The concept of luxury, usually embodied by classic symbols of style and delicate craftsmanship – think anything from a Hermès Kelly bag to a Cartier watch or a Ferrari – has shifted considerably in the last few years.
Although craftsmanship, time and rarity commonly pop up when talking about luxury, the word itself has a different meaning from one country or culture to another.
Recent collaborations between high-end luxury brands and streetwear labels, the rental of luxury clothes through online platforms – making luxury, usually considered “difficult to obtain”, accessible with a click – has made the concept harder to grasp and define.
This is especially relevant in South Africa, where the meaning of luxury varies widely from one person to another, depending on their culture, background and demographics.
“I think when we say, ‘African luxury’ today, it should be in the context of description rather than definition, as there is really nothing like an umbrella African luxury definition that covers the socio-cultural, historical, economic and social contexts of all the continent’s 55 countries,” says Uche Pézard, the Paris-based founder and chief curator of Luxury Connect Africa and a speaker at the 2019 Condé Nast Luxury Conference in Cape Town.
Nisha Kanabar, co-founder of Industrie Africa, a platform showcasing the work of African designers notes that, on the continent, luxury is usually not about price, but instead, about the strength and depth of “the story that a brand seeks to tell through its craft – be it a new take on indigenous textiles, a reinterpretation of artisanal techniques, or a genuine understanding of their identity and influences”.
She adds that the diversity we boast throughout Africa and the diaspora is a great push for such unique perspective.
“Where luxury once used to be synonymous with exclusivity, and aspiration, today it resonates with a much younger consumer through pillars of authenticity, emotional connection, uniqueness, and environmental consciousness.”
Talking to Kenyan jewellery designer Ami Shah, the word “luxury” means increased sustainability and more transparency in a brand’s production processes.
“Many of the challenges that the big international fashion brands face – environmental and human impact of production, the throw-away culture of consumerism, the constant desperation for newness – are things that we, as African designers can traverse, navigate around and conquer.”
Shah explains that many designers are telling substantial stories about their heritage, often bringing into their work local materials and traditional craftsmanship.
“It’s this country/region-specific narrative that I believe is compelling and should be protected but also should be created with a view to engaging with international audiences… whether it’s across the continent or beyond.”
The Bain & Company Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study, released in November 2018, says the global luxury market – which includes personal luxury goods, luxury cars and hospitality, fine and wine spirits, gourmet food, fine art, high quality design and furniture, private jets and yachts as well as luxury cruises – reached a total revenue of €1.171-billion in 2018, a growth of 1% from the previous year (Editor’s note: in the world of superyachts, the Trump Princess is an 86m long Benetti, with a ruby suite and onyx bathroom that cost about $2.5-million a year to operate before it was sold to Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal).
Yet, the study seems to ignore the African continent, instead breaking down the “Personal luxury goods market” between China (8%), Japan (8%), the Americas (32%), Europe (33%), the rest of Asia (14%) and finally, the rest of the world (5%).
Another report dubbed The State of Fashion 2019, by the consulting firm McKinsey and published earlier in 2019, affirmed that “Africa and Russia [will be] experiencing more economic and political challenges that are likely to dampen their consumer spending.”
In stark contrast to both reports’ assessments and the consensus that the continent isn’t yet a significant player in the world of fashion consumption and luxury, Condé Nast International (CNI) with Vogue International editor Suzy Menkes at the helm launched the Luxury Conference in Cape Town last April, under the theme “Nature of Luxury”, setting the stage, or so they hoped, for an African luxury new dawn.
Fashion, luxury and tech speakers, including Marco Bizzarri, the president and CEO of Gucci; Sylvie Bénard, the environment director of the LVMH group; and Susan Akkad the senior vice-president of local and cultural innovation at Estée Lauder, together with African experts and entrepreneurs, spoke about the role and increasing importance of sustainability while examining the broader landscape of the global luxury market.
It wasn’t Menkes’ first time referring to Africa as a great promise for luxury: back in 2012, when she was still the International Herald Tribune’s fashion editor, and the premises of what is now the CNI Luxury Conference were laid by the Herald’s Luxury Business Conference, she had already brought “Africa” into the conversation. The theme of the 2012 summit: “The power of the Mediterranean, the promise of Africa.”
In an interview with Luxury Society, Menkes said, “There are two reasons why ‘Africa’ and ‘luxury’ should appear in the same sentence. The first is a new vision of what luxury means in the 21st Century. Consumers, particularly in the Western hemisphere, are beginning to prize objects touched by human hands – and the handwork in Africa is exceptional. From the work that the Tuaregs have done for Hermes to the bags that are created in Kenya for Ilaria Fendi and for Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, African hands make artistic pieces, often with the added bonus of being sustainable and also ethical (…).
“I have been surprised to find from Morocco to Nigeria, shopping malls designed to serve an increasingly eager number of serious shoppers. Although the brands currently available tend to be mid-level, at this pace of growth, the top luxury brands will be established in many parts of Africa in the next seven to 10 years.”
Seven years later, where does “African” luxury stand?
“I think the generalisation of Africa as ‘a market’ (just like Russia) as represented in the McKinsey report is offhand and wrong. Africa is not a country, Africa is not a market, Africa is not even 55 markets but rather 55 starting points as there are several markets in each African country,” says Pézard.
“In addition, Africa as a continent represents an international market area with several countries that already trade with one another in different capacities in spite of their complexities and challenges. So, to disregard this context and dismiss Africa as ‘a’ place with economic and political challenges is rather condescending and lazy.”
Chidera Muoka, a Lagos-based Nigerian creative director, consultant and writer agrees: “We need to protect the individual uniqueness of fashion in each African country. We should stop making this mistake of defining Africa as one. Nigeria isn’t Ghana, Ghana isn’t Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone is not Rwanda, Rwanda is not Zimbabwe. We are different people; we have different styles; we have different techniques; we have different languages.
“It is highly important to protect the individuality and the uniqueness of fashion in each African country. You cannot classify a whole continent; it is a mistake that has been made repeatedly. We cannot classify this continent as one because our diversity gives us so much to offer. The music is different; the language is different, our style is different, and this makes every one of us unique.”
On some levels, there has been a shift in how designs made and crafted on different parts of the continent, especially coming from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana or Ethiopia, are being received internationally; this is thanks partly to the internet and social media, that give a better visibility to local creatives, and allow them to reveal their unique work to the world without having to wait for an editorial in a magazine or a nod – and a contract – from international buyers; then, the industry has made efforts to be more diverse, opening its ranks to a generation of young designers, artists and creatives who are reshaping the luxury business, shaking established conventions and passé house codes.
The recent nominations of fashion designers Thebe Magugu of South Africa or Kenneth Ize of Nigeria, as finalists for the prestigious LVMH Prize, the changes implemented by British-Ghanaian Vogue UK editor, Edward Enninful towards a better representation in the leading fashion and luxury magazine, or the appointment of US fashion designer, entrepreneur and DJ Virgil Abloh, as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection in March 2018, are a few of the significant moves that are changing conversations and signalling a shift.
But, so much more remains to be done.
“It’s worth noting that while we do feel that awareness and perspective has heightened the overall conversation in the past year, a continued lack of access leads the global industry to still look at African fashion as novel,” says Nisha Kanabar, co-founder of Industrie Africa, a platform showcasing the work of African designers.
But Pézard is hopeful, she explains that when we look at the “re-emergence” of Africa in luxury and the cultural, social and economic impact such a large population inside and outside the continent will have on luxury, we understand that Africa is a very big deal for luxury today.
“The truth is that the world is just catching up to Africa because Africa’s cultural renaissance that has led to the revival of luxury in Africa started more than 10 years ago and it is only just now that the international luxury brands are beginning to understand what is going on.”
Kanabar agrees: “For the past decade, there’s been industry speculation on Africa’s role as the next frontier of fashion and luxury. In many cases, this has pointed to Africa’s rise as the consumer of luxury; or Africa as a growing hub for import. What many have overlooked until recently is Africa as a home of luxury, a luxury exporter – of storied products, or of unique experiences.”
This account is not unfounded – according to another study, by consultancy firm Euromonitor, Sub-Saharan Africa emerged in the last 10 years as “the second-fastest growing region in the world and is projected to maintain this position to 2020”.
Growth indicators are encouraging and many factors can be credited behind this development, including, “a demographic boom; a rapidly expanding young population; the growth and increased wealth of the middle class and financial independence of women; accelerated penetration of new technologies and smartphone use,” and finally, the urbanisation of the continent.
The research adds that in 2030, of the 41 megacities on the planet, six will be in Africa, with four in the sub-Saharan zone and that the number of “high net worth individuals” with more than $1-million in assets has doubled in 15 years and should increase by 45% by 2024. What this means is that hope for Africa to be the world’s second-fastest growing region for the consumption of luxury goods is tangible. And forecasts of African luxury markets growing by 30% over the next five years, make “Africa” a possible future El Dorado for luxury brands.
But Kanabar insists that, “While the world often tends to perceive Africa as a single frontier, it’s paramount that we emphasize and appreciate each country independently – as you would any other market.
“Mainstream media depicts African fashion through the lens of very specific regions, thus ignoring not only the beauty of its vast diversity, but the economic, political and cultural nuances that are crucial to entry from market to market. On the other hand, we share the same narrative – so joining forces as a continent through cross-border conversation and entrepreneurship plays an important part in strengthening our overall industry.”
In this scenario, South Africa is commonly seen as the entry to the continent’s luxury market, thanks to its large malls, with international luxury brands already well established in the country and a mainstream and consistent shopping culture.
Yet, before the luxury market can grow in different parts of the continent, there is an urgent need to protect the incredible heritage we have and change perception around the value of our crafts.
“Fashion in Africa is distinct for its craftsmanship and dependence on valuable resources and skills like embellishment, embroidery, weaving, spinning and customisation. Techniques that make them really special because they have been touched by human hand,” notes Omoyemi Akerele, the founder and executive director of Style House Files and Lagos Fashion Week.
“How can African fashion preserve its essence in a world where automated machines are fast replacing such traditional skills and techniques? How can we balance the designers’ need for scalability without upsetting the fragile ecosystem that’s people-dependent for its uniqueness? How can we protect our cultural power and symbolism expressed through the work of our designers?” she asks, pointing to the need for creatives and designers to source locally and for production processes to be as sustainable as possible. A far cry considering, for example, the collapse of the South African manufacturing industry and its difficulty to rise up again.
South African Market Insights claimed that, in the first quarter of 2019, “Manufacturing production was adversely affected by frequent electricity-supply shortages, higher input prices – in particular fuel – and weak domestic demand. In addition, the demand for manufactured exports weakened as global manufacturing production slowed amid ongoing international trade tensions.”
Still, in spite of all the challenges and obstacles, increasing numbers of designers and artists are making strides in the global world of luxury, paving the way for the many more to come.
“We all have a role to play in contributing to this beautiful legacy that has been passed down to us by our forebears. We have something so tangible and precious to offer the world from this vast continent’s beauty but we must work together to map out the future we hope to see and we can only do this by working together.
“We have our differences, but the future is not about erasing those differences or trying to make them seem insignificant, the future is about acknowledging our differences, celebrating them, understanding and valuing them as we journey together to build lasting structures and strengthening an ecosystem where everyone matters. Yes, everyone matters, every voice counts, every hand should benefit,” says Akerele.
Her words to the luxury industry’s ears. ML
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott