Streetwear Is On The Rise In Africa But Industry-Wide Support Is Slow To Happen
more than a side hustle
more than a side hustle
According to data from PwC, the global streetwear market was last estimated at $185 million in sales and makes up about 10% of the entire global apparel and footwear market. The steep rise in these figures is welcome, given that streetwear once emerged from the fringe margins of the fashion industry and was borne out of counter-cultures from the 80’s and 90’s, Hip-Hop and skateboarding communities. Looking back, this moment has been inching closer for decades.
One of streetwear’s early frontrunners, Shawn Stussy was first known for making uniquely-shaped surfboards, which he sold to surfers in Laguna Beach in the late 1980’s. At the time, Stussy used to set up showrooms from New York to California as a way to show off his unique designs to skaters in the area, and soon had stores all around America by the 1990’s. Roughly a decade later, James Jebbia burst on the scene with Supreme, a cult brand that’s become the face of a generation. Through Supreme, Jebbia released collections inspired by the skateboarding culture at the time, drawing the attention of industry pioneers like Puff Daddy and Run DMC. More than a brand, the keen sense of audience engagement and early Internet aesthetics that these brands held, endeared them to shoppers who felt catered for: wearers were made to feel a part of a club, a family.
In the years since the formation of these brands, streetwear has grown into a mammoth market with strong ties to mainstream fashion. Now, we’re living in time where many proponents argue that streetwear has become overly commercialised and lost its exceptional touch with its disruptor roots. They are not entirely wrong–in Western fashion markets, streetwear has infiltrated the world of luxury fashion since the dawn of the 2010’s, and now, many streetwear brands are themselves legacy cult imprints which rely heavily on developing personal connections with their buyers.
These days, luxury brands’ reliance on prestige and exclusivity is waning; where historically fashion houses have distanced themselves from streetwear and athleisure brands, we’re now seeing new interest in engaging with the premium segment of these audiences. This encapsulates similar words shared by the late Louis Vuitton creative director, Virgil Abloh who once said “The one thing the luxury market needs to understand is that culture has changed. A 17-year-old’s standard is completely different from his parents’. His version of luxury is streetwear.” It can thus be said that the way modern society views and interacts with streetwear is changing with the times.
This year alone, Kim Jones, the Art Director for Fendi, employed street style elements in their collection of artisanal denim and layered knitwear at New York Fashion Week. Wood Wood at Copenhagen Fashion Week (CFW) similarly released a collection “Escape to Paradise”, retaining streetwear themes with their elevated tracksuits, graphic t-shirts and Hamptons camouflage. Similarly Arthur Kar, the founder of L’Art de L’automobile channelled his influence from rap culture and his experience in automobile design for the brand’s 10-year anniversary collection. He believes that fashion-a plain white tee and sneakers- was as strong an entry into the car world as owning a car. His colourful shoes, KAR L’ART DE AUTOMOBILE X SALOMON, have become a crowd favourite from the collection.
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Similarly in Africa, there’s no denying that a new generation of players are rising, especially in Nigeria which is home to one of the biggest streetwear conventions in the continent. Founded by Iretidayo Zacchaeus, Street Souk has become a fulcrum for young and emerging streetwear designers to showcase their works, bypass the industry’s gatekeepers and provide their products directly to those who matter – the younger generation of consumers. With four editions deep already, this December, Street Souk returns for its fifth iteration and already, its importance for creating a hub for innovative designers cannot be overemphasised.
More than just a streetwear convention and pop-up, Street Souk is a community of like-minded young people who are audaciously doing what they want, from skateboarders, to graffiti artists, DJ’s, painters, videographers and more. With a population of 206 million, an estimated 70% of which is aged under 30, the country is evidently a veritable crucible for youth culture. “The younger generation of creatives have contributed so much to the growth of streetwear by being consumers and being fans of it. Growing up in Nigeria, we’ve always had that ‘It’s not Nigerian, it’s not cool’ vibe going on, but obviously that’s a major thing we have changed over the years,” shares Zacchaeus with the NATIVE, a few days after Street Souk opens shop on its first London-based pop-up.
Until now, streetwear has remained a niche interest but widespread popularity is spreading. In recent years, we have witnessed the proliferation of the streetwear market in Africa, championed by the continent’s young people who have definitely picked up elements from the West. However, it’s clear that this movement hasn’t just emerged out of imitation of the West. Just as Hip-Hop gave rise to American streetwear labels such as FUBU (For Us, By Us), and Phat Farm in the ’90s, so also does streetwear in Africa have its ties to the underground music scene and skate culture influences, commingling both with local styles to communicate their own realities.
To this, Zacchaeus reveals that the shift took place gradually: “In the last 5 to 10 years, it’s definitely gone from people printing a couple T-shirts to a full-on business. Now, people are doing look books and all the biggest artists in the country are constantly wearing different brands. 5 years ago, all the artists were wearing Gucci and Louis Vuitton but no one was really mixing it up with any Nigerian or African Streetwear brands. It’s not a side hustle anymore.”
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A quintessential example of a streetwear brand making waves is WAFFLESNCREAM, now known as WAF Lagos, one of the pioneer brands of streetwear in Nigeria, who have over the years built a loyal following of buyers and admirers with their nostalgic designs and eye-catching logos. Over the past 10 years, since its inception, WAF has become a trailblazer in its own right, owing to the brand’s authentic nature. WAF utilises its connection to its customers as currency in a form of culture marketing that prioritises and puts people first. From its ‘Orisha tee’, referencing traditional African religion, to its T-shirts with familiar proverbs such as, “No matter how many times lizard do press up, e no fit get chest like alligator,” WAF have played on familiar Nigerian sensibilities that have attracted millennial and Gen Z customers.
Alongside conventions such as Street Souk, there’s also community initiatives such as Grace Ladoja’s Lagos-based movement, Our Homecoming which celebrates fashion, culture, music and community with a week-long calendar of events. Each year, Ladoja pushes the envelope a bit further, inviting international investors and partners to take a closer look at sartorial artisans in the country such as PITH Africa, NBDA, David Blackmoore and more. In the early days of Our Homecoming, star-studded guests such as Skepta and Naomi Campbell, flew into the country and showed their solidarity with the creative community here by staging workshops and panels that furthered the reach of streetwear brands in the country. At this year’s iteration, Ladoja showcased America rapper, Drake’s NOCTA collection for the first-time ever in physical form.
However, despite the eyes of the world on the streetwear brands coming out of Africa, local industry support is still far off. Notably excluded from the mainstream runway shows and events is the streetwear community who have had instead, been shifted to the background and forced to create their own events to celebrate the rapidly growing market. At the recently concluded Lagos Fashion Week event, many innovative designers were celebrated for their awe-inspiring designs, including young designers on the Green Access programme who made their debut on the LFW runways for their efforts in sustainability. However, there have been no streetwear brands within this category and none have been embraced by local fashion houses or invited to showcase on the runways.
In contrast, on international runways across the world, we’re seeing a wholesale embrace of streetwear brands. Earlier this year, Louis Vuitton collaborated with Supreme, an unforgettable moment for the streetwear industry. One of the models wore a bright red crossbody bag with the Supreme logo written boldy across it while another wore a pattern that combined the Louis Vuitton monogram canvas with Supreme’s logo. Similarly, during Paris Fashion Week, designer Guillermo Andrade, the founder of 424, combined a grainy, black-and-white image from an old Raf Simons campaign into his new designs. These fashion houses join a long line of luxury blurring the lines between luxury and streetwear. In Nigeria, this sort of marriage between the two polar opposites is yet to occur. Instead, streetwear brands in Africa are collaborating with one another to hone their reach and increase their sales through relying on their brand logos which are gradually becoming a status symbol. For example, PITH Africa and WAF recently announced an upcoming collaboration which is set to be a big win for the culture.
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The criteria for showcasing at the prestigious Lagos Fashion Week is easy enough to meet, brands should be a registered business and must have been in business for at least 2 years and should be able to provide evidence of community-building initiatives such as a social media presence, and online communities. However, in its 11 years of existence, rarely any streetwear brands have gained access to the main stage, or even its Green Access programme which is a sustainable fashion accelerator programme that nurtures young designers and drives the recommitment of resource efficiency, biodegradability, longevity and recyclability as guiding principles for fashion design and production.
While streetwear in Nigeria is on the rise, industry-wide support from legacy brands and international fashion weeks is slow to happen. It may just be the case that these disruptor streetwear brands aren’t looking to Lagos Fashion Week as a marker of their continued growth, choosing instead to focus on building and sustaining their online and offline communities. Zaccheaus explains that the shift is happening online for many young and independent brands: “Because of globalisation, we are all one big world. You can blow in Nigeria today and before you know it, you’ve blown globally, just because of how the internet works. I think because of that factor, a lot of people just started taking it more seriously. It’s not a side hustle anymore.”
Streetwear’s palpable influence is also seen in the attendees of Fashion Week. Since the event earlier this month, social media has been awash with pictures and clips of guests clad in their most daring fits, most of which were helmed by streetwear brands and designers. If the audience attending these shows are wearing these young designers, then surely the runaway should equally reflect the trends? Zaccheaus posits that industry stakeholders are looking for big-name co-signs before championing the young streetwear designers. “In Nigeria, we’re always kind of waiting for that one big cosign especially when it’s international. Lagos Fashion Week doesn’t speak for us. It’s never spoken for me and it’s never spoken for people who are into some of the same stuff I’m into. Personally, not being included in Lagos Fashion Week is not a surprise.
However, this exclusion has not deterred Ireti Zaccheaus who runs one of the largest streetwear conventions in the country and continent. Now, events and platforms such as Street Souk are giving a voice and springboard to the talented young disruptors ready to shake up the fashion ecosystem. Considering the burgeoning streetwear market in Nigeria and in Africa, it’s only a matter of time before international fashion weeks and brands begin reaching out to those daring enough to carve out their own unique lane. While it would be groundbreaking for LFW to include streetwear designers, it’s safe to say that streetwear’s survival is not dependent on this co-sign: “That’s why we do our own thing. [Street Souk] is our own fashion week. We don’t need this,” adds Zaccheaus.
Featured Image Credits/NATIVE
@nwanneamak4 couples her creative interests with her individuality, using words as a vessel for her expression.