Fashion’s persistent quest for what is new and avant-garde has found a new brand to promote worldwide – Africa.
L’Uomo Vogue (Vogue Italia) took an unprecedented sartorial risk by dedicating its entire May issue to emerging African fashion, politics, and culture an installment editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani entitled “Rebranding Africa.”
The New York Times’ highly respected Fashion & Style section heralded fashion’s latest innovation by declaring, “Africa is in the news — but not just for the sad and familiar reasons of conflict and suffering.” A line so apropos it seems as if it was plucked directly from Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay "How to Write about Africa".
The production of an all-African issue by a major European style magazine represented a move so bold; none other was fit to grace its front page than the illustrious cover model United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
Yet the South Korean UN leader represents gave more than a haute face and a fierce pose, he graced the magazine with his likeness and a message.
“Africa does not need charity — Africa needs investment and partnership,” said Mr. Ban. “Joining forces with civil society and private sector, including non-traditional players, like the fashion industry, has become indispensable.”
The merger of fashion and development, though at first glance an odd pairing, is one Vogue Italia editor Sozzani shares a passion for as evidenced in her position as the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Fashion4Development.
This “rebranding” of Africa isn’t merely a few changes to Africa’s résumé, it is terminology Ms. Sozzani borrowed the term from Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck.
Revitalizing Africa’s image through slick marketing campaigns has been a recent phenomenon and recurring meme to those believing the continent is need of refashioning its global perception. And though the debate over rebranding Africa to show its natural beauty and assets while hiding its “flaws” has polarized many Africans throughout the diaspora, several makeover attempts have come and gone.
Singer and humanitarian Bono lent his international celebrity to the ONE campaign offering a facelift to African visage in 2009. And the following year businesspeople united for the now defunct Africa 2.0 Initiative, one that was to propel 2010 as the year of Africa’s public relations and marketing triumph.
Now 2012 brings another incarnation of the African brand in a more fashionable form.
“The continent is entering the fashion arena, with the quality of its handwork, artistic creativity and its potential for economic growth bringing Africa literally in vogue,” boasts the New York Times.
Indeed it is. So much so that African influence in fashion was felt even decades before Vogue Italia’s “Rebranding Africa” issue with African prints and motifs walking the runways of number of major design houses like Vivienne Westwood, Burberry, Michael Kors, and Oscar de la Renta.
In fact, the African fashion industry has remarkably managed to hold its own events such as Swahili Fashion Week, honor and award the continent’s top designers, and produce its own style publications like ARISE magazine outside the media spotlight and before the European stamp of approval to the African brand.
Though the recognition by fashion’s bible, Vogue Magazine opens doors for Africa’s established and emerging designers like Kofi Ansah in Ghana, Jewel By Lisa in Lagos and Marianne Fassler in Johannesburg, for those with a more suspicious eye, it begs the question – why now?
Vogue Italia, known for setting trends, has continuously demonstrated its enthusiasm in the celebration of Black beauty with its memorable all Black editorials for which it went “dark” for the summers of 2008 and 2011. L’Uomo Vogue even more recently paid homage to the more… let’s say 'eccentric' styles of black women in its pictorial Haute Mess, which coincidentally preceded the “Rebranding Africa” issue in March of this year.
So, again, why now? Well, with two celebrated Black issues and a parody artistic take on the Black women’s self-expression the time to rebrand, restyle, re-imagine Africa could not be more perfect.
After all, fashion, for all its pomp, circumstance, beading, drama artistry and beauty is also a business. A global business left vulnerable to the ups and downs of the international market recession, the changing tastes of its consumers, and driven by capitalist voracity to enter into new and emerging markets for profit.
Former UN Secretary-General, the Ghanian Kofi Annan once stated, "Africa's profitability is one of the best kept secrets in today's world economy." Vogue Italia’s “Rebranding Africa” issue proves that the African continent’s profitability no longer remains a secret.
As the fashion industry remains poised to benefit from Africa’s brand, one consisting of many cultures, traditions, languages, textiles, metals, beading, and prints born by the strength of 1 billion people, it signals to the world that Africa’s new image is now (finally) fit for Western consumption.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora. You can follow her on Twitter and engage with HUE, LLC.