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November 24, 2017
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Vivienne Westwood in Kenya. Source: ethicalclothingonline.com.

Duro Olowu S/S 2012.
Source: fashionlogie.com.

Africa has more millionaires than luxury fashion-loving Russia; 120,000 dollar millionaires, compared to around 95,000 in Russia, according to management consulting firm, Bain & Company. And at this year's Luxury Conference hosted by the International Herald Tribune (IHT) in Rome, the fashion industry learned that Africa's middle class is growing steadily and is estimated to comprise over 300 million people. From over 35 countries, 550 delegates - including Vivienne Westwood, Donatella Versace and Manolo Blahnik - gathered at the Rome Cavalieri hotel to discuss luxury and Africa; both as a host to superior craftsmanship and a possible market for retail expansion.

On the surface, it seems that the fashion industry has been given new and exciting markets to play with, but taking a closer look, not all that glitters is gold. Omoyemi Akerele, creative and managing director of Style House Files - a creative development agency that is dedicated to developing Nigeria's fashion industry - offers a dose of reality: "You cannot ignore the fact that in Africa there's still loads and loads of people who live on a two dollar mark a day, and luxury is not a conversation that we are going to have with them, but the question is, is there a fashion goods market in Africa? And I would say yes."

Countries in the continent's north, such as Egypt and Morocco - that are also major tourist destinations - have been blessed with the establishment of luxury retailers. And recently, with the discovery of oil and gas deposits, countries such as Ghana, Tanzania and Mozambique, are stimulating economic growth. Nigeria, as Akerele pointed out at the IHT conference, is also a country that has recently proven to be one of the most economically advanced in Africa; she explains: "…Nigeria was all about oil and natural resources for a long time…Now we have telecoms, banking, marketing, retail and tourism. As a result, more jobs have been created, consumer spending has increased and there is more disposable income." 

Suzy Menkes discusses luxury with African
fashion pioneers Omoyemi Akerele and Duro
Olowu at the 2012 IHT Luxury Conference
in Rome.
Source: IHT Luxury

As with any natural economic cycle, job creation ultimately breeds consumers. If numerous industries, such as tourism, natural resources, and even fashion, continue to create jobs in Africa, there will be a greater opportunities for its citizens to obtain this "disposable income" status, which will ultimately allow Africans to spend it on luxury goods.

There's optimism in using fashion as a vehicle to create jobs, and hence, contribute to the continent's economic growth. For example, through its Ethical Fashion Initiative, the United Nations (UN) is hoping to give women in several African countries and Haiti, a chance to improve their lives through artisanal work in fashion. Ethical Fashion's past initiatives have taken place in Accra and Nairobi, to name a few, with the help of luxury godmothers like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney.

Simone Cipriani, developer of the UN's program, explains how fashion can lead to a richer life, "…we have a mandate to reduce poverty and to empower women. So we use this fashion business as a vehicle to help people to struggle their way out of poverty. Because work gives dignity to people, work gives dignity and it gives people self-confidence." 

Kudos to Menkes because, in truth, much of the luxury industry comments on Africa - a vast continent of 47 countries, one billion citizens and an estimated 2000 spoken languages - as a single entity.

Through job creation and Africa's steady economic growth - averaging 4.9 percent between 2000 and 2008 - the future is hopeful. But, for now, many luxury brands are hesitant to plant roots into African soil, believing that Africa does not allow for sophisticated retail expansion opportunities - that is, except for Italian menswear brand, Ermenegildo Zegna, which is boldly moving into the African luxury lanscape. The brand, which already has stores in Egypt and Morocco, is planning to open a store in Lagos, Nigeria, followed by Luanda, Angola in 2013, and possibly even Kenya.

Ermenegildo Zegna is unique in this respect; as Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the IHT, stated at the conference, "The investments are mostly in the north and south of the continent. The rest is mostly one large, blank consumer space." Kudos to Menkes because, in truth, much of the luxury industry comments on Africa - a vast continent of 47 countries, one billion citizens and an estimated 2,000 spoken languages - as a single entity.

Duro Olowu, a designer who is favoured by First Lady Michelle Obama, hails from Nigeria but has established his successful business in Britain. Although he is currently looking at developing a concept store in Lagos, he has not taken his designs to his home country just yet. He explains to Menkes, "In some senses it was inappropriate to sell clothes that cost more than most people earn in a year, especially when the economy was very bad." It seems artistically bizarre, the juxtaposition of a haute couture garment in the midst of gun violence and blood diamonds. But Olowu is hopeful; he notes a recent shift in his country, "It's now become a lot more democratic, a lot more interesting. And I think that people are now ready to be inspired."

Inspired, yes. But Olowu is realistic: "Fashion saving Africa? No, I don't think fashion saves anything. It's very indulgent, it can be very creative, it's a joy, but you know for me it's about lifting ones spirits. When I put on something I love it changes my perception on life and that's how I see it."

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