Yesterday, me and a number of FIT Precollege students got a tremendous opportunity presented to us. We were given the chance to experience sitting in the audience of the Katie Murphy Amphitheater to listen to four up and coming fashion designers participating in African Fashion Week in NYC, We also got a chance to meet the director of AFWNY, and the woman who made the ceremony possible. Arriving to the event early, I got the chance to meet all of the speakers before the big audience shined a spotlight upon them, looking to them for advice and insight on how to survive the industry. With all of that weight suddenly thrust upon their shoulders, I was glad I was able to see them in a little less than vulnerable state. Nervous-I was introduced to them trying to withhold the enormous grin I could feel gradually making its way across my face. The 6 women were dressed beautifully and the 4 designers each in their own designs. Once the auditorium began to quickly become congested with the flock of Precollege students taking their seats, I finished shaking each speakers hand and hurried to my seat.
It all started with a “good afternoon everyone,” by the master of ceremony, Victoria Adegbola-a student at FIT. Giving a small introduction, the director of African Fashion Week came up to say a few words, and then turns the microphones over to the four designers, each sitting at the table as a united front-strong talented successful women-shedding light on a country whose light is constantly being dimmed or outshined by those who are unable to look past the stereotypical views of African fashion. But with time and gumption, African designers are looking to be seen on a worldwide runway. Designer Asake Agoro, founder of Asakeogo Couture, spoke of not putting herself in a box. A box? Yes a box. The box containing all of the talented African designers who are confined to said box or in their case Continent, while their talent goes almost completely unnoticed.
Trying to keep herself outside the box has led Agoro to mix her traditional African printed designs with a more western design ecstatic. No matter how western her designs may appear, African culture will always have a strong influence over each and every piece in her collection. The same goes for Gloria Wavamunno; who before the event started, I was able to sit down with for a bit and elaborate on the word that the three other designers strongly used as the main inspiration for their designs-culture. Gloria told me she tries to shy away from focusing on culture, this enables her to separate herself professionally as more than just another African designer, but as a global designer, able to cater to the needs of others outside of her country. In a dress I was ready to buy off her right then and there, Gloria’s printed yellow dress was nothing like the “usual” prints African designers are expected to produce. Styling it with a pair of navy tights and black loafers, there was no way simply by looking at her, you could tell if she had bought her dress from an Italian designers RTW collection or from an up and coming Paris designers resort line. However, she has not forgotten her African roots on her journey to becoming a well established brand. Gloria still uses kitenge fabric (African fabric) in each of her collections, while the rest of the designs vary each season from the prints to the silhouette.
“People are sitting up and taking notice,” explains the newest designer, Funmilayo Csilla Deri, as she elaborates on the growing audience the African fashion industry has begun to draw. As a former private banker, Deri made a slight job change-and by slight I mean a complete 180 degree turn to a profession more focused on their love and ability to make beautiful things, rather than how much money is in their Hermes wallet. When asked how long it took for the designers businesses to become profitable all of the designers laughed. Gloria quietly whispered into the microphone clearly indicating that she’s has yet to reach that point in her company, it seems that she also spoke for the other three ladies too, who nodded in agreement.
Designer Ann McCreath keyed in, saying she loves being identified as a successful Kenyan designer, but believes it’s time for her to appeal to a wider audience. All four of these designers understand that becoming a big brand like Versace, Valentino, Chanel, or Gucci takes time and experience, as well as exposure. I learned that you have to be in this for the long run and your heart must be dedicated to making beauty out of the harsh realities many people may face. When walking down the street in Nigeria, Deri is inspired the most, the negativity surrounding her takes a back seat to the positive picture painted in her head. Overall this ceremony was an enlightening experience, giving me a lot of knowledge on an area I never knew much about, or honestly cared too much about. But now I am able to see the beauty that’s produced from outside the box, and I’m confident that with designers like these four, the world will begin to acknowledge the talent that has always been hidden between the borders of the box.
Above: Me & Designer Funmilayo Csilla Deri
Bellow: Me & Designer Gloria Wavamunno