Africa is always spoken about homogenously, to celebrate all of its cultures and the differences between countries within it, every nation was explored in depth to study its people, traditions, architecture, art, music, pop culture, sports influences, and all that make up the beauty of it. From conceptualisation and research to the design and production of the runway show that was showcased during London Fashion Week, find out how the collaborative work of three Black women found the roots of the past to help create a new future of Africa.
Priya: We’re going to go into the making of the SS23 collection. I am going to talk to you a little bit about the prints from the collection. I’m going to get up and come over here to the rail with the clothing pieces [Priya pulls pieces from the SS23 collection on a rail]. Nell is wearing one of the denim jeans and you can see the jacket for it here. It is a lasered denim jacket and if you look closely, which you can do afterwards, each of these little areas here shows maps of Nigeria, a stamp from Zambia, the Ahluwalia logo, and the base is inspired by a vintage Tunisian fabric. There was this photo of Algerian architecture against a really pale blue sky that informed the colour of this design. When I was thinking about what wash I wanted that season for the denim, I went with this nice lightweight Algerian-inspired sky blue. So you can see the different ways that we tried to incorporate cultures into this. For me, everything that I design is extremely intentional.
Another example and this is one of my favourites, is this knitted dress. These patterns here, which we call the joy print are something that we carry on now. There are elements of the joy print in each collection, and the shapes it is inspired by cane rose; braiding and hair. We were looking at hair patterns to translate into design reflecting that everything comes from somewhere intentional. Even the top I'm wearing right now has got draping which is informed by the drapes worn by Kenyan women. We were thinking about how can we translate that into an everyday top or dinner outfit. The embroidery around the skirt was taken from looking at the shapes of pots from Rwanda. It just shows how all of this research does matter and it's not an afterthought for us as a brand.
I'm going to ask you both, what was your reaction to the show and specifically to the music?
Nell: For me when we did the run-through and rehearsal, I remember we sat down after a stressful morning, as the morning of all fashion shows always is, the lights came on, the music started and it was just a ‘wow’ moment. But always do this Priya. You want people to feel emotional about everything that you do. Your approach to this was to watch a movie with a soundtrack and if people walk out of the show with some sort of strong emotion then you’ve done what you needed to. I naturally felt emotional watching it because from the starting point when we wanted it to feel regal and had reference points throughout the show with the sound, hair, makeup and all these little details that needed to reflect Africa authentically. It felt really powerful. Because people don't celebrate Africa and its people in that way. People have been referencing it in all sorts of things for decades, but it was never given its due credit. In this, it was given credit and celebrated in a way that made everyone feel empowered.
Tosin: I think the music was intentional. You could tell the sounds and it added to the atmosphere of the show as I sat there watching it. I remember bits of it that have stuck with me where you can hear the different instrumentals and the drumming that were sounds of the different parts of Africa where it took you through the tapestry and a journey as a listener.
Priya: For my last question, I'm going to ask you both what does ‘Africa is Limitless’ mean to you?
Nell: Not just from a creative point of view, a lot of things that we now know stem from African culture, uncredited. if you think about it from an economic point of view, there's a reason why Africa has historically sort of been dismantled by foreign empires. Coming together as one nation, the natural resources in Africa are immense and so there's a reason why certain leaders and governments are trying to penetrate. The sort of community within each other in African culture is quite powerful because we’ve got everything we need and in that way Africa is limitless to me.
Tosin: The way Priya, her team and I guess me working on the collection from a research aspect, It’s a very interesting and fresh take where every single country, 54-56 countries, were looked into and then to bring out something from each of them. Just the fact that looking at West Africa, South Africa, East Africa and North Africa were all considered, that to me means limitless. How you can bring different influences and marry that together to be one collection was just beautiful to me.
Priya: So we've been talking for a while now, we’ll take questions from our audienc now.
Guest 1: I've been thinking a lot about the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. I know that a lot of the time the answer to that is that we have to have those communities that you're influenced by involved. I was wondering for a lot of the heritage fashion brands or white-owned brands, do you think it is enough for them to simply include people from the community they are inspired by? What's the best way to go about that?
Priya: That's a really good question. I think it's a little bit of both. Heritage brands, especially British ones, can sometimes feel a bit outdated and out of touch, I think there are a few things they need to do. Firstly, they need to consider who they're hiring internally, to make sure that their future work is going to be much more inclusive and that there be more diversity in the room. I think it's important for those sorts of brands to make systemic changes internally. So I collaborated with a heritage brand, Mulberry and one thing I asked to be put into place as a part of our partnership was to change their hair policy and to sign up for the halo initiative, which is a pledge that they won't discriminate against people's hair; locks, fros, braids, etc. And that was something that they did moving forward among other things.
In general, I think that heritage brands have got lots to do, I think that they need to be more transparent about where things come from, think about the systemic elements of their business, hire more, and, you know, maybe they do need to have conversations about their past actions. I know that in businesses it's a bit difficult, you don't want to necessarily talk about things you've done wrong, but I think if they can and think of ways to improve moving forward, that will be good.
Guest 2: Something that stuck out to me when you're talking about looking at Africa as a whole and looking into all these details as well. Is there anything that you have discovered that connected with you throughout the extensive research? And how do you find resources?
Tosin: There’s something I find about East Africa that I haven’t seen before. In Somalia for example, there's an archive of a photographer that was discovered, maybe through the 50s to the 70s. His name is Todd Webb and they just published the book last year. It’s a big book of just photographs and there is this one photo from that book where this man is stunning. He's wearing a red suit which is amazing in the blue backdrop or like the sky in the background that just stayed with me. There are ways to find resources and it's just certain keywords that are very useful when you have to look or find these things. But I can tell you the secrets.
Priya: It’s also very useful to email universities like SOAS and ask them for access to their library which is massive and it's got so many different books from all continents.
Guest 3: In 10 years, what does success look like for you in a few sentences?
Priya: In a few sentences, I'll try my best. I think for me in 10 years success will look like a person, maybe one of you, just sitting in a room and you're wearing Ahluwalia, or you can smell something that's Ahluwalia, you're watching something that’s Ahluwalia while you're hearing something that’s Ahluwalia and sitting on something that’s Ahluwalia. I think for me, it's about having a really 360 brand, I see myself as a creative that goes beyond clothes. And I want people to partake in that. I think for me, that feels like success.
Nell: I’ve recently had a moment in my own life and to me, all happiness in your life starts with gratitude. I'm grateful that I’ve met people like Priya and I'm grateful that we’ve worked together. And I'm grateful that I've worked at a magazine, I'm grateful for everything that I have experienced. Sometimes you just need to sit back and look at how good your life is.
Tosin: I think for me, workwise, it is making sure that the histories that I'm working to document are more accessible. I know it's an impossible job for one person to do but to show different people working in different industries who make African history. The history of the different diaspora cultures and contemporary culture is available for everyone with the knowledge to learn more about African culture, their own culture, other people's culture and histories for the future. That's what success looks like to me in 10 years.