How African Designers Are Redefining Occasionwear for a New Generation

Words by The Folklore Team

Traditional African clothing has a long history that dates to thousands of years ago, from archaeological finds that reveal early forms of jewelry from 82,000 BC Morocco to caftan and tunic-style dresses that have their roots in the 18th century. Silk kente cloth has been produced for Ghanaian royals, while Nigerians revel in their custom-made aso ebi for weekend weddings and birthday parties.

For some of the younger generations of Africans, traditional clothing and African-made garments have mostly been relegated to only when the occasion calls for it, with most wearing regular Western clothing in their daily lives. In fact, for a vast number of African citizens, having as many Western fashion designers as possible in their wardrobes is regarded as a marker of wealth and success.

But increasingly, a crop of African designers is turning the notion of “occasionwear” on its head, creating a cross-cultural way of dressing that merges contemporary clothing with familiar African design sensibilities. In today’s heavily image-driven landscape, designers are navigating the shift from notable events being wedding and birthday celebrations to now business launches and award shows, and, accordingly, are designing and manufacturing pieces that can go toe to toe with your best red carpet-ready gown or Savile Row suit.

Earlier this year, Nigerian singer Asa was styled by Momo Hassan-Odukale for the cover of her latest album V in a custom sequin fringed blouse and shorts set by Onalaja, while American singer LeToya Luckett attended the June BET Awards in the brand’s Zusi dress. And when Tems took to the stage in December 2021 at a concert for her If Orange Was a Place EP, she did so wearing a silk corset and flared pants ensemble by Lagos-based designer Fruché.

A widening fashion industry is mostly to thank for allowing artists to collaborate with designers on their looks for the stage, red carpet and other events. Not too long ago, whatever a singer was wearing to a show was between them and their tailor, but now with the advent of stylists, costume designers and creative directors all working parallel with the fashion and design industry, a more concerted effort can be made to create a special look that transcends expectations. Odukale sums it up when she says, “it’s been great to build relationships through meaningful work, I think everything is easier when you have a community of people around you.”

When Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi presented his first haute couture collection in Paris in 2020, it marked the fulfilment of a dream that had been years in the making, and he became only the third designer of African descent to grace the prestigious runway, after Alphadi of Niger in 2004 and Morocco’s Noureddine Amir in 2018.

“Africa has become ‘trendy’ in the fashion industry but in the Global North and certainly for the majority of African people, associating Africa with luxury, refinement and preciousness remains problematic,” writes Ayissi in the tome that accompanies the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Africa Fashion” exhibition. It was the opportunity to change the world’s vision of African fashion and the desire to tell stories of African cultures that led Ayissi to aim for a spot on the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode’s calendar.

The Paris-based designer is dedicated to using his creations to paint a modern picture of Africa and its many cultures, by taking traditional textiles and rendering them in contemporary silhouettes with couture skills – a case in point is the kente cloth he fashioned into an oversized coat.

Ayissi is not the only one finding new ways to present old fabrics. For many Nigerian brides, having a House of Deola Komole dress for their traditional engagement ceremony is the equivalent of wearing a Vera Wang design for the big day. First shown at South Africa Fashion Week in 2012, the Komole dress, which is made from aso oke and silk-blend fabric with laser-cut patterns all over, is a modern-day version of the classic iro and buba outfit for women. Where a traditional ensemble consists of a lace skirt (iro) and blouse (buba) accentuated with an aso oke sash and head tie (known as ipele and gele), the Komole combines the two fabrics into one innovative look.

“It is not just a parallel to the European lace but a usurper, making the new design even better than the sum of its parts,” says the designer Deola Ade Ojo. “There is no need any more to have aso oke and a lace outfit for an occasion. We have combined both into one and by so doing transcended, making the new creation even better.”

Each Komole design is made custom for the bride, with colors, patterns and details unique to the dress. The starting price tag of N1.5m (about $3,600) is not a deterrent for the brides who covet the dress for their wedding; in fact, it’s a fair exchange for the meticulous craftsmanship and effort that goes into the construction of the garment.

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