Mowalola Ogunlesi's 'Psychedelic' collection.

11 Women-Led African Fashion Brands Making a Global Impact

From Sarah Diouf's Tongoro to Loza Maléombho and Sindiso Khumalo's eponymous labels, here are 11 trailblazing African brands owned by women designers.

While in Nigeria for Arise Fashion Week in 2018, British supermodel, Naomi Campbell, told the international press about the need for the Vogue magazine franchise to have an African title.

The proposal of a Vogue Africa is an obvious wink at the immense creativity from the African fashion industry; a wave of designers rethinking the paradigms of African fashion. And a handful of them are women, pushing creative innovations and engaging with local communities in preserving age-old methods of textile production. Their collaboration with artisans in honing traditional craft skills has provided employment, especially economic empowerment for rural women.

As fast fashion continues to overproduce garments, with countries like Ghana since becoming a huge receptacle for these garments to arrive as second-hand desirables, some designers are bringing awareness to this crisis of waste, the filling up of landfills and degradation of the environment in the process.

Because the global fashion landscape is dominated by white gatekeepers sustaining narrow beauty aesthetics, predominantly giving platform and access to white designers and operating on excess, it's important to recognise the work of African labels helmed by women especially in the area of environmental justice and making strides in innovation.

Below are 11 impactful African brands with women at the helm. The list is in no particular order.

1. Sindiso Khumalo​

Earning a master's degree in textile futures at Central Saint Martins, South African sustainable fashion and textile designer, Sindiso Khumalo, launched her eponymous brand in 2015. Adopting an empowerment-led, community-driven approach by working with artisans and making garments from naturally sourced materials like cotton and hemp, Khumalo's design milieu tells stories about historic women from her country and across the Black diaspora.

She's also decorated with international fashion laurels: Independent Designer of the Year at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards 2020, recognising her contributions to sustainability and a 2020 LVMH Prize finalist.

2. Tongoro

After carrying out intensive market research and wanting to amplify the image of African women in the fashion industry, stylist and entrepreneur, Sarah Diouf, launched Tongoro in 2016 in Dakar, Senegal. The brand is unequivocally African and subverts concepts of luxury by being affordable and having a model that empowers local communities and promotes Senegalese craftsmanship. Diouf did this by training a team of local artisans in her home country to make quality garments to international standards. The Tongoro aesthetic is unwaveringly bold but also playfully feminine–billowing dresses and vivacious prints–and doesn't compromise in promoting the Made-in-Africa label.

3. Hanifa 

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic presented new challenges for the global fashion industry to navigate. And while it saw many brands pivoting towards digital mediums to showcase collections, womenswear label Hanifa unveiled a virtual 3D fashion show that became a viral sensation, reverberating through the corridors of fashion in the process. US-based Congolese designer, Anifa Mvuemba, was behind this technological feat. Her first runway show since establishing the brand in 2012, she turned the limitations imposed by the pandemic into a resounding success. With bold colors and precise tailoring, Mvuemba is unequivocally concerned with dressing Black women, especially fuller, curvier Black women who often are underrepresented in the fashion industry.

4. Selly Raby Kane

Born and raised in Dakar, Selly Raby Kane is one of Senegal's most renowned designers pioneering a booming creative movement in her home country, a multidisciplinary artist whose creative footprint overlaps beyond fashion and into the realms of art, film, sculpture, etc. After quitting law school in Paris, she returned to Senegal and launched her brand in 2008, her garments marked by the seamless juxtaposition of traditional West African textiles and futuristic elements drawn from watching American science fiction, horror, fantasy, supernatural movies as a child.

In 2018, Swedish furniture brand IKEA collaborated with her and other African creatives to design a collection for their homeware range. For the collection, Kane made a basket out of braided hair, referencing the culture of hair braiding in West Africa.

5. Nkwo

After years of cultivating an Afro-bohemian chic aesthetic since 2007, founder and creative director, Nkwo Onwuka, relaunched her eponymous brand in 2012 with a new ethos: environmental consciousness. Turning to traditional textile handcrafts and preserving the artisanal legacies and skills in local communities, the Dakala fabric was the innovation that emerged from exploring weaving techniques using leftover denim. Today, the brand is at the forefront of the sustainability movement in Nigeria, operating on the ''philosophy of less'' mantra as a way to address fashion's waste problem and its negative impact on the environment.

6. Deola Sagoe

As one of Nigeria's enduring fashion brands with international acclaim, Deola Sagoe brought opulence and romanticism with its innovative use of aso-oke, a handwoven cloth worn by the Yorubas in South-Western Nigeria. Tinkering with the textile overtime produced functional bespoke pieces known as Komole, skewed towards the high-end market with its laser-cut intricacy, patterns, colour range, and modern silhouettes. At the brand's creative helm is Deola, who is not just dressing different generations of women, but is also staying true to her cultural heritage.

7. Mowalola 

While some became aware of Mowalola Ogunlesi in 2020, when she was hired by Kanye West to design for the Yeezy-Gap collaboration, the Nigerian-British designer had already enraptured the fashion crowd with her brand's neon punkish leather, cut skimpily in skirts, tanks, crop tops, halter dresses, and other bizarrely sleek pieces.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Mowalola went to Central Saint Martins and channels her Nigerian roots in her work. Her BA collection was an ode to Lagos petrolheads and Nigeria's '70s and '80s psych-rock scene in a way that challenged the current mores around African masculinity. Not afraid to incorporate profanity and religious motifs into her designs, Mowalola has fashioned a brand now synonymous with sex and youth.

8. Chloe Asaam

Born in Ghana, Chloe Asaam's fledgling brand came about as an alternative to Kantamanto, where Ghana's biggest secondhand clothing trade takes place, a fast-fashion economy receiving 15 million secondhand garments per week from the Global North which consequently leads to overwhelming waste. The Accra-based womenswear designer repurposes fabrics from the market like cotton and linens, combining them with traditional Ghanaian textiles in refreshing, innovative ways. She also incorporates QR codes into garments to supply details on how they are made.

With sustainability thrown around in the fashion industry as a buzzword, Asaam is providing traceability. In a photo series, her brand was recently spotlighted by Mercedes Benz Fashion Week last November, zooming in as one of the emerging talents in Ghana.

9. Loza Maléombho

Beyoncé in the music video for 'Already' featuring Shatta Wale & Major Lazer.

Still taken from YouTube.

Making clothes rooted in the rich cultural spectrum of Cote d'Ivoire, where Loza Maléombho is from, has always been foundational to her brand's make-up. Founded in 2009, her namesake womenswear label has been flipping these references to accommodate the wide-angled facets of Maléombho's upbringing–Brazil, Abidjan, the US–with also a lean towards West African royalty. Her collections over the years have seen deconstruction and juxtapositions, traditional textiles that flatter the feminine form through modern cuts and styling. In synergy with local artisans and craftspeople, the brand has produced ethnic jewelry and footwear with tribal touches.

Celebrities like Iman, Kelly Rowland and Solange Knowles have been seen in her pieces. And perhaps the biggest moment for the brand to date was Beyoncé in a custom shoulder-padded blazer in the Black Is King film.

10. Deepa Dosaja

Deepa Dosaja is one of Kenya's top fashion brands founded in 1991, and known for its signature hand-embroidery and appliqué. Over the years, the brand has focused on working with local communities in Kenya to create employment such as tailors, beaders, cutters and training them as well. In 2015, the label dressed Lupita Nyong'o for her Kenyan homecoming. In 2018, the label participated in the inaugural Commonwealth Fashion Exchange at Buckingham Palace, London, an initiative for emerging and established fashion talents from across the Commonwealth's 53 countries to showcase the power and potential of artisanal fashion skills.

Exchanging with artisans from Zambia, Deepa Dosaja created a hand-painted, hand-embroidered bespoke piece made from organic silk locally produced in Kenya. Behind the label is Deepa Dosaja herself, who is also concerned with reducing waste and encouraging recycling.

11. Doreen Mashika

After working and studying in Switzerland, Doreen Mashika returned to her home country of Tanzania to pursue fashion, setting her eponymous label in the cosmopolitan environment of Zanzibar. Inspired by the textiles of her Tanzanian heritage and Zanzibar's breezy, Island aura, Doreen Mashika's collections feature East African wax print Kitenge done in frocks and beach-ready dresses. The brand has also shifted towards accessories from bags to jewellery; combining materials in an interesting way.

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Photo courtesy Rukky Ladoja.

Rukky Ladoja on Building a Socially Responsible Nigerian Fashion Brand

The Nigerian designer behind Dye Lab has established a popular design brand based on the principle of little to no waste.

Rukky Ladoja is having what she describes as a typical Monday. She’s been called into her workshop for an emergency because her suppliers brought in the wrong materials. Rather than panic and wonder what to do, she immediately starts figuring out how to use the materials she’s been given in new pieces. ‘‘One thing I am big on is no waste,’ she tells OkayAfrica, when she shares the kind of day-to-day issues that come up for her as the designer behind Dye Lab. Ladoja founded the design brand during the COVID-19 pandemic and, guided by a zero-waste policy, it’s now become one of the most popular fashion brands in Nigeria today.

While Dye Lab has been branded a sustainable brand by many, Ladoja notes she is more comfortable calling herself “socially responsible,” as she didn’t set out to create a sustainable brand; she wanted to create a practical one. A brand that, instead of sourcing materials from international markets or using practices foreign to her environment, adapts local resources, styles, and skills across the entire design process. The result is practical kimono pieces that require little to no adjustment per customer, created in a way that ensures every part of the design process takes advantage of the resources — human and physical — around her with very little to no waste allowed.

The response to this? Phenomenal. Today, Dye Lab is fast turning into a household name in Lagos where it has inspired several copycats as the brand has turned into one of the best sellers of Industrie Africa — an e-commerce website with a focus on African designers. Days before Ladoja and I talk, Dye Lab had just finished a six-week pop-up store at the Anya Hindmarch store in the United Kingdom, and their year is just getting started.

An image of the designer sitting on a chair that\u2019s placed on a checkered floor and there\u2019s a vibrant art piece behind her.Designer Rukky Ladoja is all about running a socially responsible fashion brand.Photo courtesy Stephen Tayo.

‘‘The response has been great,” says Ladoja. “It's been an onslaught of demand, from clients, from friends, from international orders.” The brand recently started stocking on Industrie Africa, and Ladoja was told to expect 10 to 12 orders a month — that's kind of what their highest sellers get. “They just sent us a report that we had gotten over 60 orders in a month,” she says. “It's always like a surprise, every time we get those numbers.” It’s the same feeling she gets when a brand like Anya Hindmarch approaches the label. “Before they approached us, we had been talking about what kind of brands we wanted to emulate globally and they were put at the top of that list. And so to get a call saying, ‘Hey, I would love to collaborate,’ it was sort of surreal to us.’’

From a young age, Ladoja has always been interested in fashion, design, and the process of design in particular. ‘‘I was more interested in putting things together, not necessarily the style element of it, but the construction, the process of it.’’ Her favorite designers — the likes of Miuccia Prada, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, and Alexander McQueen — are all designers who focus on intelligent fashion, and the purpose behind every design choice they make. These influences are what interested Ladoja in fashion when she was in university.

She started a brand in the late 2000s, observing how many of her peers shopped, noting that at the time, online shopping wasn’t as readily available as it is today and that many Nigerians didn’t trust the few online stores that did exist mostly. For many, shopping meant sellers had to come into their places of work or buyers had to rush to stores after work. ‘‘I recognised how people were shopping,’’ Ladoja says. ‘‘And it was always someone bringing a suitcase into the office and everyone going through it, or running down to the market to see what they could buy.” It made Ladoja think: people should be able to shop in nicer environments than this. That was the start of Grey Projects, a high-end retail brand in the vein of Zara that stocked ready-to-wear fashion pieces created with Africans in mind.

But in 2019, a decade after launching the brand, Ladoja had to shut down Grey Projects. Sourcing supplies in Nigeria was difficult and even when she would get the supplies, finished products would often sit in warehouses, going to waste. She learned that working with local tailors to recreate her designs, which were often foreign to them, was a Herculean task that only led to more surplus items. Closing the business left her not wanting to be involved in fashion ever again. ‘‘I just felt like I had just been scarred too much,” she says, “and there was too much trauma there.’’

Instead, Ladoja turned her focus to consulting, working behind the scenes for brands like Lagos Fashion Week. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and the world stopped for a second; as did Ladoja’s consulting work. She needed to find another source of income. ‘‘The resources I had were my tailors, access to fabric, fabric markets, and suppliers,’ she says.’

Yet Ladoja was resistant to the idea of launching a brand. Instead, she searched for a retailer to house and sell what she had created, agbada kaftans that took inspiration from traditional Yoruba styles and dyeing processes. ‘‘Unfortunately, at that point, none of the retailers wanted to buy it, which was a shame,’ she says. Ladoja then took to teasing the product herself, wearing it on Zoom meetings and around friends, who started saying, ‘Oh, I want to buy it.’

The interest grew organically, so much so that Dye Lab soon had a strong enough customer base and a distinct enough style for Ladoja to launch the brand. Armed with the lessons from Grey Projects, she took the leap. This time around, Ladoja sought to do everything differently. She rearranged the structure of her brand, and focused on making sure everything in the production process was accessible and easy. ‘‘I broke down everything that I didn't like about Grey [Projects], and used that to create Dye Lab,” she says. “The garments we made with Grey were my designs, but they were very complicated for my tailors. So I decided 'm not going to do that. I'm going to create styles and use styles that are familiar to my tailors. That way everybody can feel comfortable.’’

Taking the lessons learnt from Grey Projects to Dye Lab seeped into every part of Ladoja’s new brand, right down to the approach to fashion week. For the 2022 Lagos Fashion Week, where other brands were showcasing their designs on the runway, Dye Lab chose to invite select guests and press for a special exhibition where they got to see the garment-making process of the brand, educating them on the history of the fabric, techniques and the people behind it all. ‘‘With Grey Projects, I was importing Westernized ideas of fashion into a space that just did not connect with,’’ Ladoja says. ‘‘With Dye Lab, I said, let me go back; let me work with what is here; let me respond to what the people around me want, what works.’’

Now, Ladoja is focusing on expanding the world of Dye Lab. She reminds me that Dye Lab is first a ‘design brand’ and not just a fashion brand, which means there are limitless options when it comes to expanding. “I'm quite impatient to innovate and do more, or bring out all the ideas in my head,” says Ladoja. “However, just the garment production has taken such a toll, especially as we are trying to keep up with the demand.” Ladoja’s vision is to take the ideology and the conceptualization process from fashion to lifestyle products, furniture, stationery and everyday objects.


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