Clothes Fashion

Out of Africa: Why Ethical African Fashion Is Hot

Ethical African fashion brands are disrupting our notions of what it means to be Made in Africa

By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

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: they’re disrupting the notion that Made in Africa means low wages and exploitation; in many cases, they’re preserving local artisanal techniques, fabrics and patterns, and 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

1. Maxhosa 

Xhosa culture is the inspiration behind MaXhosa by Laduma, and the South African brand founded in 2010 by Laduma Ngxokolo is very proud of its heritage.

Reinterpreting traditional Xhosa beadwork, patterns, symbolism and colours in both men’s and womenswear represents a further engagement in the dialogue that keeps pushing this very traditional South African culture and its style towards the future.

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2. Lemlem

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 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. A regular at Fashion Week Middle East, her designs possess timeless minimalist elegance, with a mix of contemporary sophistication, using the finest natural textiles such as silk and cotton, often embellished with semi precious stones.

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3. O’Eclat

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 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.

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5. Kipato Unbranded  

Kipato Unbranded was founded in 2015 and was so-named 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, whilst also giving them 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, such as brass, recycled bone and beads, to create simple and accessible products that scream empowerment.

Ethical African Fashion Brands

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.

Despite her lack of formal training in fashion design,  Folawiyo’s styles have captured the attention of several publications such as The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, BBC, MTV, and of course, Eluxe! The brand has also been well received and worn by stars such as Lucy Liu, Thandie Newton and Solange Knowles, and has recently collaborated with L’Oreal.

7. SAKINA M’SA

Born in Comoros, Sakina M’Sa’s innate interest in fashion took her, inevitably, to France, where 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, including winning Kering Foundation’s 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 dead stock from the very finest of Kering’s brands, including Saint Laurent and Gucci.

Ethical African Fashion Brands

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.

Ethical African Fashion Brands

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9. Adubea Jensen

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, mono-chromatic 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 socially responsible brand aims to preserve Ghanaian beading craftsmanship to create intricate, detailed handbags to suit every demographic.

10. Kaleidoscope Beauty

Kijani’ welcomes Kaleidoscope Beauty’s first earring collection – the stunning 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, faced with 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, which in turn creates job opportunities for them and a sustainable source of income,” says Umutoni Thuku-Benzinge, Founder of Kaleidoscope Beauty. 

Set to go live soon, all new items can be  purchased directly here. 

11. SHWE: The Wearable Library

Forget dusty books and library cards, SHWE is the brand reinventing the term library – by making stories ‘wearable’! What if your dress, jacket, or cardigan could speak? What if they could tell you the stories they were privy to in the places they were made? What if you could ‘meet’ the people who made them? “Shwe: The Wearable Library” is an online fashion shop based in Durban, South Africa.

The concept of their clothing telling ‘stories’ originated from the idea that knitting and sewing circles are sacred spaces to not only learn valuable skills, but to also share stories. Working with extraordinary women who have survived extraordinary odds, SHWE is opening up the conversation and giving a voice to the women making these garments. Want to hear a sartorial story? Visit their website!

Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Jacqueline Shaw
    Feb 17, 2020 at 11:30 pm

    Great feature
    You may be interested in the pioneering one been doing with my book Fashion Africa and sourcing trips Fashion Africa Sourcing Trips taking brands to meet the artisans in afri a. Happy to share more if interested get in touch

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