Fashion Q&A: Helen Jennings of "New African Fashion"

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New African Fashion Helen Jennings
As we've been reporting, African fashion designers are entering a new era - and the world is watching!

One of those documenting the growth of designers from the continent is Helen Jennings, editor of noted African fashion magazine, ARISE.  The British editor highlights the premier designers from the continent in her new book, "New African Fashion."

We sat down with her to talk about the book and the changing landscape of African style...

ESSENCE.com: What motivated you to delve into this topic for your book?
HELEN JENNINGS: Since becoming editor of ARISE magazine in 2008, I’ve had an unparalleled opportunity to travel around Africa meeting designers and going behind the scenes of what is fast becoming an influential and meaningful industry on the continent. The African fashion scene is growing a rapid rate, as is the well-earned international interest in it. Fashion weeks, magazines, websites and boutiques are popping up everywhere and ARISE is also making a huge mark with our fashion events in New York and Lagos. It feels like a seismic moment for African fashion right now that deserves a book to document it.

ESSENCE.com: How would you define 'New African Fashion?'
HJ: Contemporary African fashion can’t easily be defined, which is what I hope this book illustrates. Some designers have afro-centric aesthetics, others you could not tell were African by a cursory glance at their work and it’s that diversity that is allowing the industry to flourish now. The book profiles a cross section of new and established designers from around Africa and the diaspora as well as some of the best African models working internationally. It also delves into African street style from Johannesburg to New York via London and Paris.

ESSENCE.com: What was the most surprising thing you learned about African fashion while researching this book?
HJ: Nothing surprised me really, but what intrigued me was learning about the development and significance behind textiles around Africa – the way that throughout the centuries cloth has acted as currency, communication and spiritual talisman as much as a method of covering ones body. I’ve really fallen for Nigerian adire, its rich indigo hues and the meanings behind each of the patterns. While researching I met with local legendary artist Nike Okundaye, who teaches the resist dying method as a means of female empowerment, and emerging designer Maki Oh who has turned adire into a completely modern, luxury fabric.

ESSENCE.com: What do you think sets African designers apart?
HJ: What makes the African designers special is the way they draw both on traditional and indigenous inspirations as well as international ones to come up with ready to wear collections that are truly desirable, wearable and authentic. They're also bringing a much-needed breath of fresh air into the forever decreasing circles of global fashion trends. I see African designers as being in the position of Japanese ones 20 years ago.

ESSENCE.com: Do you anticipate that these designers will soon command global clientele?
HJ: Many diaspora designers and some African-based designers already do of course, but the numbers are steadily growing. There are still issues in terms of infrastructure. production and education on the continent but the talent and product is certainly there so it’s only a matter of time before African designers are hanging on the rails of every major department store around the world.

ESSENCE.com: Who are some of your favorite African designers and why?
HJ: I love Duro Olowu’s orgiastic mix of rich colours and fabrics and the way his clothes are made in praise the female form. And Casely-Hayford make the most beautifully understated, intelligently tailored menswear.

ESSENCE.com: Any advice for young, African designers looking to break in to the industry?
HJ: Educate yourself in the history of fashion industry - it's not enough to just know about what's happening now. Always maintain your integrity and the highest standards you can afford to create too - don't cut corners in a rush to be noticed. And get the nuts and bolts in place – a website, a lookbook, a press release – without these, you’ll look amateur even if you’re not!