Ethical African fashion brands are disrupting our notions of what it means to be Made in Africa
Have no doubt: ethical African fashion brands are on the rise. If ‘ethnic chic’ in all the high streets or celebs like Beyonce going mad about Stella Jean’s creative use of colour isn’t enough to convince you, just consider the success of “Constellation Africa,” the runway show at Pitti Uomo 88 promoted by the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, which created more of a buzz than anything else at the high profile event.
We love ethical African fashion brands for many reasons:. One, they’re disrupting the notion that Made in Africa means low wages and exploitation. Two: in many cases, they’re preserving local artisanal techniques, fabrics and patterns. And thirdly, they also tend to use traditional (and less toxic) fibres and dyes.
Here, we’ve picked a few ethical African fashion brands and designers from all over the continent whose work – and ethos – we truly admire.
Our Favourite Ethical African Fashion Brands
Xhosa culture is the inspiration behind MaXhosa by Laduma, and the South African brand founded in 2010 by Laduma Ngxokolo. This is one of those ethical African fashion brands that is very proud of its heritage!
It shows this by reinterpreting traditional Xhosa beadwork, patterns, symbolism and colours in both men’s and womenswear. Such work represents a further engagement in the dialogue that keeps pushing this very traditional South African culture and its style towards the future.
Ethiopian model-turned-designer Liya Kebede founded this ethical African fashion brand as a way to preserve the centuries-old weaving techniques of her native country, whilst creating jobs for local artisans at the same time. The label handcrafts its resortwear from locally sourced, non-GMO cotton that’s detailed with vibrant embroidery.
Great ethics and natural materials? No wonder this is one of the most loved ethical African fashion brands by celebrities. Both Leandra Medine and Eva Chen are both fans of these breezy gauze dresses and kaftans.
3. Sophie Zinga
Sophie Nzinga Sy, who attended the prestigious Parsons design school, has created a brand where she can fully express her Senegalese roots and her international travels.
One of the few ethical African fashion brands that has become a regular at Fashion Week Middle East, Zinga’s designs possess timeless minimalist elegance, with a mix of contemporary sophistication. She uses only the finest natural textiles such as silk and cotton, often embellished with semi precious stones.
I couldn’t make a list of ethical African fashion brands without including accessories!
O’Eclat Designs is a Nigerian fashion and home accessories label birthed in 2010 by Gbemmy Johnson, which locally produces unique socially-conscious fashion and home accessories. Rich African prints and indigenous hand-woven fabric mixed with a contemporary edge are in every item, from notepads to key wallets, purses, belts, cardholders, handbags, clutches, or slippers.
Like many sustainable African fashion brands, O’Eclat employs young skilled artisans and local weavers within the country who are unemployed and unable to set up their workshop due to inadequate funds by providing work-friendly workshops and paying them wages to ensure they are financially stable and also attract other artisans to the industry.
Ethical African fashion brands should include jewellery, too!
Kipato Unbranded was founded in 2015. It was so-named ‘unbranded’ because of their resolve to create jewellery by everyday people, for everyday people. This is a social enterprise that works alongside local jewellery makers and gives them the tools to target a much larger market. The brand also gives their artisans a 50% share in any profits made, whether locally or internationally.
All designs are kept as simple as possible and focus on the use of natural materials. These could include brass, recycled bone and beads. They all combine to create simple and accessible products that scream ’empowerment’.
6. Lisa Folawiyo
Specialising in the art of the West African fabric, Ankara, Lisa Folawiyo of the label Jewel by Lisa is proud that she’s made the traditional textiles of her native Nigeria a must-have luxury item . Each of her garments boasts handcrafted construction, intricate beading and fine tailoring. All of this handiwork is done by fairly paid female artisans in Nigeria.
Despite her lack of formal training in fashion design, Folawiyo’s styles have captured the attention of several large publications. Hers is one of the few ethical African fashion brands to be featured in The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and of course, Eluxe! The brand has also been well received and worn by stars such as Lucy Liu, Thandie Newton and Solange Knowles.
7. SAKINA M’SA
Born in Comoros, Sakina M’Sa’s innate interest in fashion took her, inevitably, to France. Here she studied fashion in Marseilles at the Institut Superieur de Mode. Soon after, she launched the brand that takes her name, and she’s been receiving accolades ever since. These include winning Kering Foundation’s prestigious Social Entrepreneur Award in 2010.
Today, she is based in Paris and has dedicated her atelier to training and employing women in need of work skills and economic advancement. She does this, she says, to encourage “the ecosystem of fashion”. And speaking of ‘eco’, today this designer creates her line from mainly deadstock fabric. But this isn’t just any deadstock – it’s from the very finest of Kering’s brands, including the likes of Saint Laurent and Gucci.
8. Margaux Wong
Believing that creativity and the natural environment are a team that thrives by joining forces and working together, Margaux Wong is an ethical jewellery brand that diverts East Africa’s precious materials from ending up as waste, instead transforming it into statement, wearable art pieces.
Originally from Guyana, founder Margaux Rusita was raised on low waste Amazonian values. For example, this is illustrated in how she was taught to use a coconut: You drink the refreshing coconut water from its shell, eat the crunchy flesh, use its husk to scrub pots and then turn its shell into utensils and accessories.
This same approach is the ethos upon which the brand was built. Partnering with local artisans, the brand focuses on locally sourced, sustainable materials including cow horn, brass and a selection of ethically sourced materials. They reduce waste while preserving traditional craft in the process, honouring nature with the care and respect she deserves.
Janet Oddoye, the creative director of Ghana based label Adubea Jensen, makes timeless handbags that inject joy into the lives of all who carry them.
Characterised by earthy colours, monochromatic mixes and distinct check patterns, these delicately beaded bags are complemented by wooden handles and detachable gold or silver chains. Each handbag can take up to 50 hours to make, and is adorned with a signature, metal name badge and a dog tag to authenticate it.
This is another one of the most socially responsible ethical African fashion brands. By employing local women, they aim to preserve Ghanaian beading craftsmanship to create intricate, detailed handbags to suit every demographic.
Kaleidoscope Beauty is one of the most stunning ethical African fashion brands! Their first earring collection features gorgeous brass pieces are sure to catch any onlookers attention in the best possible way. Reflective of the modern day woman, these pieces are bold, elegant and impactful in more ways than one.
“Kaleidoscope Beauty’s mission is to empower the disenfranchised, with particular focus on the youth. Our Sub-Saharan African artisans are talented young men and women. But they face the burden of multi-generational poverty, lack of sanitation and the harsh realities of life in the slums. Given the right tools, and an opportunity for a career, the artisans are trained in beadwork and brass-work. This in turn creates job opportunities for them and a sustainable source of income,” says Umutoni Thuku-Benzinge, Founder of Kaleidoscope Beauty.
11. SEKBI Bogolan
With their splashy colours and bold patterns, African prints can be hard for many to wear. They feel they may stand out too much or worse, may feel they’re wearing a ‘costume.’
Luckily, SEKBI Bogolan offers chic and stylish ways of incorporating African prints into your closet. And this is also one of the most sustainable and ethical African fashion brands, too!
They start out by creating only small batches of their collections by taking pre-orders, ensuring there’s less waste. They also ensure their brand is sustainable by offering certifications to validate their fully transparent production methods.
And finally, we love how they’ve reinterpreted the ancient Bogolan method of printmaking, which involves using clay to draw graphic patterns on cotton cloth. By updating the way these prints are used, they also preserve a longstanding West African textile tradition.
12. Hamaji Studio
With a name that translates to ‘nomad’ in coastal Swahili, this slow fashion brand is dedicated to preserving ancient textile traditions and nomadic craftsmanship, all while empowering small-scale artisans in Africa.
The luxury ethical bohemian label is focused on conscious consumerism, made in the foothills of Mount Kenya Hamaji, with their collections composed of natural fibers, botanical dyes, embroidery and up-cycled vintage textiles. The brand supports local artisan families throughout Africa, focusing on female empowerment in rural Kenya.
The style of Hamaji embodies the very essence of nomadic femininity. The garments are made with neutral hues, free-flowing silhouettes and ooze effortless elegance.
The inspiration behind Suave Kenya is Gikomba, the largest open-air flea market in East Africa. The market is alive with clothing brought to seek a new life or to devastatingly end up in landfills. And one thing this brand hates is landfills!
Suave turns those garments that would otherwise pollute our planet, transforming them into trendy, upcycled bags. Denim is always their first choice, but they experiment with a whole array of fabrics. From silk shirts to leather jackets, if it’s interesting and has a story, Suave will find a use for it.
Jiamini is an ethical accessories brand that is turning tragedy into triumph. As a means of giving back to the Kenyan women who kept her afloat after the death of her husband, mother of four Jennifer Mulli launched Jiamini.
The history of beading runs deep in Kenyan history, with every community in East Africa passing down beadwork from generation to generation. The style varies from different regions, defined by patterns, colours and materials.
Jiamini’s jewellery and accessories help to conserve these ancient traditions of beadwork, using this as a means of uplifting women from disadvantaged communities. Giving them an opportunity to improve their lives, Jiamini workshops are a lifeline for many artisans with decades of training, many of whom have lived in poverty before now. Jiamini allows them to use this craft to create wearable pieces of art that is bold, sculptural, and sophisticated.