Where To Find The Coolest African Designers Online

Photo courtesy of Lisa Folawiyo
Fashion has a diversity problem. Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton's menswear designer, is only the third Black man to hold a leading position at a major French house. The prestigious Woolmark Prize, a celebration of global fashion talent founded in 1953, only just this year opened up the applications to African designers. While progress is being made – there's been a 2.3% increase in model diversity at fashion month since last year – there's still a long way to go.
One brand looking to spotlight less well represented voices (and visions) in fashion is Industrie Africa. Founded by Nisha Kanabar, who is from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Georgia Bobley, a native New Yorker, the site acts as a platform to connect African designers with a global audience. With everything from biographies and contact information to lookbooks and shoppable links, Industrie
Africa hosts brands hailing from 23 countries, covering ready-to-wear, accessories, footwear and jewellery. Refinery29 caught up with Nisha and Georgia about their one-stop shop for leading and emerging African fashion talent, the brands we should be adding to our wardrobes now, and how diversity can be better represented in the global fashion industry.
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Hey Nisha and Georgia! You both have impressive careers – tell me how you first met?
We met in Dubai three years ago. We were both working for a digital media company which, at the time, published Style.com/Arabia and PopSugar Middle East. We met when Georgia moved from New York to Dubai to help launch PopSugar Middle East, and Nisha was helming commercial partnerships between both titles.
From there, how did you first come up with the concept of Industrie Africa?
It was Nisha’s move back to Tanzania in 2016 that was the driving force behind Industrie Africa. After nearly a decade abroad, her return home triggered questions about the disconnect in the continent’s fashion ecosystem: on one hand, you’re faced with an overwhelming amount of information and talent; on the other, there’s a distinct lack of clarity on how to approach it. From the perspective of an industry insider, a consumer and an African, the dots just didn’t connect. After a conversation with Georgia, we found ourselves asking: where’s the starting point?
How do you connect with African designers?
Selecting and searching for designers was an incredibly important part of the process and we placed a lot of emphasis on being as thorough as possible. We used different ways to make sure we were reaching every corner of the continent, and not just curating from a readily accessible pool of brands. From basic internet searches, to asking our existing networks of designers, influencers and friends for recommendations, to yes, travelling to explore this firsthand, we spent the past year exhausting every avenue to ensure a strong starting point for Industrie Africa. We’re so excited to continue exploring different creative scenes across the continent — scouting every country on the continent is definitely on our to-do list.
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What do you think Western and other global consumers have to learn about the African fashion scene?
Every few years, an influx of media coverage deems African fashion a hot topic. These moments come in waves that are often triggered by a pop culture event – this year it was Black Panther. What people need to realize is that fashion from Africa is more than just a 'trend' derived from tribal or indigenous detailing — a wax print, or some Maasai beading. The contemporary design scene here is a powerfully burgeoning industry, and there’s an incredible amount of talent and diversity that people just don’t see. African fashion, in truth, has something incredibly unique to offer: in tandem with global seasonal trends, designers really put a focus on their own heritage and their own traditions. There’s a sense of patriotism that they carry with them and that story translates into their designs.
Which designers are you most excited by right now?
A few of our current favourites are Ami Doshi Shah, the Indian-Kenyan designer of I AM I. With a passion for nature – she sources all her materials and stones locally, and has a rough, eclectic sensibility and a strikingly unusual sense of design.
AAKS, based in Ghana, is a brand that is quickly catching the eyes of many retailers. It produces accessories that are handcrafted using traditional weaving techniques from the designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi’s own village. The result is bright raffia bags in chic, modern silhouettes.
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Lastly, the eponymous label led by Nigerian mainstay Lisa Folawiyo manipulates traditional west African fabrics with cutting-edge silhouettes, application and tailoring; each one of her looks tells a unique story. Particular garments boast a handcrafted and unique history and feature hand-embellished details that reflect the brand’s focus on design integrity.
Sustainability is at the forefront of the conversation in fashion right now – what does it look like for African brands?
We require the brands on our site that are marked as sustainable be at least two out of the five pillars of our sustainability guidelines: responsible, ethical, artisanal, recycled and charitable.
The relationship between sustainable practices in Africa is different to fashion’s relationship with sustainability as a whole – largely because it’s very much a part of the DNA of many African-born brands; part of their inherent fabric, an integrated value. Whether it’s reinterpreting traditional crafts (Tanzania’s Sidai Designs); employing local artisans (Malawi’s Mayamiko); or repurposing materials in response to social, political and environmental issues (Mali’s Xuly.Bet), it’s been wonderful to see how many of the designers are working towards bettering the future, while preserving the past.
How can we support and shine a light on African designers to make the industry more global – rather than just Western-looking?
Ultimately, it’s really about evolving a fashion ecosystem to adapt to increased international inclusivity, allowing for emerging brands and markets to penetrate an industry that revolves around the fashion mainstays and their capitals. It’s about older institutions encouraging and supporting diverse talent — offering them the platforms to soar, with the resources that the Western fashion industry has. A great deal of why this has been a slower burn traditionally is due to limited exposure and perception. I mean, it was only this year that the Woolmark Prize opened up to African designers, and we got our first nominee!
Through Industrie Africa, we hope to contribute heavily to this conversation. To help make Africa — a market that has often been overlooked and has lacked traction in a global context – a bigger and more seamless part of the overall fashion narrative; to facilitate and accelerate the conversation between global stakeholders and Africa’s fashion designers. This will hopefully, in turn, perpetuate demand and real follow-through. We want to see a greater and more diverse representation of the region’s designers on racks, in magazines, in closets — more regional support to flesh out Africa’s fashion ecosystem — and we hope this process can start with us.
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