African fashion goes global – and takes root in Ireland

Meet the designers behind the businesses here that are responding to surging demand

The influence of African fashion, and the wider acceptance of African fabrics and designs in mainstream Western fashion is on the rise. The latest World Trade Organisation (WTO) director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, makes a point of wearing various Nigerian traditional attire on the world stage, and African patterns and fabrics are making their way into high street collections.

There is a growing acceptance of the unique prints and designs in both the West and in some African countries where there would be a preference for Western clothing. Here in Ireland, there is also a keen interest in these fabrics: we spoke to some of the people behind these African businesses .

Umoja Linn (formerly Umoja Production)

This Afrocentric fashion brand was set up in Galway in 2017 by friends Liswa McDonald and China Soribe. The pair were studying together in Galway, and chose the name Umoja "because it stands for "Unity" in Swahili, one of Africa's oldest languages. The pair grew up with a love for fashion as Soribe's aunt is a designer and McDonald's mother is a jewellery designer back in South Africa.

Introducing new audiences to African fashion and “making it into art” was one of their aims in creating the e-commerce marketplace. The pair enable creatives to sell their Afro-inspired work through Umoja Linn, and wanted to make their business inclusive “so people can wear it anywhere”, Soribe says.

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While there is a demand for African fabrics, people are not sure where to access them, so “we wanted to create an idea where people can go to one place and it is there like ASOS, creating an ease of access,” Soribe says.

“African fashion has been growing over the years,” McDonald says. “Young people and influencers are interested. We want to represent everyone.

“Empowerment and unity” is a message behind their brand, as Irish people also buy their African prints. “We believe everyone should wear our clothes. There is a window between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. It would be quite hypocritical of us to say, ‘You can’t wear it,’ McDonald adds. “Umoja is more than selling and marketing. As Afro-Irish creatives [who use the site], they want to create a space they can have these conversations and integrate.”

"I've always been proud to wear African attire," Soribe says, but traditional designs are often worn " to traditional events and weddings" and "incorporating it into everyday wear can be difficult. Designers like Emmy Kasbit are taking on these challenges.

“Social media has popularised [African designs], especially in Ireland, where growing up you didn’t see a lot of people of African heritage around,” Soribe says.

The WTO’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala “may have felt uncomfortable at first, but for us young black women that’s inspiring”. McDonald also feels inspired by Irish public figures “bringing it back home”. “Cllr Yemi Adenuga probably walks into a room full of white men in suits, but she has her pride to stand out. With her boldness, other young boys and girls can be inspired.”

M.I.O Prints

Dubliner Florence Olufemi-Ojo is the founder of clothing brand, M.I.O Prints, which she launched in 2017. She says she always wanted to her own boss, and wanted to create a business that would blend her heritage and values together.

The idea came when she stopped chemically straightening her Afro-textured hair and asked her cousin to send her a hair bonnet from Nigeria. Her cousin sent her six and she realised there was a gap in the market in Ireland.

She started selling hair bonnets, and then progressed to selling headwraps, aprons, swimwear and pyjama sets, “something people can wear in the everyday”, Olufemi-Ojo says.

Of the growing interest in African prints she says: “People are interested in these unique designs. People are taking notice and it’s putting Africa on the map.

“Zara started selling designs with African print and it’s on the runways too. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala [of the WTO] is proud to wear it.

“It’s great to see African prints on the runways, interpreted to their products. There’s a difference between taking and representing people’s cultures. Acknowledge where it’s from, find out what tribe it is, ask the people who originate there about the materials and it’s tradition.”

Olufemi-Ojo says M.I.O Prints is a brand that design outfits for everyone, “African print are for everyone. Everyone can do with a bit of colour. It’s about dialogue, allowing people to embrace themselves.”

Headscarfs from €22.99; robes from €55.

mio-prints.com

Emerald & Wax

This Irish brand creates Afro-inspired handmade clothing and accessories. Emerald & Wax prides itself on being a truly multicultural business. Founder Virtue Shine draws on her Ghanian heritage, Japanese design and African fabrics to bring her pieces to life along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Originally from Ghana, Shine now lives in Galway with her family. She created the company with a passion for African wax prints that was ignited when, as a child, when she spend time at her grandmother's wholesale African fabric warehouse in Accra.

She draws on this Ghanaian upbringing and love of colour to deliver what she describes as “wearable art” into people’s wardrobes.

Accessories from €24, kimonos from €159.99,

The African Shirt Company

Irish friends Joan Hughes and Lindi Campbell Clause, both art and design graduates, founded this company after a trip to the Mount Kasigau area of South-Western Kenya. Wanting to help improve the lives of the local people they met there, the pair set up The African Shirt Company to provide skills and employment for locals, while encouraging a more sustainable way of living: the shirt company income reduces the need for locals to cut down native forest to earn money.

You can find a collection of vibrant colourful African kanga shirts for men and women starting from €70 in sizes S to XL on theafricanshirtcompany.com

This Creative Fiend

Nigerian-Dubliner Morenike Ajayi works with Ankara material to create a vibrant range of accessories, including hats, masks and socks in African patterns. For collaboration and enquiries you can contact Ajayi at thiscreativefiend@gmail.com or you can buy This Creative Fiend designs on the Umoja Linn website at umojalinn.com/store/thiscreativefiend/, where pricing starts at €12.50.

Airboney’s Fashion

A self-taught fashion designer, entrepreneur and illustrator, Ade Oluokun from Co Meath works with bright, colourful African fabrics and patterns. With her online store Flare by Airboney, she creates occasion and wedding attire and designs dresses to order. Prices on application. For commissions, find her on Instagram at @flarebyairboney and @airboneys_fashion.