The influence of African fashion and the wider acceptance of African fabrics and patterns in mainstream Western fashion is on the rise. The latest Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is keen to wear various traditional Nigerian garments on the world stage, and African designs and fabrics are making their way into high street collections.
There is a growing acceptance of unique prints and designs both in the West and in some African countries where there is said to be a preference for Western clothing. Here in Ireland, there is also a strong interest in these fabrics: we spoke to some of the people behind these African companies.
Umoja Linn (formerly Umoja Production)
This Afrocentric fashion brand was established in Galway in 2017 by friends Liswa McDonald and China Soribe. The couple were studying together in Galway and chose the name Umoja “because it means ‘Unity’ in Swahili, one of Africa’s oldest languages. The couple grew up with a love for fashion as Soribe’s aunt is a designer and McDonald’s mother is a jewelry designer in South Africa.
Introducing new audiences to African fashion and “making art out of it” was one of their goals in creating the e-commerce market. The pair allow creatives to sell their Afro-inspired work through Umoja Linn, and wanted to make their business inclusive “so people can wear it anywhere,” Soribe says.
Although there is a demand for African fabrics, people don’t know where to access them, so “we wanted to create an idea where people can go to one place and it’s there like ASOS, creating an ease of access,” says Soribe.
“African fashion has grown over the years,” says McDonald. “Young people and influencers are interested. We want to represent everyone.
“Empowerment and Unity” is a message behind their brand, as the Irish also buy their African prints. “We believe everyone should wear our clothes. There is a window between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. It would be pretty hypocritical of us to say, “You can’t wear it,” McDonald adds. “Umoja is more than selling and marketing. As Afro-Irish creatives [who use the site]they want to create a space where they can have those conversations and fit in.
“I’ve always been proud to wear African clothing,” says Soribe, but the traditional designs are often worn “at traditional events and weddings” and “incorporating it into everyday clothing can be difficult. Designers like Emmy Kasbit are rising to these challenges.
“Social networks have popularized [African designs]especially in Ireland, where growing up you didn’t see a lot of people of African descent,” says Soribe.
WTO’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala “may have felt uncomfortable at first, but for us young black women, it’s inspiring.” McDonald also feels inspired by Irish public figures “bringing it home”. “Cllr Yemi Adenuga probably walks into a room full of white men in suits, but she has her pride in standing out. With her boldness, other young boys and girls can be inspired.
Dubliner Florence Olufemi-Ojo is the founder of clothing brand MIO Prints, which she launched in 2017. She says she always wanted to have her own boss and wanted to create a business that would blend her heritage and her values.
The idea came to her when she stopped chemically straightening her Afro-textured hair and asked her cousin to send her a hair cap from Nigeria. Her cousin sent her six and she realized there was a gap in the market in Ireland.
She started selling beanies, then moved on to selling scarves, aprons, swimsuits and pajama sets, “something people can wear on a daily basis,” says Olufemi-Ojo.
Of the growing interest in African prints, she says, “People are interested in these unique designs. People take notice and it puts Africa on the map.
“Zara has started selling models with African prints and it’s also on the catwalks. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala [of the WTO] is proud to wear it.
“It’s great to see African prints on the catwalks, interpreted for their products. There is a difference between taking and representing people’s cultures. Recognize where it comes from, find out what tribe it is, ask the people who are from there about the materials and its tradition.
Olufemi-Ojo says that MIO Prints is a brand that designs outfits for everyone, “African prints are for everyone. Anyone can do with a little color. It’s a question of dialogue, of allowing people to embrace each other.
Scarf from €22.99; bathrobes from €55.
Emerald & Wax
This Irish brand creates handcrafted Afro-inspired clothing and accessories. Emerald & Wax prides itself on being a truly multicultural company. Founder Virtue Shine draws inspiration from her Ghanaian heritage, Japanese design and African fabrics to bring her pieces to life along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Originally from Ghana, Shine now lives in Galway with her family. She started the business with a passion for African wax prints that ignited when as a child she spent time in her grandmother’s African fabric wholesale warehouse in Accra.
She draws on this Ghanaian upbringing and love of color to bring what she describes as “wearable art” into people’s wardrobes.
Accessories from €24, kimonos from €159.99,
The African Shirt Company
Irish friends Joan Hughes and Lindi Campbell Clause, both art and design graduates, founded this company after a trip to the Mount Kasigau region in southwestern Kenya. Wanting to help improve the lives of the local people they met there, the couple set up The African Shirt Company to provide skills and jobs to locals, while encouraging a more sustainable way of life: income from the business of shirts reduce the need for locals to cut into the native forest to earn money.
You can find a collection of brightly colored African kanga shirts for men and women from €70 in sizes S to XL at theafricanshirtcompany.com
This creative demon
Nigerian Dubliner Morenike Ajayi works with materials from Ankara to create a dynamic range of accessories, including African-patterned hats, masks and socks. For collaboration and inquiries, you can contact Ajayi at [email protected] or you can purchase This Creative Fiend designs from the Umoja Linn website at umojalinn.com/store/thiscreativefiend/, where pricing begins at €12.50.
Fashion designer, entrepreneur and self-taught illustrator Ade Oluokun of Co Meath works with bright and colorful African fabrics and patterns. With her online store Flare by Airboney, she creates ceremonial and wedding outfits and designs dresses to order. Prices on request. For orders, find her on Instagram at @flarebyairboney and @airboneys_fashion.