Ken Kweku Nimo is a fashion researcher based in Cape Coast, Ghana. His recently published book, Africa in Fashion, aims to document, archive and explore fashion designers, textiles, brands, techniques and businesses across the continent.
Nimo has been immersed in the fashion industry for several years and recently gained, with distinction, a master’s degree at the University of Johannesburg. His myriad experiences within design, business and academia, and his subsequent discovery of the lack of resources documenting the industry, led to this book.
Africa in Fashion recounts African fashion histories and developments, and looks at contemporary trends through the lenses of globalisation, colonisation, decolonisation and culture. The coffee-table book narrates a rich and bustling industry, showcasing an oft-ignored or misrepresented side of the continent’s fashion developments and movements, alongside gorgeous images.
The book was launched earlier this month at the Melrose Gallery, where Nimo was joined by LVMH Karl Lagerfeld prize winner Lukhanyo Mdingi and Zanele Morrison in a panel on the business side of fashion and upcoming trends, opportunities and challenges.
How did your book come about?
My research started in late 2017 when I had finished my honours dissertation that explored the operational environment of SA luxury fashion brands. I struggled to get materials and research during my dissertation, and through my research, I noticed that I had created a significant resource of interviews and data, a lot of which could not make it into the dissertation. I felt that it was just incredible, these prolific resources that I had available had to be reconstructed into something that could archive the words and works of these designers.
There are many other books on African fashion, but most treat the topic either theoretically or through philosophies and aesthetics. This book has given me the opportunity to treat the African fashion industry through the phenomenon of business and economics.
It was important that I put this together as a resource of African fashion from a business perspective that others could benefit from.
Why did you decide to cover these business aspects?
It was imperative that I chose this route; I noticed that a lot of designers struggle with the business side of their brands. Fashion is a creative industry, it’s a space, especially on this continent, where people do not pursue it further than the creative aspect of it. We have not been able to tap the economic potential, it’s potential to transform the local economies. I looked at it from that perspective to help, not just the designers themselves see the importance of what they’re doing and the ramifications and the transformation of the economies, but also to bring the potential of this industry to the attention of policymakers, stakeholders and investors.
I explore the potential of Africa as a hub for the manufacture of high-end goods and luxury fashion and how they could transform our economies.
Your book focuses on vectors of African fashion rather than chronological order, why?
First, it is quite difficult to trace the history of African fashion chronically. Our history has always been kept through folklore or through oral history and it’s handed down through generations. Across the continent, around the 15th, 16th and into the 18th century, when European explorers, missionaries and traders began documenting our histories and our material culture and going way back into the 12th, 13th, 14th century, where we had scribes and intellectual people documenting culture and trade; that information is almost impossible to access.
With the available resources, it’s very difficult to construct, differentiate and define era to era. Instead of the tough task of hacking together a chronological order, I focused on the vectors that have shaped the transformation and evolution of African fashion. Bear in mind that these are not the only factors that have influenced the phenomenon, but, of course, they tend to be the most prominent in terms of directly influencing how fashion has evolved in the centuries before and in contemporary times.
What is shaping contemporary African fashion?
One of the strongest influences is obviously the media. The advent of social media and the internet has catalysed the potential and power of globalisation. We have access to information that previously was not readily accessible.
Couture, for example, was reserved for the privileged, a select few would be flown to the fashion capitals of the world. However, today you can see these collections on IG or YouTube; all of a sudden, we have unprecedented access to what was previously inaccessible. The value chain of fashion has also changed, an aspect of globalisation, fashion production can mean a label is made in China, materials sourced in Japan.
Africa should be the anchor when it comes to sustainability, even more so when it’s the last frontier of productionKen Kweku
Suddenly we are in a whole different world where the designers have so much power. They have almost unlimited access to inspiration when it comes to media and unlimited access to creativity. Yet, the challenges still remain, especially in Africa, where the access to resources and capital that are able to propel these brands into strong brands is lacking.
What trends and designers did you focus on?
The design world is quite precarious, and it’s tough to look into the crystal ball. Through this book, I focus on mainly established designers. I rather anchor my predictions on brands that have been here for a while and will be because the industry is so fast, it’s constantly in flux, a designer will pop up and before, you know, is nowhere to be found. Fashion is always after the next, and I get it, that’s where the excitement is and the media also contributes to that.
Fashion is what is in Vogue. Yet, we also need to look at brands that are already doing so well, so that they are an inspiration to the next, who often have a lot of work to do before emerging on the global stage. When they do, they must be prepared to take on the responsibility. A lot of designers have come out with incredible aesthetics to worldwide acclaim, and then they get incredible unprecedented exposure and then are overwhelmed and harmed by not having an reliable supply chain to fulfil the demand.
I was very particular about making sure that the book has longevity. If anybody picked up the book 10 years from now, they should still see these designers working and strong.
Tell me more about sustainability and luxury in the global context?
Within the African context, sustainability is evident in our considered approach to production. We tend to be more orientated towards craftsmanship, production and materials that evoke the touch of the human hand, perhaps, due to the fact that we are not as industrialised as other parts of the world.
Since the turn of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution and the development of the global luxury economy have revealed many big brands producing across the world using practices that are inhumane.
Africa is lucky to not be as industrialised. We can practice the tenets that used to qualify what was truly luxurious before. And then another element, of course, is the materials we use, the fact that our designers do not have access to certain kinds of materials. They have to be invented, our limitations make us innovative. In the end, we create some of the most beautiful products. SA is a premier source of mohair for the global luxury economy. There is a whole institution that has been set up to regulate the production and make sure that it is of extreme quality to packable quality, but, more importantly, that it is not harmful to the environment and also to the animals.
Africa should be the anchor when it comes to sustainability, even more so when it’s the last frontier of production. I believe that we have the opportunity to learn from all of the lapses and mistakes of the other continents, and to make sure that we do not repeat them when it comes to labour practices or sustainability. We are contributing in a very relevant manner to the conversation of luxury.