Photo Credit: David Malan for Getty

10 Ethical African Fashion Brands to Support This World's African Day

For World’s Africa Day, OkayAfrica spoke with a number of ethical brands that are pioneering sustainability in the African fashion industry.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a push for fashion brands to be more sustainable and ethical with its practices. Although ethical fashion brands have continued to emerge across the American and European continents, many would argue that sustainable practices have been a part of the African fashion industry since before it became trendy. Crocheting, recycling and upcycling, sustaining of traditional crafts, hand weaving, and more have been a part of the African fashion industry for years.

Before now, a number of African brands have been doing its due diligence and putting in the work to ensure that their production and manufacturing follows a more ethical and sustainable route. For World’s Africa Day, OkayAfrica spoke with a number of these ethical brands that are pioneering sustainability in the African fashion industry.

Ajabeng Ghana (Ghana)

Ajabeng Ghana is an ethical fashion brand founded in 2018 by Travis Obeng-Caster. The brand's regular ethos follows Afro-minimalism and the creation of clothes that are easy to wear. The brand caters to people who associate wholly with minimalism, African arts, and culture. “Ajabeng is a Ghanaian unisex brand birthed at the crossroads of minimalism and contemporary African art and culture," Travis-Obeng tells OkayAfrica. "We use these two seemingly unrelated themes to create an aesthetic that conveys both the purity of minimalism and the vibrancy of African culture. We experiment with both feminine and masculine design elements to create an aesthetic that is as experimental as it is conservative."

Margaux Wong (Burundi)

Founded by Margaux Rosita, Margaux Wong is a sustainable jewelry brand based in Burundi. Since 2001, the brand has continued to use materials such as cow horns, brass, and other locally sourced sustainable materials to innovative accessory designs. “The Margaux Wong is an experimentation of my lifelong experience on this earth. It showcases the beauty and opulence of something that is beautifully handmade," Rosita said. "I love a timeless piece of jewelry, and it’s what I’m trying to share with the world. We basically showcase artistry, longevity, timelessness, and a new perspective on luxury."

Vanhu Vamwe (Zimbabwe)

“We do refer to ourselves as a brand, but we’re more of a revolutionary community that embodies creatively through the eyes of the most honest parts of ourselves," Zimbabwean founder Vamwe tells OkayAfrica. "We have often identified our works as objects rather than handbags, as we’re interested in the idea of our community having their own interpretation of what their purchases are."

Nkwo (Nigeria)

“We are mindful of the harmful impact that running a fashion business has on the planet and on the people."

Nkwo is a Nigerian sustainable brand founded by veteran designer Nkwo Onwuka in 2007. The brand is known for resource recovery and transformation of material waste into reusable products. “We use innovation as a tool to guide us as we work our way towards total zero waste garment production," Onwuka said. "Our methods of waste reduction pay homage to Africa's rich textile craft tradition and so it is a means of promoting our culture and heritage in a way that also respects the environment and is relevant to the world we live in today."

Abiola Olusola (Nigeria)

Eponymous label Abiola Adeniran-Olusola is a Nigerian sustainable brand founded in 2017. Adeniran-Olusola has worked with major fashion houses like Givenchy and Lanvin, since graduating with a BFA in fashion design from Istituto Marangoni Paris in 2015. “We focus on using sustainable materials in making our clothes, so we mainly use just cotton, silks and linens," Adeniran-Olusola said. "We work with craftsmen and women across the country in bringing our ideas to life. Our brand is easy, fresh and makes you feel cool."

Shekudo (Nigeria)

Founded and refocused by Nigerian-Australian Akudo Iheakanwa in 2017, Shekudo has become a household name for artisanal crafts and accessories in the continent. It’s become a brand that encapsulates culture, craftsmanship, heritage, sustainability and empowerment. “We try to showcase our local traditions and techniques through our fabrics and local resources like metals, leather, glass and bronze," Iheakanwa said. "We utilize what we can from our local environment into our designs and create products that can be appreciated not just locally, but across the world."

Maliko (Nigeria)

Maliko is shoe brand that uses handcrafted techniques of production. "With Maliko, we’re exploring different artisanal techniques that we can find in the continent,” Ebuka Omaliko, founder of the Nigerian footwear brand, tells OkayAfrica. “Our shoes are made in small batches. They’re ethically made. We focus duly on fair wages and ensure that people get the value of what they do.”

Hamaji Studio (Kenya)

Hamaji Studio is a brand inspired by everyday East African charm, nature, and people. The Kenya-based Hamaji, which means "nomad" in local Swahili, was founded by Louise Sommerlatte in 2017 and has since grown to be one of the continent’s most sought ethical brands. “Hamaji is a brand created around preserving ancient textile traditions and nomadic handcrafts. It’s a narrative of different stories and threads interwoven together to give clothing that tells a story, and supports local crafts people,” Sommerlatte tells OkayAfrica. “We only use natural fibers on our textiles and natural ingredients on our dyes."

Larry Jay Ghana (Ghana)

Ghana-born Larry Jafaru Mohammed first started the Larry Jay brand as an accessories line in 2012, before rebranding into a clothing line in 2016. Larry Jay caters his clothes for the fashionably conscious and individuals who have love for indigenous African fashion. “The brand is generally inspired by Nature, Various African Cultures and Arts," Jay said. "Our designs exude an understated style and emphasizes ‘tradition and comfort’. It is vintage, with details and innovations that echo our West African heritage.”

Viviers Studio (South Africa)

Based in South Africa, and founded by Lezanne Viviers, the Viviers Studio brand — which was founded in 2019 — has gone on to be one of the most sought after ethical brands emerging from South Africa. Their pieces are grounded in quality and integrity, intended to become unique heirloom pieces. “To us, the energy of the hand involved in the making of each item, is the highest form of luxury,” Viviers tells OkayAfrica. “We always attempt to sustain the ability for our team to continue with our work in a beautiful way, by having a positive impact on humanity, as well as on Mother Earth. Sustainability is a day-to-day approach."

Screenshot from Neptune Frost

How 'Neptune Frost' Costume Designer Cedric Mizero Sees the Future ​

We spoke with Rwandan multidisciplinary artist Cedric Mizero, who delved into the costumes in Neptune Frost and his work as an artist.

Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's Neptune Frost has many currents. Pulsing with a neon fever of greens and blues, the film is passionately Afro-futuristic in its constitution. This distinction from Afrofuturism as a throwaway buzzword is important. Mainly because of the story's roots, a Burundian village where hackers in a tech scrapyard throw off the yoke of capitalist, neocolonial powers to stage a cyber revolution. Crucial to this takeover is the titular Neptune, an intersex runaway, and Matalusa, a coltan miner. They are both fleeing something. For Neptune, it is the dangerous calculus of the gender binary. For Matalusa, it is from the duress of labor exploitation and resource pillaging.

Their union empowers the resistance, forging a manifesto for technological freedom, wealth redistribution, decolonization, gender autonomy, and so on. But Neptune Frost won't be without its eccentric DIY costumes. From the enigmatic, breaking-the-fourth-wall opening of Neptune wearing a colorful, twisty, head enclosure that looks like planetary rings, the gardening women in floaty white frocks and sculptural head cones to Matalusa's potentially covetable jacket, made from a swarming amalgamation of black keyboard letters. Responsible for these sartorial quirks is Cedric Mizero, a Rwandan multidisciplinary artist whose creative stylings and philosophies are already getting recognition in international spaces.

Though not formally trained, Cedric has always felt art chose him as a teenager. Combining painting, fashion design, textures, objects, and mediums, Cedric is more inspired by the rural life around him. Those marginalized by class politics are usually in his creative tableau, including nuanced political themes from his home country. In 2018, Cedric was selected to participate in the International Fashion Showcase 2019, as one of 16 finalists out of more than 200 applications from young fashion designers around the world. Designing costumes for Neptune Frost isn't his first rodeo. There is Atiq Rahimi's Notre Dame du Nil (2019), a coming-of-age story about a group of Rwandan schoolgirls at a Belgian-run Catholic school.

There is also Eric Barbier's Petit Pays (2018), which leans into the tensions in neighboring Rwanda that threaten the peaceful existence of a Burundi boy and his family. Further, in Baloji's short film Never Look At the Sun (2019), a commentary on skin bleaching, Cedric is credited as a collaborating costume designer.

Neptune Frost, which made its debut last summer at the Cannes Film Festival, continues to receive international praise. Last month, it was announced that Kino Lorber will distribute Neptune Frost throughout the world this year. On the heels of that news, OkayAfrica spoke with Cedric, who delved into the film's costumes and his work as an artist.

Walk us through how you conceptualized the costume design for Neptune Frost and how much creative freedom did you have?

The director Saul and I have met before in Rwanda before the film was shot, and it was through the deep conversations we had that I got the first freedom. He said, "go ahead and do anything you want." He did paint a picture of sci-fi and futuristic themes but I still did things my way based on the environment I was in and the materials I had at my disposal.

Cedric Mizero photoCedric Mizero, a Rwandan multidisciplinary artist, is responsible for the styling behind Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman's Neptune Frost.Photo by Tabatha Fireman/BFC/Getty Images

Your work is routinely inclusive of those on the margins of class - women in rural Rwanda, and those in poor communities. Neptune Frost shows overlaps with these creative inclinations of yours. How significant is this connection for you?

In my work, I have always tried to elevate the voices of people who aren't visible and that was how Neptune Frost was to me as the costume designer. It was also the director's desire to amplify voices and so it was easy for me to find that connection. While filming, there was a general mindset of breaking barriers that had to do with status, age, influence, etc. Everyone was important, from the cast members to the person that contributed the smallest.

Let's discuss Neptune, one of the film's main characters, and their sartorial transformations in respect to their intersex identity. When they manifest as female, the costume choices are creative, especially the colorful, cage-like headpiece they adorn in the opening shot. What was going through your mind when fleshing out Neptune's costume presence?

I have known about intersex persons since I was young because I grew up in a village around them, which gave me some insights into their identities. In the costumes though for the character, there wasn't much of a specific direction. Everything still goes back to the freedom that I had received from the director. It was a chance for me to do art and invite people to see new images. It was also based on the composition that I was shown, there was a theme of color that I had to look into and flesh out.

What was the most challenging aspect of designing the film's costume?

It was the imaginary world that I had to create which projected into the future but also rooted in the present. This was the challenge in designing.

The film's makeup was stunning and dreamlike. How did you ensure a seamless blend with costume and the makeup department?

We had this amazing, amazing artist from LA who was doing makeup and it was a beautiful combination when we met. It was all about communication.

Do you feel inclined to pursue a spinoff exhibition or showroom installment that displays the costumes for the public?

It's actually something I'm thinking about and would like to do in the future. It's a question of where and when. After we finished shooting the film, I wanted to create more costumes for the film even though I knew it wasn't going to be used. So I have been sketching and writing more about the dreams for the extension of Neptune Frost. What I see is the possibility of building a museum because the film has an impact on how we understand who we are, where people can come in and see the costumes. This is a bigger dream.

Your creative mantra is that fashion should never be limited to a certain age, size, social or economic status, which led to your creation of the Fashion for All project that draws inspiration from Rwanda. Do you see the project embracing other narratives and perspectives from other African countries?

Fashion For All was the first idea I had as an artist which was to break beauty barriers and other things. So yes, it's my dream to make the project bigger by going to other countries and capture the realities there. The challenge I would face is financial because I don't make money from fashion because I don't have a brand, and I don't have anything to sell.

NEPTUNE FROST (2021) - Sci-Fi, Musical - HD Trailer - English Subtitleswww.youtube.com

As a multidisciplinary artist, you are open to a large creative pool of materials, mediums, and expressions. Do you have a particular preference of expressing art?

I entered the arts without knowing what I was doing, so I was trying everything to express myself. In terms of preference, I don't want to separate myself from any medium and I would like to combine everything into motion picture. Which is why I have been interested in films.

Are you working on any current project?

I am working on a project called Rain Season and it's a love letter to people that I love and people that are interested in my work. For now it's still in writing but I intend to shoot it as a film. There's so much memories that rain brings to me and I have always wanted to move to another place and I think I have reached that state of mind but in my thoughts.

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