I’m buzzing with excitement as we finalise our upcoming Summer range coming out just in time for Sapellé’s first pop-up appearance in London from 16 to 28 April.
There’s lots of discussion with the team, deciding pieces that’ll work well together and showcasing the range and depth that our shoppers expect. And also introducing one or two things that might pleasantly surprise and help break some clichés.
Burberry’s African-print inspired collection last year raised some considerable debate about how ‘African’ it’s production was (or wasn’t), but the publicity did help shine a positive light on the use of print for contemporary design.
When I talk about breaking clichés, here’s where I’m coming from. A typical conversation I have when introducing Sapellé goes like this:
Me: “We sell contemporary African-inspired fashion created by a selection of Africa’s top design labels and crafters”.
Other person: “Oh, wow, that’s great! I happen to know someone from [Insert name of African country here], she loves African fashion. I’ll let her know about you.”
Whereupon I launch into an explanation that our products aren’t just for Africans, that we’ve had delighted customers from all backgrounds, that they’re modern, appealing and perfectly suited to the modern woman. Etc, etc, etc.
Usually when I show them pictures of our products, it helps bring home the point that we’re just adding another dimension to the typical high street range of styles without going off on a completely different style tangent.
One of our newly-signed labels, Taibo Bacar’s latest collection has global appeal
Taibo Bacar showing at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week
So therein lies one challenge. Blowing the cliché that African fashion is the attire of ‘African Mamas’; that it’s all about elaborate turbans in clashing colours, and flowing boubou gowns, stiff with embroidery. Of course traditional African fashion is as glorious as all this. But that’s certainly not all there is to it.
As we know, there’s a growing movement of talented designers taking African inspirations, fusing them with diverse global style influences, creating looks that fit effortlessly into any modern setting. It comes in all forms: from the printed, the woven, the intricately embellished, the hand-dyed and even the plain. Yes, African-influenced fashion can also be elegantly and simply understated.
Thula Sindi, who’s joining our group of designers sets off the flattering shapes of his garments sometimes with plain fabrics
Sadly, I’ve heard stories from African designers who’ve felt the weight of expectation to produce collections that fall under one fixed ‘tribal print’ umbrella, who have then faced apathy from press and public when they didn’t deliver to those expectations.
Could it be that while the fashion runways have helped to bring the African fashion banner to the mainstream, their representations haven’t ventured from the narrow animal print and ‘tribal print’ interpretation? If so, this is the perfect opportunity for the emerging African designers to broaden the public’s view and showcase the breadth of range they have. Let’s not forget also that they themselves are drawing their own influences from the wider world too, which is what makes it all so exciting.
Moschino’s latest Cheap & Chic line is playfully tropical and the African print connection is strong.
There’s a saying that the best way to break clichés is to live the truth. One of the exciting things about our upcoming Summer 2013 range is that we’re introducing some beautiful ‘atypical’ pieces that help chip away at the clichés about African fashion. These pieces go beautifully well with the rest of our more ‘typically modern African’ range, including the gorgeously vibrant prints we love. All of which we hope will appeal to customers seeking complementary printed pieces for their wardrobes, or simply something more subtle.
One of our listed designers, Nkwo (via Afromania) uses an adventurous design process that creates beautiful, unforgettable pieces.
So that’s the African fashion cliché challenge in a nutshell. Then there are the perceptions around Sapellé as an ethical fashion retailer. Here we also have the challenge of dispelling the ‘itchy hemp’ clichés that built up around ethical fashion ages ago, which still prevail despite the huge strides we’ve seen in the sector. There are many different ethical products being produced globally – they feel great, they look fantastic and most of the time, they’re miles better than their ‘unethical’ counterparts.
As for the role we’re playing to trade only with ethical suppliers, we relish the relationships we’ve built with our partners because of the tangible impact of every order we place with them. When we do this, we’re supporting the fair employment of machinists, metalsmiths, women’s groups, supporting recycling and responsible production, respecting the environment, and creating sustainable income. It’s a really, really good feeling.
Uganda’s Jose Hendo (who will soon be joining Sapellé) switches with ease between classic and avant garde. Her current collection in shades of cream uses organic cotton grown in her home country.
But the thing we ethical fashion retailers must remember is never to push the ethical agenda down shopper’s throats as if that alone should justify the purchase. So our focus is on sourcing the high quality, irresistible pieces that stand up on their own merit. We hope that the added bonus that they’re ethically-sourced is a great story that’ll make customers even happier with their purchase.
French label Tamboo Bamboo (also joining Sapellé with their Summer collection) European with bold Afro-Caribbean tones. The result: a unique, fun look that works across cultures.