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Proud to Wear Local. Discovering New Ethiopian Fashion

Ever since 2010, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, hosts one of the most vibrant fashion events in the continent. Mahlet Teklemariam, the founder of the Hub of Africa Fashion Week, tells us about her work towards empowering local fashion creators.

This article is among the winners of “Afrika nėra šalis” (“Africa Is Not a Country”), Lithuanian high school journalism program covering contemporary African themes, organised by NARA and AfriKo. The author of this article is Brigita Katlioriūtė, a final year student at Vilnius Jesuit Gymnasium.

Even just a couple of decades ago, African designers were hardly included in major fashion events. Instead, their traditional prints were used by mostly European designers. Without sufficient platforms of promotion or recognition, it was tough for African creators to foster their brands and continue the business.

“I wanted to support these designers,” says Mahlet Teklemariam, the founder of the Hub of Africa Fashion Week, as she speaks on a Whatsapp call with me from Addis Ababa. Together, we covered the Ethiopian fashion journey – the rise of the industry, its clientele, and hopes for the future.

In 2020, the event was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions. But the behind the scenes work continues.

Mahlet Teklemariam, the founder of the Hub of Africa Fashion Week, one of the most vibrant fashion events in the continent.

How did you start the fashion week in Ethiopia?

I was born in Ethiopia, but I grew up in the United States, mostly in New York and Virginia. After thirty years in the U.S., I moved back to Ethiopia in 2008. At first, I didn't know what I wanted to do. So I was exploring opportunities.

But I had a passion – fashion. Even while I was in the US, I promoted the Ethiopian diaspora of fashion designers and worked with a lifestyle magazine. So, with a former partner of mine, who is Kenyan, we came up with an idea to organize a fashion event here in Ethiopia.

At the time, in 2009, I didn't know any major fashion weeks that were taking place in Africa. I looked up to see if there were any big fashion weeks, and the only one I could find was South Africa Fashion Week. So the idea came to organize a new fashion event to promote and connect the African fashion industry.

It wasn't just going to be Ethiopian fashion, but African. The name is Hub of Africa because Ethiopia is the hub for all the African leaders where they come and meet at the African Union.

Give us a picture of a typical Hub of Africa Fashion Week.

The length of the Hub of Africa varies between four days and a week. It’s not just the fashion show – we organize various workshops and masterclasses. Each year, we gather up to thirty designers. Some of them put their works on the runway, whilst some put up a presentation of their creations. All these events attract anywhere from two thousand to three thousand guests. It is truly a grand affair.

Backstage of the Hub of Africa Fashion Week 2012 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Do you find it hard to gather local models for the event?

Actually, we never had this problem. We do a casting call annually and find our models. Though for them, unlike in other countries, modeling is not a regular job. There is still not enough market to make a living solely based in this field, so most of them are regular people with different careers. Despite that, we are able to select from three to four hundred models!

I must say, since our events, some of the models started opening modeling schools in Ethiopia, I also see more modeling agencies popping up.

How would you describe the Ethiopian and the whole African fashion industry?

Being an Ethiopian, I knew what the Ethiopian design really was: it was mostly custom-made. A lot of times, Ethiopian fashion was just for occasions, whether it's weddings or celebrations or going to church. Those were the only times you would see traditional Ethiopian outfits.

But in other parts of Africa, they would wear their traditional clothes even in the workplace. This made me passionate about promoting the industry because I wanted the young and upcoming designers to start producing ready-to-wear clothes. It was so that people could start being proud to own African garments, and instead of wearing them just for occasions, they would also wear African-made clothes day-to-day. It’s possible.

Ethiopian fashion was just for occasions. I wanted the young designers to start producing ready-to-wear clothes

When we were first trying to organize the event, we didn't even know if there were any Ethiopian designers. But we found them, and not only in Ethiopia. We found designers from Somalia, South Africa, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo. We want to promote their work. We strived for the African fashion industry to be more than what it was and to create awareness. And since we started, we have seen a lot of new designers. Now it is completely different from what it was ten years ago.

From Deepa Dosaja collection, designed by Deepa Dosaja, Kenya.

From ZAAF collection, designed by Abai Schulze, Ethiopia.

What is the reason for the growing number of Ethiopian designers?

Because of the numerous schools and other fashion institutions, there are lots of new faces emerging every year in the field. By doing as much promotion of their work as possible and also by attending the Hub of Africa Fashion Week, they are finally able to build their brands more solidly.

A great example is Mahlet Afework, the founder of the Mafi Mafi label and one of the top designers in Ethiopia. Over the course of ten years, she has only missed one or two of our events - almost every year her works are on the runway. Her success nowadays is a good example of what difference the Hub of Africa has made.

What can you say about the current clientele? Are African people themselves the most usual customers of different African brands?

I think it is both. I am starting to see African brands being worn globally, not just among Africans. For example, one of the major screen movies, Black Panther, was very African. I think that it helped to promote the industry even further. Also, African designers were able to participate in other major fashion weeks, for example, in New York, London, Berlin, Paris.

We mustn't forget that there are Africans that live abroad, too. Those abroad can be the ones that wear African fashions. But now you can see even non-Africans wearing these designers’ outfits.

And that's not necessarily just traditional clothing - a lot of designers don't use traditional African prints. At the end of the day, the industry is starting to revolve around the designers themselves.

Each year, up to 400 models appear on stage at the Hub of Africa Fashion Week. For the majority of them, modeling is not a regular job.

Was there any stigma surrounding local designers? For example, in Eastern Europe, after the fall of the USSR, when local designers came to the fashion scene, the people in these countries were hesitant to buy from them. Instead, buying from Western designers was considered to be of higher class. Did you see similar phenomena in Ethiopia?

Absolutely. That is still the case. There needs to be a lot of promotion for Africans to be proud to wear their local fashion. But for that, it has to be functional and affordable. Whatever the designers make shouldn't be very expensive because they will never be able to compete with the H&Ms and Gaps.

Sometimes potential buyers don't know where to find these clothes because it's very hard for designers to open a store and sustain it if they don't have customers. That means it’s tough for designers to stay in one location; therefore, they keep moving around.

Whatever the designers make shouldn't be very expensive because they will never be able to compete with the H&Ms and Gaps

But again – none of the Ethiopian designers will be able to compete with the “made in China'', which’s so affordable and so easy to grab. If you look it up, a lot of the pieces are 200$ and up. The average person will not be able to afford to buy these designers’ clothing.

So, the market is small. I think there need to be more clothing lines for designers, something for them to explore instead of just being only exclusive brands. Maybe they need to create an affordable brand and then become more expensive over time.

Why is it important that African designers get more accessible and attract more attention?

It is important because fashion is a very powerful tool of self-expression. The way we dress is how we express who we are and where we come from. As an African, as an Ethiopian, as a Kenyan, you name it, it’s important to show it.

I think that's where there needs to be more work - for consumers to really be proud to wear African designers and support them. If the consumers don't shop, the designers will not last in the industry.

Traditional African prints are also used as an inspiration in Western designs. Do you find it problematic?

I believe some designers are truly getting inspired by African cultures or various African designers. Personally, I do not find it as scandalous. Yes, maybe some creators have not been to Ethiopia or any other part of Africa, but they got inspired by the originality of the designs in these regions. I honestly do not see anything wrong with that, actually, I see this as a beautiful thing that African prints are seen as inspiring.

From Root in Style collection, designed by Tigist Seife Haile, Ethiopia.

From Maison ARTC collection, designed by Artsi, Morocco.

Are African designers well represented in the Western media?

They are now, but it wasn't like this before. We were very fortunate that our event had been covered on Vogue Italia since 2015, which is really big for the designers. For us it is very important. We create a platform for African designers to promote their work. And when we get international media coverage, that just gives their brand even more reach. People are looking: “Ha, there are African designers!”

I do see there has been a kind of a trend of attention to African fashion in the last year or two. I think that's great.

There has been a trend of attention to African fashion. I think that's great

What do you consider to be your main goals for the future?

Our goals are the same as when we started - to keep promoting the industry and highlight new faces. We have a lot of emerging talents, so we will always keep supporting the industry, trying to get more media coverage, and, eventually, attracting some buyers. We have been fighting fires, but I don't think it's gotten enough designers. Our goal is to continue promoting the industry, right now, here in Ethiopia, but including all different Africans.

2020 has changed a lot of events. We had to move our event from this year to 2021. There's a lot of things that we have to reflect on and see how we go from here. But we will continue our work by featuring new emerging designers. At the end of the day, we want the designers to get business from this platform. That's the whole idea for us.

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Five African-based fashion brands to watch. Picks by Brigita Katlioriūtė.

KikoRomeo

KikoRomeo is one of the most prominent labels of the continent, created by legendary Kenyan designer Ann McCreath back in 1996. The brand received the global spotlight in 2014, after Dorothy Nyong'o, mother of the one and only Lupita Nyong'o, arrived at the BAFTA Awards wearing KikoRomeo.

Various colours, textures, prints - all of this, paired with KikoRomeo's political activism, make the brand the fresh boost of the Kenyan fashion industry.

Chocolate

Chocolate, according to its creators, aims to represent the Afrocentric person who knows their worth. Established in 2013 in Ghana, the fashion brand does not elude bold silhouettes, cuts, or colour combinations. With the desire to showcase the African culture to the world, Chocolate intends to become the leading lifestyle brand in the continent.

Deepa Dosaja

Deepa Dosaja is another well-known name in the Kenyan fashion industry, worn by Lupita Nyong'o herself. The brand incorporates silk, cotton, linen and wools in order to create the feeling of luxury while remaining environmentally sustainable.

The founder Deepa Dosaja, awarded "Fashion Designer of the Year" by the Asian weekly, is no newcomer to the industry. Her elegant works have gathered the clientele not only in Nairobi but from Toronto to Beijing.

Samra Leather

Samra Leather, founded in 2012 in Ethiopia, has spoiled us with their elegant and delicate designs for almost a decade. From small purses to stylish backpacks, all products exude a sense of luxury and premium quality. Contrary to most African brands, Sam Leather opts for timeless designs and classic styles, ensuring that the products can be worn even by those that usually step away from style adventures.

Suhaa Schmitz

Suhaa Schmitz, born Kenyan, took up making jewellery in 2007 in Rwanda. Since then, the creator seeks inspiration from the Kenyan or Rwandan cultures and also from various African nations. This large spectre of cultural influence ensures that the designs give off a sense of individuality.

Interesting shapes, traditional prints, lively colours – this label becomes an example of how historically rich cultures can be a part of the lives of the people today.

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