In the 10 years since African Fashion International was formed, the focus has been to bolster African fashion brands on the worldwide stage.
In doing so, AFI’s founder and chief executive officer Dr. Precious Moloi-Motsepe has helped to further Africa’s heritage, history and craftsmanship while creating viable businesses and jobs. This fall she was named the inaugural recipient of the Fashion 4 Development’s Franca Sozzani Award. The former Vogue Italia editor in chief’s son Francesco Carrozzini nominated Moloi-Motsepe, as had Norway’s HRH Crown Princess Mette-Marit. Sozzani died last year at the age of 66.
Through AFI, she has helped 10 African designers from different parts of the continent — South Africa’s David Tlale, Klûk CGDT, Thula Sindi, Marianne Fassler of Leopard Frock, MaXhosa by Laduma, Stefania Morland, Gavin Rajah, Tuelo Nguyuza of TN Collectiv, together with Nigeria’s Ituen Basi, and Mille Collines from Rwanda.
“We try to look for the best curated designers from each part of the continent. In South Africa, the group is not only helping to create jobs for the designers and their respective seamstresses and production people but also those who work on lighting and other elements of show production including photographers during fashion week.” Moloi-Motsepe said, adding that small retailers are also in the mix. “The reach is beyond any one designer. There is support for the wider creative industry itself — there is the entertainment industry and the modeling side of things, models, agencies and makeup artists.”
“Rather than focus on generating publicity or fame for the designers, the focus has always been to create sustainable businesses that help communities. The fashion industry on the continent, largely speaking, has been very small and fragmented. We’ve had a lot of challenges in terms of the textiles industry itself. But on the other hand, you have people who are very creative, with a very strong heritage and so much diversity on the continent, let alone just in South Africa,” she said. “From the beginning, our goal has been to promote the best of the African fashion designers and other creatives like artisans but also to connect then with markets on the continent and more particularly globally so that they can start to become globally relevant.”
Financial backing and access to international markets are key issues for designers who also need to learn about trade treaties and scaling up production capacity. Compounding their challenges are consumers’ financial concerns, high unemployment rates, lack of disposable income and increased competition from fast-fashion retailers like Zara and H&M. With that in mind, Moloi-Motsepe strives to help businesses develop the skills to cover overhead, raw materials and salaries for their companies which generally employ up to 10 people.
A physician by training, she opened one of the first clinics in South Africa dedicated to women’s health. In 2007, she stopped practicing medicine to head up the Motsepe Foundation, which is dedicated to alleviating poverty and creating sustainable living standards for marginalized people in South Africa. Along with her husband Patrice Motsepe, African Rainbow Minerals founder and ceo, they were the first family on the African continent to join the Bill Gates and Warren Buffet-backed Giving Pledge. The family pledged half of the funds generated by its assets to the poor.
Growing up in the township of Soweto, her parents emphasized the importance of education and tried to impress on boys and girls that if they stick with their education they will be successful. Recognizing the potential for creating jobs for women, Moloi-Motsepe homed in on fashion. Further brainstorming is done via her membership in the Iris Bohnet-led Women’s Leadership Board, part of the Harvard Kennedy School Women and Public Policy. Looking at strategies to close the gender gap, improving hiring practices and teaching negotiating skills to girls are among the subjects discussed. “These are an amazing group of women who have achieved and amazing things in their own countries — business, philanthropy and many other organizations. New research shows how young girls in Zambia who were taught negotiating skills were able to deal with difficult circumstances such as rearranging chores so that studies wouldn’t be impacted. Teaching them to communicate with others so they can get what they need are skills for life and the work place such as negotiating salaries, Moloi-Motsepe said.
To pay tribute to Sozzani, she aims to connect African designers with established ones in Europe and the U.S. to mentor and collaborate with them to broaden the distribution of their product and their abilities. Moloi-Motsepe said, “In her work, Franca tried to identify the best performing designers on the continent to profile them at a global level. “A few years ago we recognized her as one of the people who were working to raise the profiles of African designers,” Moloi-Motsepe said.
Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys have helped to raise designers’ profiles. Suzy Menkes and Fern Mallis have also helped to further the cause. Moloi-Motsepe said, “There are a lot of high-profile individuals who appreciate the work and therefore promo. It’s a matter of retailers giving these designers the opportunity and for other global designers understanding the unique difference that African designers bring to the design world.”