How Do We Sell African Fashion?

Can we successfully sell African fashion without “foreign” assistance? I was recently invited to attend an African fashion show here in the Big Apple and my thoughts went on a roll.

The lights were bright, cameras clicked and the fashion was fresh and inspiring, yet there was just something off in the elegant showroom. It took me a few seconds to figure it out. It was the hair the models had. All the African models, showcasing African clothes made by African designers were wearing below the shoulder long synthetic hair. Wigs and weaves. An oxymoron.

Why be bothered by synthetic hair whilst the focus should be on the creativity of the designs? Was hair not just an accessory rather than the highlight? What does hair have to do with this blog or conversation about African women and their voices anyway?

Daily, it is indeed a personal choice for women to do with their hair as they please. That is the beauty of the freedom for self-expression. On any other fashion platform there would be no cause for alarm. However at an event where the vision and purpose is to promote, celebrate and sell African fashion, it does become a concern.

Fashion shows are primarily commercial and all the other aspects secondary. That’s why even the audience is very specific: the media, buyers, celebrities and fashion houses. These are the people we invite with a hope that they will appreciate our products and help sell them to the world in one form or the other.

Now, if we are selling African fashion and thus the heritage and creativity of Africans while crowning our heads with synthetic European hair, it sends a contradicting message about the confidence we have in ourselves. It strikes me as a form of fronting. It’s like we are saying we need the reassuring company of something foreign in order to make the cut because African fashion cannot sell itself as raw and authentic as it is.

It would seem we are reinforcing negative perceptions and selling self-doubt together with our products and still expecting to be taken seriously. The sad thing is most of the garments are designed in such way that they would look better with some form of a natural hairstyle. The beauty and intrigue of African hair is its versatility, it can be styled and worn in a dozen different ways. But to wear all the young ladies down (that I was later told mostly have natural hair) under those heavy wigs did not look right. Something was taken away from them, the designers and the show. The audience was deprived of the opportunity to experience the real beauty of African fashion.

During a break I had a chance to mingled and chat with some of the designers, whom mostly had natural hair. I mentioned my observation and they told me that they had wanted models with natural looks but their sponsor’s marketing and beauty department insisted that they all have a uniform look of weaves and wigs. And so they watched as the beauty of their designs, over shadowed with fake hair took to the ramp.

Perhaps that is what the fashion experts believe sells, maybe the designers did not have a choice because they have to market their products and need all the publicity they can get until they are financially strong to determine how their work is presented. Maybe we need to be more conscious and assertive about how we want the world to perceive and receive us.

We cannot separate African fashion from the broader context of the African Renaissance, where we rise out of dependency and obscurity and showcase with pride and confidence our unique heritage and creativity. So African hair is not an inconvenient misfit that needs to be glossed over with a symbol of what “beautiful or ramp-worthy” hair should look like. Our hair is an inherent part of our identity; it gives voice to our sense of pride and self-esteem.

There is a saying that a woman’s hair is her glory. In this fashion show, we displayed our awesome talents and creativity but something else took Africa’s crowning glory. And so I ask, can Africa sell itself?

God Bless Afrika!

Pearl P Mashabane


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