Helen Jennings is at the helm of fashion’s next big wave—Africa. For the past three years, the editor of Arise magazine (the quarterly title dedicated to African style and culture) has had a front row seat to the African fashion scene, observing and documenting a tinderbox of talented designers now taking to the world stage. The self-described ‘English Rose’ began her fashionable journey in the British countryside, where her eccentric outfits led to schoolyard teasing. Unfazed, she took her inimitable flair to London, where she studied English at Kings College, then embarked on a journalism career, editing and styling at The Fader, Time Out, i-D, Trace and more. Her first book, New African Fashion (Prestel, 2011), highlights the continent’s preeminent designers, models and photographers. aRUDE editor, artist, Iké Udé provides its foreword.
Why did you decide to write New African Fashion, and why now?
My editorship at Arise has allowed me to fully explore African fashion and meet the scene’s movers and the shakers. I’ve seen how the industry works and been able to watch it grow. In recent years, more African fashion magazines and blogs have sprouted up, and fashion weeks flourished. The interest in African fashion just keeps getting bigger and it’s crossing over now, so it seemed to me it was time for a definitive book on the subject.
I hope that anyone can pick up the book and get a feel for the scene.
Tell me about the process of writing and researching New African Fashion.
The whole project took a year from conceptualizing the idea to getting a deal and seeing it through to the printed page. I spent a lot of time researching, interviewing and delving into the history of African fashion design, models, textiles and studio photographers. Securing rights to pictures also took considerable man-hours too. I’m grateful to Iké Uké for his foreword, which likens Pablo Picasso’s ‘African moment’ to the ray of light shining on African fashion now.
How did you choose the designers featured in the book?
There were some that I just loved such as Maki Oh and Stiaan Louw, some that are big names such as Duro Olowu and Ozwald Boateng, and some I hadn’t heard of until I got digging, such as Omer Asim. Overall, I wanted to make sure I included designers from all over Africa, not just sub Saharan, and showcase a wide range of aesthetics. Some designers are Afro centric in their approach, while others you couldn’t tell were African simply by looking at their collections. I hope that anyone can pick up the book and get a feel for the scene.
You are not of African descent. Have you ever experienced adversity or resistance in your journalist practice on African fashion?
Not really, no. I’m a trained fashion journalist with over a decade of experience. I’m not pretending to be African; I’m just passionate about promoting Africa and its creative industries. And as an outsider, I can be impartial too. No one would say you have to be European to write about European fashion, so it’s narrow minded to suggest you have to be African to write about African fashion, or wear it for that matter. We have to move beyond divisive arguments and treat the subject in an international context.
There are a lot of people with significant wealth in Africa, and there’s certainly a market for a quality editorial about African fashion, as the success of Arise has proved.
Arise has made a splash in the industry by representing African fashion with award winning editorials. In 2010 artist Mario Epanya suggested the idea of a Vogue Africa, imagining several covers for fictional editions. What do you think of this idea?
I applaud it. There are a lot of people with significant wealth in Africa, and there’s certainly a market for a quality editorial about African fashion, as the success of Arise has proved. When it comes down to it though, it’s a question of advertising for Condé Nast. The title won’t go ahead if it can’t float financially. We’ll see how the market develops though. It might be an idea that gets revisited seriously, especially in light of Franca Sozzani’s recent UN visit to West Africa to meet with local designers.
You mention in your book about the proliferation of African fashion weeks and events around the globe. Do you think there will one day be one definitive African fashion week on par with fashion weeks in Paris, London, Milan, and New York?
There already is – Arise Magazine Fashion Week! It’s now an annual event bringing together 50 designers in Lagos, the second event happening this March. There’s also Africa Fashion Week in Johannesburg, which is in its third year. There’s certainly too many smaller fashion weeks happening in the name of African fashion right now but I salute any initiative that brings the business of fashion to different parts of the continent. As time goes on, the best will rise. What is needed though is some sort of pan-African fashion body, which could encourage communication, investment and marketing of designers across African and international borders.