Africa's vibrant fashion scene captured in pictures

Photojournalist Per-Anders Pettersson at the Landskrona Foto Festival, Sweden; and his book, African Catwalk (left).
Photojournalist Per-Anders Pettersson at the Landskrona Foto Festival, Sweden; and his book, African Catwalk (below).PHOTO: PER-ANDERS PETTERSSON'S INSTAGRAM

NEW YORK • On one of the largest cable bridges in southern Africa, hundreds of the fashion elite had gathered at about midnight to watch David Tlale's highly anticipated autumn 2011 show.

To commemorate the occasion, he shut down the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, turning the busy roadway into a runway. Ninety-two models, one for each year of Mr Mandela's life at the time, crossed the bridge as lights from the city skyline illuminated the stage.

Sitting in front was Sweden-born photojournalist Per-Anders Pettersson, who has spent the past five years documenting the vibrant fashion scene across sub-Saharan African. His new photography book, African Catwalk, is a visual survey of Africa's emerging fashion industry. It is an insider's perspective on a spectacle that often goes unseen.

The Johannesburg show was among more than 40 events he photographed, travelling to some 16 countries across the continent. Regional and subtle cultural distinctions become apparent in many of the images.

West African designer Deola Sagoe creates contemporary designs using adire fabric hand-dyed in Nigeria by women of the Yoruba tribe; East African jewellery designer Ami Doshi Shah pays homage to her Kenyan roots via large-scale adornments.

Several of the designers featured, including Tlale and Laduma Ngxokolo, have shown their work internationally, but Pettersson concentrated on shows in Africa.

In the more established African fashion weeks, in Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa, designers, models and buyers converge from all over the continent, and African-born designers who work abroad often return to showcase their latest Western-inspired collections.

Pettersson, 49, has witnessed the growth of fashion in Africa, which he links to a growing upper-middle class in Africa's largest cities. "There is more money, better education and people are travelling more," he said.

Ngxokolo is a poster child for this evolution. In 2010, he started MaXhosa, a knitwear line, to celebrate amakrwala, a traditional Xhosa rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.

Young men complete a four-week initiation process, after which they give up their belongings and dress in dapper attire for the first six months of their new independence.

Having gone through the ritual himself, Ngxokolo, 29, identified a gap in the market, knowing that hundreds of young Xhosa men would be outfitted with new clothes that did not represent their culture.

His high-end designs, made with local South African materials, are inspired by the intricate beadwork of the Xhosa group. The line won the 2015 Vogue Italia Scouting For Africa prize, allowing him to show his collection at the Palazzo Morando Show in Milan.

And while he has been successful, Ngxokolo acknowledges the difficulties that emerging designers have in the international market, including the challenge of meeting growing demands while navigating the lagging infrastructure in their home countries.

Pettersson echoed this sentiment, noting that many African designers do not have the resources to produce their designs on a large scale.

"A lot of young designers are trying to be the next Valentino," he said. "But if you look closely underneath the clothes, threads may be hanging or it doesn't quite fit properly."

Several initiatives aim to close this resource gap, including the African Fashion International, a fashion platformwhose Fast Track programme is a year-long incubator to mentor new designers.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline 'Africa's vibrant fashion scene captured in pictures'. Subscribe