From Ghana to Niger and beyond, fashion in Africa is a performance art, a showcase for the work of traditional master artisans, and a spectator sport. Fashion is increasingly recognized as a significant component of the cultural, social, economic, and even political expression of contemporary life around the world.
The occupations and industries that support African fashion are typically grounded in the traditional knowledge, histories, artistry, and skills of local communities. As a community‐centered cultural heritage enterprise, fashion provides opportunities for people to identify and appreciate the handmade.
Crafts of African Fashion is an initiative promoting the continuity of heritage arts in Africa, exploring the important role cultural enterprises play in sustaining communities and connecting generations on the continent and throughout the diaspora.
At the 2018 Folklife Festival Marketplace, the National Museum of African Art, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we featured demonstrations, workshops, a short film series, and other activities. Visitors learned how textile and adornment artists—weavers, dyers, leather workers, designers—contribute their knowledge, values, skills, and local aesthetics to contemporary global fashion while sustaining time-honored traditions.
Chapuchi Bobbo Ahiagble is a master weaver from Denu, Ghana. He grew up among Ewe weavers and apprenticed with his father, Gilbert “Bobbo” Ahiagble and his uncles near the town of Agbozume, the largest market for Ewe kente cloth in the world.
Ahiagble traveled to the United States in 2002 for a two-month educational tour; he lectured and demonstrated at the Oakland Museum of California, Skidmore College in New York, the Detroit Museum of Art, and thirty public schools in the Washington, D.C., area. He continues the ancient and traditional art form of Ewe weaving in the United States through educational lectures, demonstrations, and workshops with K-12 students and teachers.
Kwasi Asare is one of the Africa’s most prominent and accomplished weavers. He is best known for kente cloth, the highly prized Ghanaian textile that has traditionally symbolized royalty, honor, and leadership.
Asare was born in 1963 in a village called Apirede in Akwapim, about eleven miles from Ghana’s capital, Accra. He felt destined to follow in the footsteps of his late father, A.E. Asare, who established Dento Mills, a kente weaving center in Nsawam during the 1950s.
When Ghana’s first president, the great African independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, first met the elder Asare and saw his kente work, he was deeply impressed. For his most important political and ceremonial events, Nkrumah always turned to A.E. Asare to create a special kente cloth to embody the spirit of the occasion. In October 1962, at the height of the African independence movement, he arranged for A.E. Asare to create a special kente cloth to adorn the United Nations headquarters building in New York City.
Inspired by traditional Cameroonian garments, West African fabric and New York’s vibrant fashion scene, Kibonen delved into the fashion world with ingenious ideas of producing modern interpretations of one of the most delicate and intricate hand woven traditional garments of Cameroon western highlands region, the toghu.
Kibonen formed a label, Kibonen NY, and was nominated for Africa Fashion International's Emerging Designer award in 2013. Her work has been featured at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Vogue Italia, Humans of New York, as well as in international media. Her designs have been work by Lupita Nyong’o and Gayle King.
To further fine-tune her fashion skills, Kibonen recently graduated from The Art Institute of New York City, where she learned how to narrow down her research process and better interpret design inspiration. “I learned how to give life to my inspirations, put my ideas down on paper, interact with the right audience and market my products,” Kibonen explains. “I learned how to take fashion to the next level.”
Kibonen also organized a fair trade garment manufacturing plant, Made In Camer, in Bamenda, Cameroon. The goal for Made In Camer is to collaborate with the biggest fashion houses in need of an ethical sourcing throughout the world in order to continuously provide jobs for the workers as well as improve their lives, empower them, and alleviate poverty.
Soumana Saley was born in a small village called Maridoumba/Filingue in the West African country of Niger. When he was eleven, he moved with his family to Niamey, Niger’s capital city. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artisan.
Upon moving to Niamey, Saley discovered the Centre des Métiers d’Art (CMAN), a cooperative of local artisans who work with many different mediums. A master leather craftsman named Amadou took Saley on as his apprentice, training him over the next seven years in the classic French technique. Upon completion of the apprenticeship, Saley was awarded master artisan status.
Saley traveled throughout West Africa throughout the 1990s, continuing to practice the trade he had mastered. When he returned to Niamey, he befriended the leading African designer, the “Magician of the Desert,” Alphadi. In 1998, Alphadi commissioned Saley to create the handbags for his first FIMA (International Festival of African Fashion) show. With this new attention, he traveled throughout Europe participating in trade shows and furthering his career. He moved to the United States in 2008 and now resides and runs his own business in Pennsylvania.
In 2015, Saley formed a nonprofit organization in Niger called ONG DIMA. His vision is to preserve the art of Niger and provide a means of basic education and advanced training to young artisans who are eager to master their skill. ONG DIMA will offer apprenticeship and journeyman programs to the youth in the surrounding communities of Niamey. The organizations currently has around fifty students enrolled in the apprenticeship program.
Cynthia Sands has spent years experiencing the day-to-day cultural, social, political, and economic realities of life in Zaire, Uganda, Morocco, Egypt, Ghana, and Guyana. This exposure led her to study designs and symbols on textiles as a visual portrayal of the way indigenous African people express themselves. Thus, she calls textiles the “indigenous newspaper”—a visual record and organic methodology that preserves traditional art forms.
Sands’ art career includes the creation of new ways to apply dye and color, as well as ways to utilize and experiment with how to blend together contemporary and original African artistic methods and materials to get unique results. She works closely with artisans, such as adinkra artist Tei Kofi Nartey. She has also conducted trainings and launched apprenticeships in Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, and Guyana. She is committed to sustaining the use of indigenous artistic applications for social development, income generation, skills-transfer, and art education.
Brenda Winstead has traveled throughout West Africa, gaining inspiration for her collection of clothing for women and men. Her Damali (“beautiful vision”) collection has been her focus for the past twenty-six years, using African designs and textiles as the base. The designs are simple and timeless, but the fabric is complex.
Winstead uses fabrics that are hand-painted, hand-woven, or hand-dyed. She combines traditional textiles like assoke, kuba bogolan, adinkra, and kente with contemporary lines, silks, and tapestries, in an asymmetric style similar to collages or quilts. The finished design is embellished with her distinctive trademark embroidery.
Through her travels, she has been able to collaborate with dyers and weavers, finding new ways to fuse fabrics from different cultures. “I hope the spirits of these great cultures will blend and empower those who wear my garments,” she says.
Visitors met artisans and designers from Ghana, Niger, and the African diaspora as they led daily presentations and activities.
The film Black Panther represented emerging global African identities by using Ghanaian adinkra, kente, and other textiles in the costumes. Visitors joined a conversation with masters of design and textile arts and explored the role of heritage in fashion. Many participants wore “Wakandan” best!
From haute couture designers to pop culture fashion houses to the streets of Soweto, visitors took a journey through the creativity and style influenced by the African continent. We explored the current state and future of African fashion through a series of short films and a panel discussion with local, national, and international designers. Register for free online.