Jacqueline Shaw; fashion designer, eco- entrepreneur, champion of African fashion and now author, thanks to the publication of her book Fashion Africa.
First published in 2012, Fashion Africa is a carefully curated work bringing to the forefront the many dedicated and innovative designers working to enhance the profile of African fashion. Whether that be using traditional methods or materials, Jacqueline has scoured the continent to compile a visual record of some of the amazing work occurring on the continent.
We spoke to Jacqueline about her thoughts on fashion, ethics and much more.
Woven Musings: Jacqueline, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us! Your book Africa Fashion Guide is an exploration into African fashion, designers and ethics. How would you describe ‘African Fashion’ as it’s quite a broad term?
Jacqueline Shaw: I don’t know if it’s something that I should describe; I think it is fashion that is designed or created bypeople of African descent. That’s how I would describe it.
WM: Do you think that outside of Africa and the Diaspora, people have a limited view of what African fashion actually is?
JS: Yes, this is one of the reasons why I wanted to create my website, Africa Fashion Guide, and book, to change this perception. From a long time ago, as I watched fashion and fashion inspiration from Africa, a lot of the time it was about the ‘Safari’ look and it was that look that came on to the catwalk, but now I think that non-African designers are looking more at contemporary African fashion and considering African print and things that are more typical of Africa.
WM: Yes, Burberry’s S/S 2012 collection springs to mind. In this vein, do you think that non-African designers are getting a better understanding of how to interpret African Fashion?
JS: I think that they are starting to see it from a more contemporary view point, but they still need to have a level of education of what it is and African designers need to keep making that statement on catwalks and platforms so that others can see what it (African fashion) is today – you don’t have to use wax print to be an African designer. Africa is where they are from, Africa is who they are and Africa is where they source and produce; it could be any of those. They (African designers) need to show the world who they are.
WM: Indeed and over the last couple of years, we have noticed the huge rise in designers of African descent both abroad and on the continent. Do you think that there is a reason for this sudden rise in designers?
JS: I think that it’s about exposure. Social media has increased the visibility of designers and this is encouraging others. They are seeing that there are opportunities and the world is starting to be interested in what they have to offer. For these reasons they are all staring to come up, also, there are many shows in their countries such as Lagos Fashion and Design Week, Ghana Fashion Week and plenty more in other countries. I mean there are creative people out there! It’s good to see them having that platform that probably wasn’t there for them before.
WM: Ethical fashion is a very big part of what you have written about – how do you think the rise in fashion and fashion designers by Africans and those that are interested in using African textiles will affect the textile industry in Africa?
JS: Hopefully it will encourage more technical equipment to enter the industry and more investment so that things are done locally.
If companies see that there is a market of people that want to produce and source, they will set up machinery and factories. And the same goes for traditional fabrics and techniques. It will be beneficial for the textiles industries that have been dying out as they have been having a lot of struggles and many factories have had to close down. These factories can be opened up again, there can be an increase in training for Africans in production houses as opposed to bringing in workers from Asia and other parts of the world.
At African Fashion Guide we do a lot of sourcing for companies and we are officially setting up our sourcing agency to link producers in Africa with design companies and designers in Europe and the Americas. There are some [sourcing companies] in existence but there needs to be more in order for more investments and for the industry to grow.
Governments also have to play a part in this but at the moment it may just be more charitable investments. A lot of the companies that have been setting up in Africa have been mostly European and American. They focus on supporting a community, providing work; it’s more of the smaller scale production units. They are doing great work but it’s just on a smaller scale.
WM: A lot of designers are conscious about ‘giving back’ as well as their contribution to economic/social development. Do you think this will be a continuing trend and how do you think they can contribute in a more efficient way?
JS: I think it will be. Unfortunately a lot of it has been about helping rather than building business. I’ve been on the committee of Africa Gives, which is an organisation that encourages Africans, the Diaspora, to give back to Africa through, skills, money or time. Within textiles production there is the opportunity for people with the right skills to help develop more efficient ways of producing textiles.
WM: Who are the designers you think we should be looking out for…
JS: The African Shirt Company is a very small unit based between Mombasa and Nairobi and they do some great stuff from kanga fabric. Companies like that who are doing great things need to be celebrated and supported.
I also like what MAFI is doing, she’s an Ethiopian designer, quite a young girl celebrating what is culturally Ethiopian. She’s done some great stuff, bringing her fashion to a wider audience.
ENZI footwear brand over in Ethiopia as well, there are so many that I could talk about, oh yes LAURENCE AIRLINE have a production unit that I think is pretty cool.
I think the designers that have gone out and set up a production unit and factory really need to be celebrated because it isn’t an easy thing to do. I’m really about the textiles and I’m really supporting the production side of African fashion so for me, I’m always looking at that and traditional textiles and I think that is part of what separates me from other blogs.
WM: Talking about textiles, you must have seen lots of different types of traditional textiles. Do you have a favourite?
JS: I love Kente, who doesn’t? Anything that is hand woven really. A lot of countries have their own hand woven fabric but I have to really celebrate the history of Kente as well as the skills, for example, I have seen the weavers in the Gambia. Like ever since I saw Erzumah Ackerson of Bestow Elan at the book launch in that coat I’ve been tweeting her like ‘hint hint, the coat’, it’s gorgeous and when you think of the fact that it has been hand woven, you can’t just buy that in Topshop – it’s expensive, it looks great and it’s got history in it, it has somebody’s emotion in there and their hard work. Kente weaving is not just about the fabric, it is about a story but it is also about a community of men. Today in the West there has been a breakdown of young black men getting together and working together towards a common goal; Kente brings people together, it’s community orientated, it is owned by them, it’s just has a lot of history. Plus it just looks great.
WM: We were told that you designed your own dress for the book launch, are you thinking of launching your own line in the future?
JS: *giggles* Funnily enough, when I started this whole journey, as part of my Masters I decided to set up a label – it was called ‘Akarbi designs’. It was to use sustainable material from Africa so I sourced and I produced in Kenya and Ghana, I went through the whole process of the supply chain, sourcing the materials, having the things made there, shipping them back to England, doing fashion shows, selling online and so on. I did this so that I could really see how the process would work because if you talk to people about it, you really ought to have some level of experience. It was small, just to experience the supply chain, it was not easy and I know that I will not be pursing another label.
WM: Back to your Fashion Africa, what were some of your most memorable moments and experiences?
JS: Finishing it! Seeing that book come through the post after having looked at so many PDFs finally seeing it in person after everything has been put together, it all just looked so much sharper and better, it was very exciting!
WM: Any other future plans?
JS: I would like to continue looking at fashion made in Africa, particularly the production side of things. Also the use of traditional fabrics in a more contemporary way, I actually just have a lot ideas.