PARIS — Nigerian designer Emmanuel Okoro has won the top prize at the inaugural edition of Africa Fashion Up, a showcase for African designers, with his Emmy Kasbit men’s and women’s collection made using traditional West African weaving techniques.
Okoro was one of five designers shortlisted for the event in Paris, organized by the Share Africa platform in partnership with Balenciaga, which will mentor the finalists for six months.
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He was joined by Guy Fabrice Sullivan, the Ivorian designer behind the Zaady label; Zak Koné, also from Ivory Coast, founder of eveningwear brand Pelebe; Baay Sooley and Laure Tarot, the designers behind Senegalese streetwear brand Bull Doff, and Natasha Jaume and Carina Louw, founders of South African women’s wear brand Erre.
In addition to attending masterclasses with members of Balenciaga’s executive committee, the finalists met buyers from Galeries Lafayette and visited the workshop of Imane Ayissi, the first sub-Saharan designer to show on the official couture calendar in Paris and patron of the event, which culminated with a fashion show at the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild on Friday evening.
The competition was open to designers under 40 whose brand is at least two years old, and who have produced a minimum of two ready-to-wear collections. Okoro, who won the 2018 Fashion Focus Fund prize at Lagos Fashion Week, impressed the judges with his sharp tailoring using Akwete cloth in a palette of citrus colors.
Bruno Levy/Courtesy of Share Africa
Members of the jury included Martina Tiefenthaler, chief creative officer of Balenciaga; Vanessa Moungar, chief diversity and inclusion officer at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and Maryse Mbonyumutwa Gallagher, director and co-owner at garment manufacturer C&D Pink Mango Rwanda.
Also on the panel were Emmanuelle Courrèges, founder of the LAGO54 showroom for African designers and author of the upcoming book “Africa: The Fashion Continent,” and Marie-Jeanne Serbin-Thomas, editor in chief of Brune magazine.
Former model Valérie Ka, cofounder and artistic director of Share Africa, said Africa Fashion Up was designed to help African designers, many of whom are self-taught, gain a foothold on the international market.
“I found it a bit frustrating that you often see these designers show in Europe and Africa, but then nothing happens afterwards. As a model, I know their struggles. That’s why I asked the team at Balenciaga to help us, not just to put on a show, but to train them and give them the necessary tools,” she said.
“We want to not only train young designers, but also help them find factories to make their clothes,” Ka said, noting that Okoro’s collection will be sold on new luxury marketplace Jendaya. “What we need now is buyers,” she said.
Ayissi said Africa Fashion Up, which also featured passages by guest designers Karim Tassi, Martial Tapolo, Eric Raisina, Soraya da Piedade and Anjali Borkhataria, represented a key opportunity. “This kind of event is important for the entire Black continent,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent in Africa, and sometimes Africa is ignored by the luxury sector.”
Nonetheless, he advised young designers to first cement a domestic presence before attempting to show overseas. “It’s always better to establish a reputation at home before growing wings and taking your work elsewhere,” he said. “Africa must be celebrated first and foremost by us Africans, and friends of Africa.”
In recent years, African designers have enjoyed a growing profile in Paris.
In addition to Ayissi, designers like Nigeria’s Kenneth Ize and South Africa’s Thebe Magugu have become regular fixtures on the Paris Fashion Week calendar. Winner of the 2019 LVMH Prize for Young Designers, Magugu is the subject of a major installation at department store Le Bon Marché this fall.
Laurence Thouin, secretary general of Share Africa, said it hopes to stage the fashion showcase in other destinations, possibly on the African continent.
“Unlike usual fashion weeks, this event will be part of a calendar with a real educational, aesthetic and, why not, political purpose, even if the word scares some people. It’s all about showing the world the best of Africa,” she said.
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