The 54 distinctive countries that make up the African Union are some of the most diverse on the entire planet thanks to the differences in climate, languages, past European influences, and the impact that war has had on communities. With this amalgamation ever-present, the continent remains one of the most exciting and innovative as it relates to modern fashion because it is often the smaller pockets of culture which drive new and exciting aesthetics to the surface.
With notable fashion weeks in key markets like South Africa, Congo, Kenya and Tanzania, there is also data which suggests that countries like Nigeria and Angola are some of the leading consumers of luxury brands on the planet thanks to their immense economic stability which places them at first and sixth based off their GDP and PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) in the region.
Recently, Munich-based brand, A King Of Guise, released a lookbook that was inspired by surf culture along the West African coastline which solidifies the notion that African styles and trends continue to inspire fashion on a broader scale.
For a greater understanding of prominent fashion subcultures in Africa, look no further than these five groups.
In Congolese slang, “la sape” refers to “La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes,” or the “society of atmosphere setters and elegant people” and was first recognized by a major news publication in 1998 when The New York Times noted, “TO be cool in Congo is to be a ‘sapeur.'”
Centered in the city of Brazzaville – the capital and largest city in the Republic of Congo – where nearly half the people in the country live in poverty, Sapeurs channel their energy and focus into their everyday attire which is a mix of dandyism and labels/items like Yves Saint Laurent suits, Yamamoto jackets, Marcel Lassance suits, Gresson shoes and Cacharel pants.
Like many countries in Africa, the impact of colonization on the region had a direct correlation to the style of dress that men began to favor by the end of the 19th century. During this period, men were often paid with secondhand garments that the French would bring over from Paris.
When this arrangement no longer suited the Congolese people, they again turned to fashion as a means of protest by actually traveling to France to purchase new and vibrant pieces themselves as a means to show the rising, anti-colonial movement.
Papa Wemba, a Congolese singer and musician, is often credited with being the Godfather of La Sape after spending time in Paris and Milan as touring musician and returning to the Congo in 1979.
After Wemba’s death, Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango told the BBC during an interview, “His whole attitude about dressing well was part of the narrative that we Africans have been denied our humanity for so long. People have always had stereotypes about us, and he was saying dressing well is not just a matter of money, not just something for Westerners, but that we Africans also have elegance. It was all about defining ourselves and refusing to be stripped of our humanity.”
Where: South Africa
Local slang for “to lick” or “to boast,” Skhothane is a subculture in South Africa with roots in dance like Pantsula (which reappropriated the gardening uniforms black South Africans were forced to wear during apartheid) and Unswenko (which roughly translates to “Swag” in Zulu) that was created by the “born free” generation following the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Noted for their love of Italian luxury brands like Arbiter, Rossi Moda and Sfarzo, Skhothanes often resemble b-boy crews of the 1980s in New York City and have used their sartorial flare to break up the monotony of life in the Johannesburg-adjacent townships of Soweto and East Rand.
“Dress and swagger and what you wear in Soweto is extremely important because it defines not just your income, but your character,” said Vuyolwethu Mpantsha of Soweto-born fashion and photography trio known as “I See a Different.” “If you present yourself as a clean guy who dresses smart and pays attention to what he’s wearing, a lot of people will respect you. But if you dress in another way, people will be afraid of you or think you’re guilty of something.”
Although the movement was certainly well known in Africa, the world began to take note in 2012 when Skhothane gatherings began resulting in the burning of the luxury items and goods that they once favored and the rather bizarre “biting of iPhones” as a further anti-establishment flourish.
Soon after, the popular South African news program, Third Degree, explored the phenomenon and police were forced to step in as the ritual burnings were actually destroying tangible pieces of currency which was/is a crime.
Additional pieces of negative press included the suicide of a teenager after he couldn’t afford the expensive items that his peers favored.
Like many other phenomenons, Skhothane culture has seen a decrease in popularity in recent years. Those that still favor the style of dress have been called “fakes,” by former enthusiasts who charge that the media attention ultimately sullied the movement.
When you hear the word “metalhead,” one doesn’t usually jump to Africa as a logical place where both the music and culture is embraced. However, Botswana is looking to buck that notion ever since photographers and news agencies alike began documenting the rising interest in the culture starting in 2011.
South African photographer Frank Marshall was one of the first people to capture Botswana’s love affair with leather ensembles marked with studs and cowboy hats which are indicative of the new wave of British heavy metal as part of his “Renegades” series of portraits.
“In the last 10 to 20 years, it’s come to be visually composed of what it looks like now — the guys dressed in leather,” Marshall told CNN. “It started off with classic rock and later on more extreme forms of metal were introduced. The last frontier of rock and metal music is African now, is what people are saying, so they are very interested in seeing this scene grow from its, sort of, infancy and seeing where it could go.”
South African photographer Paul Shiakallis’s series, “Leather Skins, Unchained Hearts,” further solidified that the heavy metal culture in Botswana wasn’t solely reserved to men when it came to fashion aesthetics.
Dubbed “Marok,” which translates to “rocker” in Setswana, these women face the additional challenge not only of dressing differently than most – clad in bullet belts, spiked cuffs, leather jackets, bandanas and Iron Maiden T-shirts – but also the predetermined and narrow viewpoints on how females should appear subservient in certain African cultures.
The Herero Victorians
Influenced by Rhenish missionaries and colonialists who first came to Namibia in the early 1900s, the Herrero women have favored a style of dress that reflects the sensibilities of the Victorian age – complete with horn-shaped headgear, long dresses, and numerous petticoats that have been enhanced with colorful and personal flourishes – while the men have adopted the styles of the soldiers that once looked the completely eradicate them.
Lutz Marten, a linguist at London’s School of Oriental and African studies with a specialism in the Herero tribe, says, “It reflects a strong sense of history and the memory of national rebuilding after the [Herero-German] 1904 war.”
Almost 75% of the population died during the aforementioned conflict which is viewed as a key moment in Herero identity.
“If a warrior killed a German soldier he would take and wear their uniform as a badge of honor, and to ‘take’ or appropriate their power,” said photographer Jim Naughten, who documented the Herrero for his book, Conflict and Costume.
As the Daily Mail noted, “the Herero choose to wear, both men and women, are a permanent reminder of the great scar gashed in the tribe’s history when they came close to being exterminated.”
“It also provides a sense of cultural identity in general, in the historical context and in the context of modern-day Namibia,” Marten said.
Where: South Africa
In Johannesburg, “swanking” has come to represent an unofficial and informal fashion show on Saturday nights to find out who is the most stylish man despite most of the participants holding working-class jobs that have little to do with the fashion industry.
Cut from a similar cloth as the aforementioned Sapeurs, Swenkas encapsulate a vibe and aesthetic that is equal parts GQ spread as it is a pageant where winners can take home meager prizes which range from small cuts of the entry fee, to livestock.
If there was one overarching theme to unite all the Swenkas, it’s the general chaste attitude that often involves obtaining from drinking and other unsavory activities in addition to maintaining a cleanliness to their apperances.
The movement was documented in the 2004 film, The Swenkas, by filmmaker Jeppe Rønde. The New York Times noted of the film and its flamboyant and well-dressed cast of characters, “Like Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, what working stiff doesn’t itch to become a peacock on Saturday night?”
- Main/Featured Image: Bubblegumclub