"It's focused on Africa, or the influence of Africa," fashion designer Onyii said at New York Fashion Week Africa on Sept. 11. "Isn't that where fashion began?" The Nigerian-American designer behind the brand Onyii & Co. believes that Africa's fashion history has touched the whole world. Luckily, NYFW Africa provided just the opportunity for people of African descent like Onyii to showcase their sartorial prowess in front of the entire industry. At this year's event, eight pan-African designers showed spring and summer 2016 collections to a young, stylish, mostly black crowd wearing everything from traditional head wraps to six-inch stilettos. But this was a show that had a deeper purpose beyond bright colors and eye-popping prints on the runway, especially for women of color themselves.
NYFW Africa's goal is to integrate African fashion into the entire industry, and to present platforms that embrace authenticity, sustainability, and culture. For the first time in production history (and after six years), its showcase was added to the CFDA calendar, the premier scheduling resource for information on global fashion events. That in and of itself is a huge deal for black women in fashion, and for a number of reasons. One obvious one, of course, is the much-needed addition of diversity into the imagery, events, and media we are consuming. Others include building a platform to show black women's economic value, body positivity, and personal empowerment.
When it comes to diversity, it's an issue that the fashion industry has been struggling with for quite some time (if not forever). According to a Jezebel diversity report, a staggering 78.69 percent of models were white at 2014's Autumn/Winter NYFW. Black women made up only 9.75 percent.
At NYFW Africa, however, there was not only a stunningly diverse variety of women of color modeling on the runway, but proud, pan-African designers smiling at the public sight of their complete collections. "Fashion is such a big platform for women," Adiat Disu, the director of the event's organizer, Adirée, said at the event. "We wear the clothes. We are the clothes."
Disu added that it is important for women of color to have functions like this because they emphasize the powerful economic value that black women bring to the table. "Not only do they buy beauty products, but now they are able to develop platforms that look like them."
Zainab Akande, a Nigerian-American freelance journalist who attended the show, tells me she found the sight of her personal culture represented on the runway to be inspiring. She'd previously thought it would never get this much attention due to the fashion industry's still less than progressive moves towards inclusivity.
As a Nigerian-American who grew up wearing geometric patterns and bold designs unique to African fashion, Akande found the show to be a powerful experience — and nothing short of uplifting for fellow women of color. "I saw models of different skin tones, body types and hair textures," she says. "They were all fierce and they were all beautiful. You're simply not going to see another fashion show as celebratory as this one of the the black female body."
Body positivity via the celebration of black, female bodies was also not lost on the designers present, including the male ones. Sarfo, the designer behind Sarfo of Styles, tells me that at many other fashion shows, he has only ever seen one specific type of body represented: The very thin, statuesque aesthetic. He also notes that in Ghana, there is a love colorful prints meant to celebrate curves, and this show was no different. "In Africa, we celebrate all different shapes of black people," he says. "Not only do we showcase our designs, but also our culture."
Ashley McFarlane, the designer of Asikere Afana, celebrated her own unique culture through her collection as well. The Jamaican, Toronto-based designer can trace her lineage back to Ghana. She feels connected to her roots through fashion, and tells me that the sartorial world offers a great way to learn about yourself and where you come from. By exploring her own roots and mixing them with other influences, such as Thai styes, she's had the chance to access a major fashion capital and help create a space for the inclusivity of WOC. "It's a platform that needs to be here," she tells me. "I know that women always want to wear clothes they can connect to."
We still have a long way to go in terms of diversity in fashion. However, one thing is for sure: These designers' stories, told through prints and confident color, are absolutely worth telling. Because of NYFW Africa, a space for the visibility and inclusivity of women of color who are so often isolated from the fashion world was created. If that's not something we need more of, then I don't know what is.
Images: Jaclyn Anglis