Africa as a consumer and producer of global luxury: A take on the 2012 IHT Luxury Conference

On November 15 and 16, some of luxury fashion’s big names from ManoloBlahnik to Donatella Versace converged in one luxurious conference room in Rome to discuss the future of luxury. The conference was organized and moderated by Suzy Menkes, IHT Fashion Editor, and this year the theme was “The Promise of Africa; The Power of the Mediterranean.”

Suzy Menkes discusses luxury with African fashion pioneers Omoyemi Akerele and Duro Olowu at the 2012 IHT Luxury Conference in Rome. Photo: IHT Luxury Conference web site

Some of fashion’s most influential thinkers, doers and writers, the future of luxury lies in Africa. The take of each of said influentials on why, when and how this would come to pass made for lively two-day listening. According to Vivienne Westwood, who has been working with Simone Cipriani (Head of the Poor Communities and Trade Program of the Ethical Fashion Initiative) on various fashion initiatives in Africa, sustainability, not middle-class consumerism and how to promote it among the nouveau riche of the continent, should be the top of everyone’s agenda. More on that later.

Designers and creative directors Manolo Blahnik, Duro Olowu, Kim Jones (head of Louis Vuitton menswear), Renzo Rosso (founder, Diesel) and Jean-Paul Gaultier all emphasized how growing up in or spending some time in Africa shaped their aesthetic, with Kim Jones highlighting the Masai-inspired plaids that formed part of the LV Mens Spring 2012 collection and Jean-Paul Gaultier lauding Africa as a source of beauty, including his uncommonly beautiful muse of many years Farida Khalefa, who also attended the conference as an ambassador of the soon-to-be-relaunched Maison Schiaparelli.

Much of the new interest in Africa comes from the rise of a middle class with a natural desire to trade up premium and mass-market goods and services for luxury ones. Projections of an average GDP growth of 7% for several African countries, coupled with the maturity of European (and increasingly, Asian) markets are leading to the search for a new frontier for luxury consumption. However, while most conference delegates seemed interested in Africa as an expansion of the market reach of their brands, the conference was simultaneously marked by an interest in Africa as a source of craftsmanship, of which the continent has a strong heritage.

The thought of craftsmanship evokes an image of hands as opposed to machines making an object. It is an image that, in a post-industrial era, ties one back to the key topic of the conference: luxury. What is luxury? Several of the speakers gave their definitions. According to Jochen Zeitz, Director of PPR, luxury is not just about price but about aspiration, the unique/bespoke, and quality beyond utility. Donatella Versace qualified luxury as exhibiting skills in craftsmanship, Suzy Menkes emphasized the prerequisite of luxury being ‘touched by human hands’, while Lauren Bush Lauren of the FEED initiative defined a humble luxury that is about creating cherished experiences.

So would it be safe to say that Africa would be the new frontier for what I would call ‘slow manufacturing’, with the twist of creating luxury items, not mass-consumption goods, and equipped with hand tools not heavy industrial machinery?

One of the most striking statements at the conference was made by Vivienne Westwood, who expressed how, after working with artisans in Nairobi to create several shopper bags, she wished they had just given the artisans money to do nothing at all. Because “there’s all this hype that you need to produce all this useless stuff so that a country’s economy can grow.”

How many more bags do we need? Produced under ethical work conditions, or in a sweatshop; by hand or machine; lined with sackcloth or gold threads…is the fabrication of goods really the way to integrate Africa into the world of luxury production? Many of the speakers, and many well-meaning people who engage in projects to help Africans create stuff seem to think so. However, the burning question of sustainability (as Jochen Zeitz put it, what good is wealth if we lose the world to achieve it?) makes the answer to that question less of a resounding yes and more of a tentative maybe. Because sustainability is not only about improving the quality of human life especially in marginalized societies, but also about a responsible management of our limited natural resources, something at odds with the philosophy of employing more hands for the unfettered creation of objects.

Being a bag maker myself, it is quite possible that the conference left me more confused about my role in the world of fashion than I was at the beginning. However, a few things were clear:

– Better to engage the hands on something useful and beautiful than to leave people idle and free to get into trouble.

– Vivienne Westwood and Jochen Zeitz, with their focus on creating a sustainable luxury (according to Zeitz, one that is about creating quality and developing and passing crafts to our future generations, while considering impact on the environment) led the way on how designers need to be thinking and training their consumers to think in the 21st century.

– Africa’s integration into the globalized European and American economies may well happen through fashion, and there seem to be several key figures working behind the scenes to make that happen.

– In ‘integrating’, Africa needs to preserve and develop its indigenous crafting techniques. Good intentions at conferences are one thing, but the pressure-for-profit from investors and sales divisions gradually erodes time-intensive techniques that lead to more culturally-authentic products, in favour of mechanized processes that can churn out more goods and bring in more money. Companies like Prada have fallen in this trap.

– I see a Zara model of responding flexibly to demand (see: Kanban), not creating, storing in a warehouse, and hoping people would buy it all, increasingly as a way to balance the need to create African fashion jobs with the responsibility to create less waste.

– Africa is a sexy place, according to Bono, who also attended the conference and talked about the fashion line he co-founded in 2005.

What next?
If you are a designer interested in learning ways to weave sustainability into your creation process, the British Fashion Council has a document titled “The Sustainable Thread of a Product Lifecycle” that can be downloaded for free.

I hope you would take some time to read the article, share it, and share your thoughts. A conference like this is a paving stone for future actions that affect our economies, lifestyles, and the dynamic of the cities we live in (it would be telling to see which of the designers at the conference follow through with their pledges to open stores or initiate collaborations in Africa).

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