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African Fashion: How to Buy Directly from the Source

Shanley Knox, Nakate Project

Lately, my social media accounts have been full of the phrase: “Africa Rising.” It’s linked to articles on oil, and op-ed pieces on financial possibilities. It’s focused on agriculture and technology. It’s heading up lists on the ways this one, giant continent could change the way that the rest of the world works.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch some of this “rising” unfold in my own life. For me, now – this hint at something rising up and coming out that glorious, resource rich content has become tangible, and it’s begun to change my perspective.

I started a Uganda-based accessories company in 2010, and had the privilege, this summer, of watching the work of the artisans we partner with on the runway at Africa Fashion Week New York – a week-long expose of African design in the heart of New York City. And, it was that week in particular, that showed me what “Africa rising” means for us in the world of design.

It means that there is a sudden influx of bold, colorful, daring design hitting not only collections like Marni for H&M, Burberry, Missoni, Tory Burch, Thakoon and SUNO – but coming straight from the heart of Kenya, with collections like KikoRomeo, from Haiti, through designer Sheaffa Delince and from collaborative collections like Mesenga Fashion House.¬†Here in New York, I’m spotting Batik on the streets, Ankara and Kente and Kanga on the subway. It’s slow – but its happening. This pulse – this Africa rising – it’s slowly making its way into the mainstream market. And, it’s not just European and American designers anymore. What Africa rising means for us is not only a change in aesthetic, but in the way that African materials and designs are sourced. You don’t have to buy Kente from a European designer anymore – you can buy it directly from the source.

South African designer David Tlale recently commented that,

I travel around the world about every other month and see what is happening. Ninety-nine percent of the time when I’m working down, say, Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue in New York City I’ll see a store having something inspired by Africa. That’s why I say Africa plays a major role–directly or indirectly– in fashion. You saw it from Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan when she used the kente cloth from Ghana, I think it was two seasons back. And John Galliano took the Masai and put it on the runway and everyone was like ‘Wow, this is great!’ So, we are a force behind the fashion industry as Africans.

If you’re anything like me, you like to get to the core of things – where are these designs coming from, and how do you go directly to the source? It’s not that I don’t want to buy from Donna Karan, it’s that I’d like to buy from the woman who inspired her first – the one that used Kente for a design that was globally appealing for the first time, and did it in Ghana. I want to know who brought it into New York’s sights first, and I want to shop her line.

I was even more driven to find the designers in this industry after listening to Kiko Romeo speak at this summer’s Africa Fashion Week New York. She shared about her passion to give jobs to manufacturers and designers within her own country, and explained how African designers are creating jobs throughout the continent through a commitment to sourcing labor directly from their own villages or cities.

The problem with an industry that’s so entirely new is that its not always simple to buy its products. Many of us have been watching designs develop, and haven’t known where to find them. Where do you get dresses from a Ghanian designer? How do you find these shops?

Daphne Kasambala of the UK based boutique Sapelle and I spoke recently about her experience at Mercedez Benz Fashion Week in Africa – how African designers can’t keep up with the demand for their designs, and that Africa’s fashion “rising” – is currently in a place of great need for a connection from designer to customer. We are watching a new influx to the industry create itself as we speak, and the buyers that begin working with it now are only the very tip of the iceberg – just the beginning.

There is, however, a current influx of boutiques and buyers that are bringing African fashion to the average consumer – fashion that not only makes you feel good because you’re supporting ethically sourced materials and designs – but fashion that I’m watching move into the closets of more and more women because they love the design. It’s wild. It’s bold. It’s new.

I’ve been scouting out locations for several months now, and have curated a list of some of the best online shops for buying African designs fresh off the runway:


Sapelle is a London based online shop bringing to a global clientele a range of clothing and accessories from a number of design labels and artisans with a common theme: inspired by Africa and fit for the world.

Agnes and Lola

Agnes and Lola is an independent online boutique selling items by young designers from across the African diaspora. They carry carefully handpicked selection of fashion-forward designers across the African continent.

My Asho

My Asho promotes the talent of African designers based throughout the world, serving as e a one-stop-shop for the best in authentic African inspired designs. The company also works with local markets throughout Africa to offer distinctive, one-off pieces in their My Asho Market.

Indigo Bazaar

The Australian based shop Indigo Bazaar is a carefully curated selection of local Australian and international designers committed to creating environmentally sustainable garments with a transparent supply chain. They also happen to have free shipping worldwide!

Heritage 1960

Heritage 1960 hopes to dispel pre-conceived notions about African fashion, design and creativity. They offer curated view of global African fashion, lifestyle, and design.

Styles Afrik

Styles Afrik is a unique and exciting online retail store, fusing traditional Afropolitan influence with modern style.

To find out more about African designers and brands, check out Adiree – a PR agency highlighting luxury brands focused globally.

[Image: Instagram photo from Africa Fashion Week 2012 Showroom at Sabon – Soho, NYC]

Written by Shanley Knox

Founder/owner of the Nakate Project, an initiative bringing third world female artisans to high fashion. I am passionate about all things that are truly sustainable, and truly making a positive difference in the world around us.

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