Africans in fashion speak on coming all-African issue of L'Uomo Vogue
At the recent Diane von Furstenberg Fall 2012 show, the editor of Italian Vogue Franca Sozzani announced a coming issue of L’Uomo Vogue that will be completely “about people who are from Africa, in a positive way.”
“I don’t want to say in a [glamorous] way, but I wanted to show the best side, but only the good side,” Franca Sozzani told the online fashion mag Stylite. “There are a lot of talents, a lot of talented people in art, in music, in cinema and everywhere. So I really wanted to push that side.”
This will be the second issue of L’Uomo Vogue (or Italian Men’s Vogue) that focuses on African style and culture, the first of which was released in 2008. Coming in May or June of 2012, when the new all-African issue of L’Uomo Vogue hits the newsstands, designer Nina Baksmaty will be introduced to a global audience of fashion lovers and influencers. Featured in the magazine’s hotly anticipated book, edited by influential fashion industry maverick Sozzani, Baksmaty is ready for this close-up on her Ghanaian women’s fashion line, KoshieO.
Declares Baksmaty, “There’s no doubt that Vogue is the largest and most influential fashion magazine in the world.” She adds, “The Vogue reader looks to Vogue for the next fashion trend, the next designer, the next phase in fashion. The African [L’Uomo Vogue] edition… will therefore let the Vogue readers know the potential of African fashion.”
For Baksmaty, and most fashion designers, models, stylists, and photographers — emerging and established — a Vogue endorsement lends instant legitimacy. Which is why it was so disheartening when Vogue’s publisher Condé Nast refused to award a license for a dedicated edition of Vogue Africa when a black photographer petitioned for its creation. And why it remains puzzling that Vogue brands in Italy continue using black themes, while their parent company seems to deny an African audience’s viability.
Back in 2009 — a year after Franca Sozzani released the bestselling “all black” issue of Vogue Italia and the success of the “black” L’Uomo Vogue — France-based Cameroonian creative director and photographer Mario Epanya launched a Facebook group called “Vogue Africa.” He posted lush mock-ups of covers, attracting a coterie of ‘fashionphiles,’ aspiring models, activists, and business advisers. Group members responded enthusiastically to the images of luminous African women stamped with the exclusive Vogue logo, showing emphatic support as Epanya announced he had applied for a license from Vogue’s parent company Condé Nast to create its African imprint. When the powers that be ultimately denied the license for an Africa edition in the summer of 2010, the ire and disappointment was palpable. The intensity of the letdown was underscored by the fact that India, Australia, Korea, Japan, Mexico, and many other countries have their own versions of Vogue.
In response, Epanya’s page lit up with comments, “validation” emerging as a central theme.
”[F]*** them,” one commenter cursed. ”[W]hy do we all want validation from this euro-racist industrial const®uct??? tell them to kiss your ass… and keep it moving.”
Another member of Epanya’s Facebook group insisted: “Black Beauty does NOT need to be validated by Vogue. I’d urge you to use this opportunity to create something of your own — that you’d have control over.”
Just under two years since his concept of Vogue Africa was rejected, Epanya has done exactly that. Refusing to get into the specifics of his pitch to Condé Nast or the reasons they gave him, if any, for refusing the license, Epanya insists, “it belongs to the past.” Now the founder and editor of Winkler magazine, a celebration of African and diaspora fashion and beauty, Epanya asserts, “The future is the only thing that matters.”
Ghanaian designer Mimi Plange sees L’Uomo Vogue’s upcoming Africa issue as a means to an end — or rather, a beginning. ”[A]n African edition of L’Uomo Vogue means movement to me, and ultimately change.” For Plange, “change” comes down to “an awareness that will allow our clothing to be seen simply as what it is, without a pretense of what it means to be an African designer or what it means to be inspired by Africa.” She adds, “Hopefully, with more exposure… there will be no expectations, no generalizations, only excitement for something new, fresh and wearable that speaks loudly to the global community.”
It’s a lot to ask of a single issue, especially when troubling representations of Africa and controversial copy still rear their head from time to time — sometimes perpetuated by the same publications that are supposed to be progressive.
Last February, avant garde French fashion publication L’Officiel put Beyoncé Knowles on their 90th Anniversary cover — sporting high-fashion black face. The magazine explained the make-up choice was inspired by “several African rituals during which paint is used on the face,” while their statement about the controversy added, “We find the images beautiful and inspiring.” Many readers found the images insulting. Sozzani’s Vogue Italia has also stumbled. In a trend story on Vogue.it (its web site) last August, the magazine promoted oversized hoops as “slave earrings.” The requisite apologies were issued, but one has to wonder if African editors would have made these lapses.
Zandile Blay, the Ghanaian editor and founder of AfricaStyleDaily.com, believes there is a difference between the images produced when Africans are representing Africa and other Africans. “It’s the difference between a mother’s love and a nanny’s love,” she says.
Blay elaborates, “It’s love all the same — but one is with a knowingness, lovingkindness, and authenticity forged by blood and bonding since birth.”
Plange sees a difference too, but notes that it comes down to the individual creating the images. “There is a difference between someone who sees and accepts the many different beauties of African people, and someone who sees… rather than accepts.” She believes Sozzani, Vogue Italia’s editor, falls in the more favorable former category. Epanya also applauds Sozzani for leveraging her power to spotlight ignored factions in fashion, as does Blay.
“She’s one of the few visionary editors out there who is using her platform to not only inform — but impact — her audience,” Blay noted.
Baksmaty, who has developed a mentee-mentor relationship with Sozzani since her visit to Ghana in connection with her role as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Fashion Fund 4 Development, says the powerful editor has been a sincere, encouraging, and passionate force. “She visited my home and studio in Accra to organize a photoshoot of my clothing and accessories for the May/June issue… Franca re-styled my models with what she felt was appropriate and ended up throwing an outfit on me as well.” Baksmaty admits, “I was very nervous having to stand in between two skinny models, but Franca assured me ‘You are beautiful, Nina, get in.’ She then excitedly referred to the shoot as ‘The Gossip Girl of Africa.’”
Like Baksmaty, Enyinne Owunwanne respects Sozzani’s commitment to drawing attention to typically ignored groups in fashion, but the founder of Heritage1960, an ecommerce destination that sells African fashions alongside editorial fashion content, feels Sozzani could be doing even more. “I would like to see Franca advocate for the continuous inclusion of African fashion and design in Vogue, as opposed to treating it as such a separate entity online and in print. There are many African designers who are just as globally and commercially appealing as American, European and Asian designers.”
For Adiat Disu, the way to avoid being treated as a passing trend comes down to leading versus waiting for validation. “As Africans, we can set the tone and be brand ambassadors for Africa, assisting others in their image or portrayal of Africa.” She founded Africa Fashion Week for just that reason.
Mimi Plange is careful to remind, “There have always been Africans creating and distributing images of Africans.” She cites the high-fashion style book Arise magazine, which is published by Nigerian media mogul Nduka Obaigbena with English editor-in-chief Helen Jennings at the helm, and references vintage lifestyle magazine Drum. First published in 1951 by white South Africans Bob Crisp and Jim Bailey, Drum eventually evolved into editions aimed at other African countries, edited by a multiracial roster.
“In Ghana last year,” Plange continues, “I bought several small fashion newspapers and magazines I would find in the market or being sold on the street, and was so inspired by the street shots of women going to parties and weddings. There were images of designer fashions being mixed with more traditional clothing, and the looks were so fresh and before the moment.”
Blay says we miss the greater point when we focus solely on images. “Images are great, but they are only symbols of reality. Right now the great work that needs to be done is creating a reality that empowers and honors us.”
To that end, Baksmaty is focused on building her business. “Franca has given me a lot of tips… on how to get [KoshieO] to the next level.” Roberto Cavalli was a mentor to Baksmaty, too, in his time in Ghana, sharing tricks of the trade “on every aspect of the clothing industry from… production to distribution.”
If the success of Sozzani’s “black issue” of Vogue Italia is any indication, the upcoming L’Uomo Vogue issue on Africa will undoubtedly sell well, perhaps bringing Condé Nast closer to the idea of producing a full-fledged version of a magazine that continually covers the continent’s thriving sartorial culture. But even more important is the fact that Vogue is not the only game in town anymore. The 120-year-old magazine now competes with blogs, websites and magazines dedicated to the African niche. Four-year-old Arise Magazine, which hosts an annual fashion show and exclusive bash in New York that usually closes out the spring fashion shows, and just sponsored a Fashion Week in Lagos, boasts a circulation of 50,000 — just 30,000 shy of L’Uomo Vogue.
These competitors could develop into entities that are even better than an African Vogue. “It’s incredibly flattering for an editor like Sozanni to pay attention to African Style,” Blay says, “but we need to be the change that we seek in that space by being proactive in building these brands as consumers.”
Follow Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond on Twitter at @nanaekua