Neon cord necklaces draped over a crisp white shirt. Hip-length braids hiding a floral shirt. A psychedelic wax-print jumpsuit.
In her new book Fashion Cities Africa, Hannah Azieb Pool sets out to dispel all the tired stereotypes about fashion in Africa (safari jackets and zebra print, anyone?) and showcase the true diversity and ingenuity of fashion in Africa.
Through interviews, essays and stunning photos, Fashion Cities Africa delves deep into the fashion scenes in four creative hot spots: Casablanca, Johannesburg, Lagos and Nairobi.
We spoke with Pool to learn more about Africa’s fashion renaissance and the designers and tastemakers — she calls them the “cool people” — who are leading the way.
What first sparked your interest in fashion?
I’ve been interested in fashion as far as I can remember. Part of that is because I grew up in a very white society. I was born in Eritrea but I’ve lived most of my life in the U.K. I would never blend in, so I subconsciously made the decision early on that if I was going to stand out, I was going to stand out on my own terms. With that came an interest in fashion and style and the history and politics of what you wear, who you wear and how you wear it.
How did you go about choosing the four cities featured in the book?
That was really tough. We were not trying to be reflective of the whole continent, because that’s impossible, so we eventually settled on one city from each of the four compass points of the continent. We wanted to choose cities that had different fashion personalities. A city like Lagos is quite big, buzzy and already established as a fashion scene. At the same time, we wanted to highlight the amazing creativity coming out of places like Casablanca and Nairobi, places that don’t get as much attention when it comes to fashion.
You wrote a great piece for The Guardian about western designers’ embarrassingly limited view of “African fashion.” What do you think is the most ridiculous misconception about fashion from Africa?
I guess the most obvious misconception is that there even is such a thing as “African fashion.” There is no such thing any more than there’s such a thing as “European fashion” or “North American fashion.” I don’t say, “These jeans are North American-inspired,” right? It would be ridiculous. So that’s the idea that we’re really trying to change through this book and through the exhibition.
How are designers expressing their cultural identity through fashion?
There are some really exciting ways. People like Anthony Mulli from Nairobi — his label is called Katchy Kollections — is training himself and others on reworking incredible beadwork. He goes straight to the source, to the women who are doing intricate beadwork in his grandmother’s village, and then he matches that with modern color palettes and trends. [He] makes pieces that are so current but at the same time references his heritage. That, to me, is just stunning.
What about the people who are not fashion designers, but the street style stars, the trendsetters?
The cool people?
Yes, the “cool people!” How are they using fashion to express their culture and heritage?
In certain parts of London, you’ll see diaspora kids wearing African or diasporic designers, and then those kids go home to Lagos or Accra for the summer and the kids in Lagos and Accra — who before would never have dreamed of wearing local designers — suddenly see those local designers as aspirational.
You’ve written that “intergenerational conversations are happening through the medium of fashion.” Tell me more about that.
In Lagos or Accra or Addis, kids are pulling out vintage clothes from their mothers’ wardrobes. They might wear these things with a pair of skinny jeans. Suddenly parents — who perhaps before might have encouraged their children to wear a western aesthetic — are seeing their kids in clothes they wore years ago. It’s a beautiful mashup.
What does it say about a city when the local fashion scene is thriving?
Fashion is a huge part of any local economy and any cultural center. If a cultural center is doing well, fashion is often the first place we see that [wealth] reflected, because it’s something we can all buy into, on however small a scale. When you start to see designers on the continent doing well, that has a ripple effect [on the economy].
What do you want people to take away from your book?
People assume that you have to be African or [of] African heritage to wear African designers. That’s not true! Anyone can wear these designers. Anyone can wear prints. African fashion is for everyone.