“The promise of Africa, the power of the Mediterranean.” That was the title of this year’s International Herald Tribune Luxury conference in Rome. If there was ever a time for the luxury industry to try to negotiate its place on the African continent, this was it. Valentino Garavani, Jean Paul Gaultier, Manolo Blahnik and members of the Fendi family were just some of the faces in the front row. And yet, walking out of the marbled lobby of the Hotel Cavalieri at the convention’s end, I couldn’t help but feel sceptical about whether drastic change in Africa was around the corner.
I should preface this by saying that IHT fashion editor Suzy Menkes should be applauded for her curation of the event. As ever, her refreshingly upbeat delivery disarmed every panellist. But for all the talk of bringing sustainable employment to regions ravaged by political instability and famine, the intentions of most of her interviewees seemed somewhat token.
Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood were repeatedly held up as examples of how the continent can represent a mutually beneficial opportunity for both manufacturers and African craftspeople. They both have pieces made in Kenya and adhere to the buzz-phrase philosophy of providing “Not charity, just work”. But when I asked senior executives in Rome if they’d consider shifting any major part of their production to Africa it was mostly blank stares. And who could blame them: with parts of Africa still lacking vital infrastructure there’s little incentive.
Rather the discussion that pricked the most ears was how to harness Africa’s growing middle class. At last count they numbered 300 million with an expected combined spending power of $2.2tn (€1.7tn) by 2030. It’s a consumer base that’s been largely ignored by most major luxury brands. As Menkes so rightly pointed out, there are stores in Marrakech and Cape Town but not much in the vast area in between. Chinese brands on the other hand have not been so slow: trade between China and Africa will almost triple to $300bn (€234bn) by 2015.
Better late than never, Ermenegildo Zegna recently led expansion into West Africa with a store in Lagos. The city could end up being an important hub for African luxury. It’s the birthplace of designer Duro Olowu, a favourite of Michelle Obama. When I spoke with Duro in Rome he talked about updating the clichéd safari aesthetic that many brands consider African. For him the style of vibrant urban populations is mostly overlooked. His pragmatic view of fashion’s wider role on the continent was equally refreshing. He put it simply: “It isn’t a cure for malaria but it makes people feel good.”
It’s a worthwhile thought. It can help in some places but setting the luxury industry up as a blanket solution to Africa’s more serious problems is asking for disappointment.