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 workshop and pay 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. Le Dessein
Eric Coley is a sweet, smart, hardworking man who is proud of the fact that his mama helped shape who he is today. In her native Dakar, Senegal, there was little by way of education for girls. But she emphasised that all of her children, male and female, would be educated to the highest degree. Eric became an investment banker, but was also influenced by his mom’s fascination with fashion. Eventually, he was able to combine the two with Le Dessein.
Today, the Los Angeles based brand makes its connection to the continent with its focus on the goal of empowering women in African communities. The vision was “Fashion as an opportunity,” and so the label’s primary objective is to provide customers with stunning pieces of clothing that allow young women in developing nations to lift their communities out of poverty through education and job skills. For this reason Le Dessin donates 25% of its profits to girls’ school tuition in Liberia other countries via the More Than Me Academy.
See more about that here.
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.
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