The African Fashion Industry: Lessons From The Cancelled Toronto Fashion Week

Africa Fashion week Nigeria, according to its website, aims to, among other goals, propel Nigerian brands to worldwide visibility. It is an understandable goal. A goal that a lot of Fashion Weeks that occur outside major fashion hubs in New York, London or Milan share, but one that lacks sufficient specificity to guarantee sustainable impact for the African fashion industry.

As the African Fashion Week Nigeria opened its doors for a 3 day event at the beginning of last month for instance, Toronto Fashion Week was closing down its own citing lack of local support. The cancellation of the Toronto Fashion Week did not surprise those that had seen it decline into a media spectacle with a few overreaching advantages over social media sharing and general networking. Some of Toronto’s fashion insiders in actuality viewed the cancellation of Toronto Fashion Week as an opportunity for designing novel approaches that worked.

Adapting to local challenges

For Fashion Weeks from anywhere in the world, and especially stakeholders in the African fashion industry, the end of Toronto Fashion Week should sound an alarm that failing to adapt to local challenges and trends can have severe consequences. Thus, that a Textile and Garment Manufacturing Conference kickstarted African Fashion Week Nigeria is a step in the right direction. More remarkable, is the fact that actors positioned to influence policy participated in the conference and even unveiled concrete government plans to support Nigeria’s fashion supply chain through invigorating the textile industry.

To have an African fashion event modeled after the West focus on advancing local solutions is extremely refreshing, and definitely better for ensuring longer lasting benefits for participating designers.

Need for longer term strategy

It is not enough however. A couple of days of networking and showcasing does not teach designers to satisfy evolving customer trends, it does not give them the capacity to fulfil orders, and it does not really give designers worldwide visibility. Investment in superior education programs, on the other hand, would ensure that brands make items that can compete in both local and international markets, not merely on the basis of their African heritage, but on the basis of their first-rate quality. Long term strategies, spanning months, even years, would foster the creation of strong narratives around local brands, allowing them to connect with their local customers and to possess a cohesive identity that at the right time could transcend geographical boundaries.

If the diverse fashion markets that Africa can support are to grow, sustainable strategy that goes beyond acquiring media partners for an annual event is needed. Such strategy would be simultaneously global and local, and at once cutting-edge and reparative. It would repair that which has been let to decay such as the textile industry, while adapting to changes such as the modern customers’ need for fast supply chains.

With budding startups like Burgundy Fly aiming to build homegrown retail ecosystems, and others like Yakutti taking on omnichannel retailing, we will get there. We just need to remember what’s important.

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