Donning wooden, leopard-print earrings, Suzy Menkes, the legendary fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, spoke to hundreds at the Rome Cavalieri, a decadent hotel that sits atop the city’s highest hill. Yet instead of discussing the merits of hand-stitching and dyed pelts, Menkes referred to a solemn passage from Il Gattopardo, an Italian novel about Lampedusa, a troubled island on the Mediterranean Sea, where war-weary African migrants have been flocking since the Arab Spring. Sitting in front of her were roughly 600 designers and critics including a number of fashion greats—Vivienne Westwood, Manolo Blahnik, and Jean Paul Gaultier—who gathered in a dimly lit ballroom to discuss two seemingly disparate topics at the IHT’s 12th annual Luxury Conference: luxury fashion and Africa.
When one thinks of African art and fashion, tourist trinkets invariably come to mind, images of beaded bracelets sold outside safari lodges. The view is unfair, of course, but common. Slowly, however, this misplaced caricature is changing as a growing number of fashion designers and industry experts are looking to Africa as the next major hub for the production—and eventually the consumption—of luxury fashion products. Yet as the fashion industry takes notice of the continent, some fear that high hopes will soon give way to exploitation and sweatshops as has occurred in countries such as China and Bangladesh. “There has to be a balance between virtue and desire,” said Bono, the U2 frontman and activist, who attended the second day of the conference.
One fashion luminary who is trying to break the mold is Nigerian-native Duro Olowu, one of Michelle Obama’s favorite designers and a man who represents the type of African high fashion that the luxury leaders are hoping to harness. Olowu told the audience that although none of his clothes are on the market in Nigeria, he hoped that Africans will one day become luxury consumers at home. So far only Ermenegildo Zegna has dared to open a shop in Lagos, Nigeria’s impoverished capital, but Olowu expects that to change. “It’s reasonable that one day streets in Lagos will be lined with the same fashion boutiques found in European capitals,” he said. Nigerians spend more than any other country in Africa on luxury goods, but only when they travel abroad because so few options are available at home. “Africans are big spenders across the world, but they cannot spend their money at home,” said Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue. “We need to help them.” Yet she cautioned that: “Africa is a continent, not a country, and must not be considered as one market.”
On the surface, investing in clothing factories borders on frivolous when not everyone on the continent has food and fresh water. But many at the conference said that foreign aid—while important—can also encourage dependence, and that investing in fashion manufacturing could empower the population to become skilled workers, high earners, and eventually customers. “The future focus is doing real business,” said Jochen Zeita, the chairman of Puma, noting that many Africans have a keen interest in luxury goods, whether they can afford them or not. “Luxury is not about price, but inspiration, rare, bespoke and quality far beyond utility.”
Increasingly, luxury is also about diversity. Gaultier, the French designer whose signature spiked gray hair and charming savoir faire made him the darling of the conference, said that African models made his clothes come alive, liberating him from industry norms. “There are different kinds of beauty,” he said. For years, Gaultier has been ahead of his time, using unique women of all shapes, sizes, and ethnicities in his seasonal shows, and both he and Menkes scolded Italian and French fashion houses for sticking to cookie-cutter, thin white models on the catwalks. “There needs to be a real push and effort by the fashion houses to encourage diversity on the runway,” said Menkes.
One of the biggest risks in turning Africa into a producer of luxury goods is the fear of sweatshops, which have developed in fashion-production enclaves all over the world. Many fashion activists used their time on stage to warn industry leaders that it is their responsibility to act ethically as they develop new markets. A somewhat jittery Bono, who was accompanied by his wife, Ali Hewson, lauded Africans as creative entrepreneurial people who need to be supported, not exploited. And Firth, whose “green-carpet challenge” made headlines when she vowed only to wear sustainable fashion when she accompanied her Oscar-winning husband on the red carpet, expressed hope that designers would act wisely and ethically in Africa. “What is it going to take to get designers to invest in Africa?” she asked. “They have potential because they can learn from the mistakes of China and Bangladesh. They [Africans] have already had a slave trade. They aren’t going to allow another one.”
Let’s hope she’s right.