The Rise of African Haute Couture – ADJOAA
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The Rise of African Haute Couture

With the London, Milan and Paris fashion weeks coming around, the topic on everyone’s mind is “haute couture”. But how did this term and form of art and expression come around? And how has African fashion affected couture? 

Fashion has always played a big role in African culture. But it’s only recently that African fashion is gaining traction on the global stage. Some of the oldest civilisations in the world originated in Africa, and it shows through ancient African fashion trends and fashion techniques that have survived to this day through clothing like the dashiki and kaftans all the way to fabrics with vivid and colourful patterns like Kente or Ankara cloth. 

These amazing fashion innovations and examples of cultural creativity have existed for hundreds of years compared to haute couture, which has only been around for barely over a hundred years. But African fashion has only recently started gaining traction internationally

What is Haute Couture?

Haute couture literally translates to “high sewing” in French and refers to the meddling of fashion and art to create high-quality and custom pieces that are meant to explore the artistic boundaries of fashion. The first haute couture house started in 1858 when Englishman Charles Frederick Worth opened the first ever luxury house in Paris. Worth’s luxury fashion house focused on creating high-end and custom clothing for upper-class women. Worth was also the first person to use the word “fashion designer”. The phrase “haute couture” wasn’t used until 1908. From one fashion house sprung forth the beginning of many great fashion dynasties, some good, bad, short-lived and also even problematic due to its elitist, exclusionary and racist roots. 

The Problem with Haute Couture

Haute couture’s problematic origins begin with a love of hierarchies. To become a leader in fashion and define what is the height of fashion and what isn’t, that meant developing exclusionary attitudes and dictating how people should look instead of celebrating diversity. This developed into discrimination against darker skin tones, different body sizes and non-Eurocentric styles. But on the other hand, elements of African fashion and culture have been liberally used by European designers in both haute couture all the way to fast fashion lines. This cultural appropriation and cultural sensitivity has resulted in controversies such as a 2015 Valentino show whose outfits were inspired by “wild, tribal Africa”, featured harmful stereotypes and had mostly White models wearing cornrows. Other instances include British designer Matthew Williamson, who used traditional Ethiopian designs for two outfits in his 2007 collection. 

Meanwhile, many African designers didn’t have a presence or recognition in these haute couture circles, leading to more exclusion and cultural theft down the line. That was until recently when it became somewhat easier for Black designers to make it into the haute couture world. But the journey for such designers was a long one. 

An African Innovator of Haute Couture

You can’t talk about African haute couture without mentioning the foremost name in this artform: Imane Ayissi. Ayissi is a Cameroon-born and Paris-based designer who presented a collection in the 2020 edition of Paris Haute Couture Week. His fashionable creations have also been worn by A-list stars, from the likes of Zendaya to Aïssa Maïga. Ayissi is known for blending European styles with African flair. He also uses traditional materials in his works such as raffia fabric, which is made from natural fibres like trees and plants. Ayissi also uses Western fabrics as well, like silk and satin to create a dazzling combination of textures and cultures that are the definition of couture. 

But the process of getting featured in Paris Haute Couture Week is complex and requires resilience. It took 28 long years for Ayissi to gain the opportunity to present at Paris Haute Couture Week. This included several previous rejections from the show’s governing body – the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode – either because Ayissi’s proposed collection didn’t match the brief or it wasn’t the right timing. But eventually, Ayissi debuted his couture collection in 2020, which achieved his personal goal of showcasing at Paris Haute Couture Week and a cultural goal: "I do what I can to show real African fabrics, tell stories," Ayissi said of his work and its meaning. 

Cultural Couture from the Continent

But outside of the Western world, there are other luxury African fashion brands that are making conceptual and African couture looks more accessible to everyday people. 

Whereas Imane Ayissi was the first Sub-Saharan African designer to grace the stage of Paris Haute Couture Week, the first Black designer was Kirby Jean-Raymond. In 2021 Jean-Raymond, a Haitian-American designer who was born and raised in New York, showed a collection of pieces that highlighted Black innovations. HIs creations were inspired by the automatic traffic signal (invented by Garrett Morgan who sold it to General Electric), the peanut butter jar (George Washington Carver had discovered many uses for the humble peanut) and much more. 

This includes Tribe of Elzar, which is an ethical Nigerian brand that incorporates elements you’d see on the runway into wearable and functional clothing. Conceptual and creative designs like the Dion White Dress with Orange Jacket, which has beaded detailing to emphasise the waist along with the innovative use of wavy lines to highlight the natural contours of the body. The Lorna Mesh Top and Skirt expertly interweaves lace and mesh to create a dress that can stretch and adapt to one’s body to create a look of fitted elegance. Then there is the Adola Blue Wrap Blazer Dress, which incorporates the nonlinear lines emblematic of the brand and also mixes denim with fabric of a traditional print. 

Sisé is another innovative brand that is making waves in high-end African fashion. But instead of experimenting with nonlinear lines, Sisé uses vibrant colours, a trademark of African fashion and combines textiles and patterns to create unique outfits. The Orange Draped Adire Midi Dress combines romantic stylistic choices like a sweetheart neckline with gathered fabric and tasteful cutouts. Meanwhile, the Aso-oke Fringe Skirt uses fringe detailing to its most effective and creates a Bohemian silhouette and style. The skirt is often paired with the Oversized Organza Printed Shirt, which features a contemporary art print on delicate and airy organza. It’s a tasteful and high-fashion-inspired piece that can easily be dressed up or down. 

The final brand to touch on is NYNY RYKE Prêt à Couture, an ethical West African label that also blends Italian influences into its designs. Pieces like the Naomi Long Quilted Coat in Kente and the Ariana - Quilted Kente Jacket use classic European silhouettes with colourful and traditional Kente cloth. When it comes to such a colourful and vibrant textile as Kente, the fabric speaks for itself and is a statement piece that is made to champion self-expression. Besides Kente coats, NYNY RYKE has also created a matching set that uses the same vibrant cloth. 

The African fashion labels above are only a small sample of the African couture brands available. If you want to see what else the African fashion world has to offer, you can 100+ in one place: ADJOAA. ADJOAA is an online platform and marketplace that is dedicated to championing African fashion and lifestyle brands. Many of the labels on our platform have already featured in fashion weeks around the world from Portugal to Nigeria, Ghana and more!

Hero image credit via Imane Ayissi dot com 

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