shows, photography and design workshops and collective performances. These events exist on the fringes of the haute couture world, reflecting a more grassroots and evolving scene that registers constant shifts in its relationship to global popular culture, haute couture, local heritage, etc. Nonetheless, it produces material and immaterial value. Indeed, Afrosartorial work sells. The creatives I examine capitalise on their heritage, digital skills, and creative abilities to pursue their career dreams at home and abroad. As professionals inventing new frameworks to unpack the contradictions of neocapitalism and neocolonialism they advance a successful model of “fashionomics”, a sector of the cultural and creative industries that promotes sustainable development and growth through fashion.   

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