Kenya’s Parliamentary Speaker Francis Ole Kaparo threw Koigi wa Wamwere out of the August House recently for what he termed as ‘improper dressing’ by the MP who was in a flowing Nigerian robe. His colleague, Paul Gor Sunguh, also received a similar fate, OGOVA ONDEGO looks at the controversy.
However, by the time Public Works Minister Raila Amollo Odinga came to Parliament in similar attire, the Speaker-instead of throwing him out– complimented him on being ‘smartly-dressed.’ After this incident, analysts declared Ole Kaparo’s ‘ruling’ as victory for Africa-inspired fashion. This came a few weeks after the annual Kenya Fashion Week in which designer Alphadi (Seidnaly Sidahmed Alphadi) of Mali challenged African leaders to set fashion trends for their people as a way forward in popularising African culture and uniting the continent.
Other fashion gurus followed suit by recommending that fashion be used as a rallying call for African unity, cultural identity, and pride. They called for a national, regional or continental dress code that would not only impart cultural confidence and pride in Africans but would also generate revenue for the development of the continent.
Alphadi, Africa’s leading designer, set the ball rolling at a Press conference on June 3 when he said Africans should use fashion as a tool for development. These sentiments were echoed three weeks later in Zanzibar during the Festival of the Dhow Countries. Here, designers congregated at a textile workshop under the tutelage of Farouque Abdela who has researched extensively on the kanga as fashion wear, art form, home décor and historical statement. They tackled the history, design, processing and street meaning of kanga slogans. They also explored the making of kanga using block and screen-printing besides juxtaposing it against the batik process.
The aim of the workshop, Abdela said, was to “stimulate interest in the kanga among young East Africans, enhance and expand its use, and engender appreciation for the rich meaning and historicity of the kanga especially as it pertains to East African identity and as a method of uniting people.” A colourful kanga and printed fabric fashion show ranging from evening wear to women’s casual dress was held on the fifth day after which Abdela gave us an exclusive interview in which he spelt out his vision for African fashion. “My constant chagrin is the lack of appreciation of the historicity, relevance and power of the kanga amongst East Africans, upon whom the meaning of this cloth is vested,” he said. “I’d wish to see the kanga move into mainstream fashion not just because of its history but also for its capability of moving into silk, cashmere, wool, and satin.”
Abdela was the first East African to take the kanga on the international fashion circuits whose response, he says, was overwhelming. Because of its history, Abdela feels the kanga should be made the national dress of East Africa. How can this be achieved? “To begin with, all designers should make nothing but kanga while East African governments should tax foreign fabrics and garments heavily to protect the kanga industry,” Abdela says.
“The people considered as role models-musicians, politicians, artists, teachers, journalists-should wear the kanga to influence dressing trends in the region.” Describing himself as a full time designer and “a lover of all forms of art-sculpture, painting and jewellery”– Abdela contends wives of Presidents in East Africa “should be cultural ambassadors, promoting the kanga as they go places instead of acting merely as decorations for their husbands.” His desire, he says, is to see East African leaders putting on African designs to promote their culture and artists.
“It is upon fashion designers to dress up their leaders for them to look respectable. I was horrified recently by Lucy Kibaki’s appearance when she came to Zanzibar in a sleeveless nylon dress that made me wonder whether there aren’t any designers in Kenya to package their First Lady well,” he observes. Abdela says fashion can be a big money-spinner for African nations if they exported finished garments. For this to be achieved, factories, wholesale shops, textile design centers and schools should be established here, with African labels setting standards and prices for their creations.
Musa Ramadhan Musa, a young designer who taught at the Zanzibar workshop and participated in the fashion show, says, “I was the first designer whose kanga went on the catwalk and I thought people didn’t like my work. However I was surprised when I received numerous calls for orders after the event.” A protégé of Abdela’s, Musa says he plans to start exporting his designs to Europe and North America. He also makes curios and cards based on the historical buildings of Zanzibar’s Stone Town.
Regina Miangue (Miang), who exhibited in Nairobi, said her dream was to see people in America and Europe wearing African designed clothes as the continent’s rich cultural diversity has plenty of ideas to offer to designers. Miang, daughter of a Central African Republic diplomat, settled on fashion design after her Ordinary Level with little support from her father. “I had to pay my own way through fashion school,” she says. What is her design formula? “I modernise traditional African material and style to make them more receptive to contemporary people,” she says.
Mustafa Hassanali of Dar es Salaam concurs fashion can change Africa for the better. Like the others, he says African role models should be actively involved in the promotion of African attire. Agreeing with Abdela that fashion is a potentially big money-spinner. Alphadi reveals he earns between US$5 million and US$10 million from his 20 fashion shops scattered around Miang style: Regina Miangue with her models at Hotel Intercontinental, Nairobi the world (Niger, Mali, South Africa, Italy, France, Japan, USA). As part of his social responsibility, Malian Alphadi (his mother is from Niger) invests his income in the industry across West Africa where he sources most of the material and ideas he uses. “For the fashion industry to develop in Africa,” Alphadi says, “governments must support it on the premise that it can earn it revenue with which to develop their nations.” He says fashion can help unite Africa into a big force that can change the world because of its great diversity. Saying that African Americans spend US$400 000 billion annually on fashion alone, Alphadi said they would be willing to spend this money in Africa if African designers came up with Africa-inspired designs for Africa and its Diaspora. Europeans know of the rich diversity of African fashion, Alphadi says, adding that that is why they comb every corner and cranny of the continent looking for ideas, which they use in the haute couture that brings them millions of dollars. “This exploitation of Africa must be put to an end by African designers tapping local talent and ideas and selling them to the West in finished garments. Westerners should not be allowed to continue exploiting African ideas, motifs, culture and craftsmanship to mint billions of dollars for themselves at the expense of Africa.” Saying, “Europeans are our brothers and sisters,” Alphadi argues, “they should not be our leaders in fashion.”
“When fashion develops,” he contends, “it supports many other related industries: jewellery, craft, shoes, textile, weaving, and beauty products.” He is critical of fashion schools in Africa, saying most of them merely teach the basics of fashion: cutting, sketching and pattern-making. “Fashion design should involve textile-making, weaving, printing and designing”, says Alphadi, revealing that he makes his own fabric and that he has factories in Niamey and Bamako where he employs skilled workers. He also sources fabric from around Africa and Europe “because I want to sell to the world.” He had a collection made of bark cloth from Uganda for his show at The Kenya Fashion Week
Alphadi says African parents should change their perceptions on fashion as a career suitable only for the never-do-wells and encourage their children to pursue it. “My parents did not want me to study fashion design. They took me to France where I studied tourism to the doctoral level. Later, I attended night school to pursue fashion,” he says. He later attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in Washington D.C. He challenged local designers to ‘design locally but think globally’. They must ensure the highest quality of finish for their garments and accessories to compete on the global market. The make-up of Alphadi’s models is very African with tribal face painting, natural hair and African accessories.
He challenged local designers to ‘design locally but think globally’. They must ensure the highest quality of finish for their garments and accessories to compete on the global market. The make-up of Alphadi’s models is very African with tribal face painting, natural hair and African accessories. He says he enjoys working with African tones of brown, indigo and lime. Referring to himself as ” a child and magician of the desert’, Alphadi employs traditional lines, forms, and colours of century-old desert peoples like the Bororo, Fulani, Hausa and Tuareg on one hand and European nations on the other, weaving these strands together in a unique inimitable style. He uses leather, silver and bronze, in combination with raw wool, linen and silk. Mustafa Hassanali, the only Tanzanian designer at Kenya Fashion Week for two years running, presented a 35-piece collection comprising haute couture evening gowns and formal attire. His collection, elementos mística (elements of mystique), consists of earthy hues that keep in touch with the elements of fire, water, wind and earth.
They are made from Tanzanian cotton and handwork, crochet and beadwork. The 23-year-old Hassanali, a final year medical student at the International Medical and Technological University (IMTU) in Dar es Salaam, said he had avoided glitter at the Nairobi event and that his collection was “for wild, feminine contemporary African women of Twenty-First Century: bold yet beautiful, sexy yet sassy. It is for independent-minded modern woman.”