The Designers Embracing Their African Heritage Through Fashion

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From Beyonce’s afrocentric The Lion King: The Gift album, to WizKid selling out the O2 arena in London and Burna Boy scooping up Grammys in 2020, 2021 and 2022 – the world is finally starting to embrace art and culture emerging out of Africa. Although to some, this afrocentric vision is a trend, for those of African heritage it’s a story that is finally being recognised—those like designers Jodie Akinsanya and Adeola Adelakun. These women have created brands that reflect their respective African heritages and have found a space for their culture and imagination to be seen.

“Our vision is to change the narrative of Africa from a continent that needs saving, to one that has immense beauty and talent to offer the world” – Adeola Adelakun, co-creator of Cultureville

Jodie Akinsanya is the creator and designer behind AKINSANYA, a London-based unisex fashion, accessory and homeware brand inspired by her Nigerian and Zimbabwean heritage. All the items are made-to-order by hand by Jodie in her home studio.

“As a young girl, I was always into clothes, pairing outfits together, wearing bright colors and experimenting with my fashion choices,” Jodie tells me. Although she always had this sense of creativity and love of fashion, it was the inspiring words and the passing of her beloved Zimbabwean grandfather that pushed her to take her passion seriously and study Fashion Design at University. After graduating Jodie took on a 9-5 office job, but a few months in, the pandemic hit — “out of the blue, I found myself logged out of my work email and then told I’d lost my job. Instead of taking a negative view, I decided things happen for a reason. It gave me the time and opportunity to  actually start my business. I gathered all the fabrics I had collected over the years and started by making samples of accessory products, makeup bags, bucket hats, face masks and scrunchies, and posted them on my instagram.” From there, AKINSANYA was born.

The vision for the brand was poignant and clear from the beginning as Jodie explains: “to empower people to be unique, bold and fabulous. It’s combining my heritage and the unique fabrics sourced in Nigeria and surrounding African countries, with modern and contemporary styles. AKINSANYA reflects my heritage because it’s about being proud, bold and strong in your fashion choices.”

Like AKINSANYA, the Manchester-based brand Cultureville reflects the designers’ African heritage. Created by sisters Ronke and Adeola, Cultutureville aims to make modern African fashion more accessible to everyone. “Cultureville reflects our heritage primarily through the use of Ankara African Wax Prints sourced in Nigeria to Kente fabrics sourced in Ghana,” says Adeola. “The vibrant prints are representative of the cultures from which they emanate.” Ronke and Adeola have made a big impact with Cultureville in Manchester and have put African-inspired clothing front and center. Cultureville not only won Greater Manchester’s Young Trader of the Year (2019) but was also the first African print brand to feature at Manchester’s Christmas Market.

“Ankara prints are wax print fabrics commonly used in West Africa. They feature bold patterns in rich colours and are synonymous with African culture” – Adeola

“Like many people born in Africa and living in the diaspora,” Adeola reflects, “we struggled to find clothes that combine contemporary fashion with traditional African prints. We longed to walk into a store and see clothes that reflected our African heritage, in stylish designs that we could easily incorporate into our day-to-day wardrobes. With this in mind, we created Cultureville. We felt it was important to create a place where people in the diaspora could easily access clothing that represented their heritage. ”

Not discounting the hard work and passion of the creators, brands like Cultureville and AKINSANYA have been able to thrive in a new type of environment – one that is more inclusive of and celebrates Africanness. This hasn’t always been the case within the diaspora and specifically in the UK.

“Growing up being African was something that [I] was made to feel embarrassed about,” Jodie says. “So many negative connotations came with it, big nose and lips, dark skin tone, even down to mocking our traditional foods like fufu for example. Even the media portrayed Africa and Africans negatively. All throughout school I remember not feeling confident to share that side of my life, even though it was so prominent in my homelife. I think that’s why I’m so inspired by it now because I’m proud and confidently able to freely explore and express every aspect of my Africanness without any reservations.”

Adeola expresses a similar sentiment. “Being African was extremely uncool with sniggers at an African accent and derogatory terms such as “fresh off the boat” being used to describe people who had recently emigrated from Africa to Britain. Thankfully this is changing. When we conduct fashion shows at schools, kids are often proud to identify with the clothes they see and link it back to their heritage which is certainly an advancement. There has been a shift in how African culture is viewed in pop-culture particularly celebrities celebrating African culture. It has contributed to people embracing their heritage with pride and we are seeing a prevalence of  Afrobeats, Nollywood and African fashion.”

Within the last few years, there has certainly been a cultural shift in the way Africanness is viewed especially amongst Black Britons which is something that both Adeola and Jodie acknowledge. This lens with which we’re seeing Africa is a far-cry away from the monolithic image of poverty the world has historically painted of the continent and it is optimistic to see.  However Africaness is not a trend. The world’s attention span is short and trends come and go but heritage, culture and where we come are things that will remain constant. We all long to exist in spaces where we can be proud of our heritage and rep it loudly.

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Kristen Bingle
Kristen Bingle

I've been natural since 2014. Since then I've been obsessed with watching hair tutorials and learning more about how to keep my hair healthy — and sharing that with others. I'm based in London, work in Marketing and love herbal tea.

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