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4 VETERANS AND PIONEERS OF THE AFRICAN FASHION

By October 7, 2023No Comments

4 VETERANS AND PIONEERS OF THE AFRICAN FASHION
The mud cloth of the Sanufo tribe was the very first textile material, that the Europeans came in contact with. Before they moved to this continent, they believed that Africans were just a species of monkeys that moved naked, and picked things from the floor to eat. They believed that these lacked creativity, art, and culture. How wrong were they, for the continent was filled with a people, whose diversity was not just in their languages and accent, but also in their choice of clothing, and fashion sense. They came in contact with the taffeta, the Ankara, the kente, the bongolanfini, Aso Oke, and many more textile marvels. But not only that, they met pioneers who brought these pieces to life, as they created different astonishing ensembles, that showed the rest of the world how creative Africans can be. This article is a tribute to these founding fathers and mothers, who through their creativity, have created a rock to which the new generation of artists stands. This article will introduce you to four pioneers of African fashion, and how their creativity has shaped the African industry.

1. SHADE THOMAS-FAHM

Victoria Omọ́rọ́níkẹ Àdùkẹ́ Fọlashadé Thomas later known professionally as Shade Thomas is known as the first Nigerian modern fashion designer, and pioneer of African textile and fashion. Shade was born on September 22 1933 to the Bankole Ayorinde family. She attended St. Peter’s School, Faaji, Baptist Girls’ School Araromi, and later New Era Girls’ College, both in Lagos Nigeria. On turning 20 years of age, in 1953, Shade moved to England to study to be a nurse, but instead fell in love with the world of art and fashion. In no time, Shade Thomas-Fahm changed path and studied fashion at St Martin’s School of Art (now Central Saint Martins) in London. According to her, she wanted to learn all she could and bring about this knowledge to Nigeria. She wanted to create job opportunities for her people but then it was hard to convince people to see what she saw. Many only wanted to dress in British attire and it was against her concept and ideas, but all that changed after Nigeria’s Independence in 1960.

After the Independence of the country, the Nigerian people felt a new need to embrace their own culture and forgo the British way of dressing. They felt a new kind of freedom and needed to express it, and they did that with fashion. Fashion became fundamental to the decolonization of minds. Many turned to clothes to express their newfound freedoms, wearing local fabrics, their Agbada and Iro but they still wanted it to be modern. That was when Shade stepped in. Shade Thomas-Fahm transformed the local textiles and clothes at her disposal into modern contemporary styles. She specialized in the use of locally woven and dyed textiles to make her ensembles that became known in Nigeria and around the world. Her boutique swiftly became the go-to place for stylish people in Lagos and she counted diplomats and royalty among her regular customers. Often using aṣọ-òkè, àdirẹ, akwete, and okene in her designs. She added zippers to her Iro and effectively transformed iro and buba into a wrapper skirt, and the creation of the ‘ajuba now popularly known as the ‘boubou’ was created by her, and was gotten from men’s agbada. Shade’s innovative ideas and resilience in changing the narrative of African clothing was the spark that brought about the powerful flames of designers such as Abah Folawiyo, Betti O, Folorunsho Alakija, and Nike Okundaye,

Kofi Ansah2. KOFI ANSAH

Kofi Ansah was born on the 6th of July 1951 into an ingenious family. His father was a classical musician, and also a photographer. He loved his son, and deeply supported Kofi to pursue art and do what he loved. To that end, Kofi Ansah studied Fashion design and technology, at the Chelsea School of Art, and in the year 1979, graduated with a first-class honours degree in fashion and a distinction in design technology. Kofi Ansah continued to flourish as he worked in the UK fashion scenes. He made headlines with his work, for instance, he once made a beaded top for Princess Anne, and he continued until 1992 when he returned to Ghana to set up and run his own successful design company, Artdress. Kofi had his work cut out for him, but he did not relent. To him, fashion was art, and goes beyond just what you put on. Through his work, Kofi Ansah told a story of aesthetics and beauty. His style of using quilting, embroidery, and appliqué, and his love for rich textiles that showcase the beauty of African fabrics, was all the juice he needed to get the attention he needed. Artdress became the go-to company for individuals who wanted to look their best, both locally and abroad. And in no distant time, Kofi Ansah became a mentor and source of inspiration to many.

Kofi Ansah’s world was one characterized by a series of wins that cannot all be inscribed on paper, but there are some examples of note-worthy accomplishments of the veteran designer. Kofi Ansah won the prestigious Ghana Quality Awards Diamond Division in October 2003, for clothing and textile with Artdress Ltd, and his company was the winner of the Millennium 2000 African Fashion Awards. He also designed the anniversary fabric for the Golden Jubilee Celebration. He designed the costumes for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 African Cup of Nations staged in Ghana, and in 2009 Kofi Ansah was the chief designer at the Festival of African Fashion and Arts (FAFA). He was posthumously honored in November 2015 at the ETV Ghana Fashion Awards for his “immense contribution to the fashion industry and the prestige of the nation.” Till today, Kofi is regarded as a veteran artist, and a source of inspiration to the younger generation.

 CHRIS SEYDOU

3. MALIAN CHRIS SEYDOU

Seydou Nourou Doumbia professionally known as Chris Seydou was born in Kati the Koulikoro region of Mali on May 18, 1949. Seydou lived a life of traveling and moving from place to place. Although he was born in Kati, he spent most of his childhood in Ouagadougou which is now the capital of Burkina Faso. And in 1963 he moved back to Kati with his mother. From a young age, Seydou loved fashion. He would spend his time making clothes for dolls. He loved it, and his mother observed it. In 1965, he was enrolled as an apprentice tailor for Cheickene Camara at Kati, and he learned so well that in just two years, in 1967 Seydou returned to Ouagadougou and established his very own first tailor shop. Seydou’s travel didn’t end there. He needed to get more knowledge of the fashion world, and he got them. He first moved to Abidjan in 1969 and then to Paris in 1971, where he worked first for Yves Saint-Laurent and then at Mic Mac with the stylist Tan Guidicelli. At this time he also met designer Paco Rabanne. The training he got from those travels paid off because in 1981 Chris Seydou relocated back to Abidjan and immediately established his label known as the Chris Seydou label.

Seydou earned the title ” Father of African Fashion” due to his many works that drew inspiration from the concept of African couture Seydou created Western-style jackets and miniskirts out of traditional African designs and materials for his new brand, which he promoted in the United States, Europe, and urban West Africa such as Nigeria and Ghana. Seydou focussed on the bogolanfini mud cloth and sort for innovative ways to showcase this astonishing African fabric to the world. In 1969, Abidjan was at the forefront of African fashion design and Seydou was a big hit there, creating different African-based ensembles for many of the city’s affluent and powerful ladies. One would think that his success would quench his hunger for knowledge, but it didn’t. Seydou wanted to know everything there is on fashion and from 1972 for seven years, Seydou studied European Fashion in Paris. There, he got acquainted with other African Artists and designers, and with them, he founded Fédération Africaine de Prêt-à-porter (African Federation of Ready-to-Wear Designers), an organization dedicated to promoting African designers on the global stage. During those seven years, he made more friends in the world of elites, but most importantly he learned more. He knew what he wanted and understood what he needed to do and how to do it. In his own words he said “I’m a modern designer who understands what I’m capable of and how to execute it. Bogolan can serve as a cultural foundation for my work.” and it did. Seydou’s work with bogolan and other indigenous textiles exemplifies the delicate balance that many non-Western designers strike between local culture and global markets. He didn’t restrict himself to maintaining local traditions rather Seydou concentrated on making Malian textiles relevant to the current design. In 1990 he had made a partnership with a Bamako-based textile company called Textile du Mali, and Seydou was ready to conquer the world when suddenly he died in 1994 at just 45 years old. Chris Seydou’s death was a blow to every fashion enthusiast, and he was mourned across Africa and beyond, till today, his works are still as astonishing as ever and he remains revered and regarded as the father of African fashion.

4 VETERANS AND PIONEERS OF THE AFRICAN FASHION

4. ANN LOWE

Ann Lowe was born in 1898 to the family of Jane and Jack Lowe, in Clayton, Alabama. She was the great-granddaughter of Georgia Thompkins an enslaved woman and plantation owner in Alabama. In her early life, Ann attended school but dropped out at 14 years old. She immediately picked an interest in fashion and design, which was a family trade for both her mother and grandmother. Together, the family of seamstresses ran a small fashion business that although small, gave them all they needed to thrive until the year Ann turned 16 years old. Ann Lowe’s mother died, and the business fell over to Ann. She needed to keep this business afloat and make a name for herself. After several years of building a reputation as an accomplished dressmaker, Lowe relocated to Tampa, Florida, where she developed a loyal and elite clientele by designing dresses for socialites. In 1917, Lowe and her son moved to New York City where she attended the S.T. Taylor School of Design. As the only African American student in attendance at the time, Lowe was segregated from the rest of her class. She was required to attend classes in a room alone, but even with such hardships, Lowe still rose above expectations. Her works were often shown to her peers to learn from, and in just half a year, Lowe was deemed eligible to graduate. Upon graduation in 1919, Lowe and her son moved back to Tampa Florida, where she opened her first saloon. It became a success and in a short while, Lowe was designing for affluent members of the society. But still, Lowe wanted more for herself and her career. After saving 20,000 dollars, Lowe returned to New York City in 1928, and she immediately put herself to work, working on commissions for brands all over New York such as Henri Bendel, Montaldo’s, I. Magnin, Chez Sonia, etc.

Ann Lowe made a reputation for herself in New York, and in a time where there was extremely high segregation against black designers, Lowe In 1965, successfully launched a store on Madison Avenue, becoming the first African American to own a business in the heart of Manhattan’s most iconic fashion retail strip. Even though she continued to be successful, and to amass clients for herself, Lowe didn’t get recognition for her work, and where mostly underpriced by her clients. She had to choose between making a living and getting the fame and recognition she deserved. Lowe chose to keep her clients. But with a talent like those of Lowe’s her work spoke for her. In 1964, the Saturday Evening Post later called Lowe “society’s best kept secret” and in 1966, Ebony magazine referred to her as “The Dean of American Designers. One of Lowe’s best pieces remained the wedding gown she made for later future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier, and the dresses for her bridal attendants for her September wedding to then-Senator John F. Kennedy Lowe’s dress for Bouvier consisted of fifty yards of ivory silk taffeta piece, with interwoven bands of tucking forming the bodice and similar tucking in large circular designs swept around the full skirt. During the creation of this spectacular dress, Lowe’s studio flooded just 10 days before the wedding. She and her team had to start over from scratch to recreate the dress. Lowe never mentioned this incident to the family and had to pay for any additional costs herself. The dress, which cost $500 (approximately $5,000 today), was described in detail in The New York Times’s coverage of the wedding since the Bouvier-Kennedy wedding was a highly publicized event, but still, Lowe did not receive public credit for her work until after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Lowe’s life was a bittersweet one, with huddles and difficulties, but her life still shows the resilience and strength of a beautiful black woman who fought her way to success, and today, is an inspiration to black artists all over the world. Ann Lowe retired in 1972, and died an accomplished woman on February 25, 1981, at the age of 82. In the end, Lowe got the recognition and fame she deserved. Her work was well-known in the fashion world. Her fairytale-like gowns appeared repeatedly in Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines and were worn by women at the highest levels of American society.

 

African pioneers of fashion have proved to be trailblazers who have not just redefined the fashion industry, but through their hard work reshaped the perception of style, culture, and identity. These visionaries have shattered stereotypes and have proven to the world that fashion is not limited to the Europeans alone, but art is a universal language, that is spoken through the heart. Today their stories of creativity, innovation unwavering commitment, and will to succeed will continue to shape the hearts and minds of the younger generation as they try to fill the shoes of these great ones. As we celebrate the achievements of these remarkable individuals and the generations of talent, their impact will continue to resonate in our hearts, and their influence will continue to shine, and give honor to the spirit of creativity, culture, and possibility that defines the African people.

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