African fashion is one of the fastest growing industries on the continent and African art is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in the Western world. But with the need to present everything from coffee to couture garments in perfectly coiffed Instagram grid squares, consumption of visual imagery is so astute that it is much harder for individual brands to stand out. Interestingly, African fashion and African art are responsible for bringing us some of the most unconventional visual branding concepts this season. Starting with Christie Brown’s 2015 winter collection, interiors inspiration has crept back into a number of look books and marketing campaigns by Africa’s top designers. Fashion designers have always used a multitude of props, sets and exotic photo shoot locations to create visual imagery in support of their upcoming collections. (See here for example). But during the 2015/2016 winter season, some of Africa’s designers took on a markedly different and exciting direction with their look books. As such, there are some important lessons to glean from these African clothing lines about visual branding. Lessons we can all employ in our own marketing endeavors.
1. Reflect Your Tribe: Katungulu Mwenda
One of the hallmarks of effective visual branding is to appeal to your community or target audience. Someone viewing a photo makes a judgment as to whether it appeals to them or not within seconds. It is important to ensure that they see themselves, that they see something familiar. Not necessarily staged but reflective of their natural environment. Katungulu Mwenda’s relatively classic approach to the Look book of her People of the Taboo Collection, featuring Ghanaian and Cameroonian stools, immediately associates the brand with Africa even though the clothes do not give this immediately away. “Boxy cuts meet slouchy structure in light jersey knits – quite uncommon among African designers – linens and silk tie dyes, all in neutral tones, imbued with a splash of hot color here and there. The pieces are a minimalist’s dream, with lots to play with by way of layering experimentation,” says Atlanta-based lifestyle writer, stylist, tennis enthusiast, and queen of the red carpet online commentary
2. Get on the Mixed Media Bandwagon: Yevu Clothing
I got a sense of the potential of this trend last year with artist Ana Strumpf’s Recover series of Vogue magazine. Yevu Clothing has hit the mark with their Spring Summer 15/16 collection. The visual branding employs inspiration from graphic design and mixed media art. The collection appears as though all of the brand’s designs are an overlay of an interiors illustration. Featuring photographer Francis Kokoroko and local sign writing artist only referred to as ‘Don’, the collection is presented as a hyper-real dramatization of domestic life. “Sportswear in riotous color and conflicting patterns that still manage to find consonance. The idea of the collection itself is not novel, especially given the use of wax prints, but the realization is fresh and fun, especially in the brightly hued cocoon coats. I imagine this is how African Hipsters would dress,” adds Natasha.
3. Forget the Clothes: Max & Jan
Max & Jan 2015/2016 collection is photographed in what is seemingly a Marrakech rug market. Even the models seem swallowed up in the bohemian fanfare and you find yourself equally curious about the rugs. The cacophony of colors forces you to look at the image just a bit longer to figure out what exactly is going on. The look book images infer some kind of wanderlust and despite being a Belgian-Swiss brand it associates itself with Berber tradition, with artisanal ethnic handmade products because that is what should be memorable about their clothes.
4. Project the Runway: Milles Collines & Andrea Iyamah
Krisjan Rossouw, the set designer for Mille Collines at AFI Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Johannesburg reminded us yet again that events are an extension of the visual branding story. The collection dubbed Curio 1 city consisted of flowy tunics, business casual wear and neutral colors and in the backdrop a nod to the brand’s African roots – a panoply of bwa masks and other traditional African artefacts.
Andrea Iyamah brought it to the runway as well. The spring 2016 collection photography features pyramids and a beautiful ornate vase as the backdrop to her sexy swimsuits as featured in her runway presentation at Lagos Fashion Week. African imagery having nothing to do with the beach – appealing to brand identity over the function of the product. “Andrea Iyamah has mastered the architecture of swimwear. Strategic cutouts, tribal prints and body baring shapes may be too much for another designer to pull off by A.I. does it effortlessly every year, encouraging women all over the world to go bold at the beach”, comments Munje Foh, Washington D.C. based curator and editor of blog The Foreign Market.
Creative Strategist, professor and veteran of the fashion industry, Elaine Mensah of Washington DC based consultancy Svelte LLC summarizes by saying: “African designers are mostly identified first and foremost by the [use of African] print. What these designers have been able to do is infuse the culture with modern aesthetics and silhouettes in a way that is refreshingly vibrant and interesting. The tailoring, choice of textures and styling transcend the niche market that African designers tend to be put in.”
What do you think of these new visual branding trends in African fashion – Yay or nay?