The recent “rise of African Fashion” within global media is a bit of a dead tune in these parts. In Ghana, style has always been big news. The Internet makes all the difference now. Some fifteen years ago, you wouldn’t see the freshest Ghanaian designs on Instagram or Tumblr because all the fresh styles were on the streets.
The best designs are still on the streets. Street design shops, big and small, stock some of the finest locally made outfits in the city. Every minute someone from Ghana is posting a Look Book online allowing thousands of people around the world to tap into Ghana’s style portal. Let’s not forget designer labels like Louis Vuitton slipping fashion aesthetics from Ghana onto the runway without acknowledging the origins.
Ghana has a long tradition of customized clothing dating as far back as the pre-colonial era. Several waves of freed slaves from Bahia in Brazil landed on the shores of West Africa in the mid nineteenth centuries, particularly Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. The ones who came to Accra were given land and GA citizenship by King Tackie Tawiah I in 1836. The Tabom people, as these returnees were later called, arrived with a lot of skills ranging from military tactics, architecture, carpentry, irrigation engineering to tailored clothing. The renowned Morton Family are descendants of the Tabom people. The Mortons were expert merchants and tailors, credited with setting up Scissors House, the first tailoring shop in Accra.
Scissors House spawned tons of tailoring businesses in the capital city over the years and has contributed to the eclectic development of street fashion in Accra. In Ghana, people take fabric to their local dressmakers for special occasions, work and church. This kind of outfitting is the foundation of the fashion industry in Ghana. Unlike emerging fashion houses, street fashion shops are not formally structured. The designers, who are mostly called tailors, regardless of their gender work from kiosks, containers or rented stores that are often decorated with popular Accra made fashion calendars.These are the people determining the popular fashion trends in the country.
Annie Dorbu and her brother Philip own a kiosk where they sew clothes. Annie has been making clothes for the past 18 years. The wooden kiosk that houses her designs has posters of the latest Ghanaian women styles pasted all over the walls. The shop is a bit hard to locate but it’s the least of Annie’s worries: “I am not worried about where and how my kiosk is because people who know what I do locate me all the time.”
Francis Nartey is about 40 years old and has been making clothes for fifteen years. Each style he creates comes from his imagination. Francis doesn’t watch TV to get a sense of what’s popular internationally or to be inspired. Most of his inspiration comes from his environment and everyday people. He thinks street tailors don’t need adverts or signage to get customers. “People will find you,” Francis enthuses.
“Massa, the TV is always showing what is going on abroad. The clothes they wear are not for us,” Francis shakes his head. “So I just see what is going on in my neighborhood and try to make something for the people to wear.”
Street fashion in Ghana isn’t always influenced by international fashion trends since most tailors do not have Internet nor do they frequent new media. They rather create their own local fashion styles. Francis is, however, weary of locally made fabric because they are so expensive.
A few yards of GTP wax prints are priced between 150 – 230GHC. The mass market isn’t paying that kind of money so most people turn to cheaper imports, particularly from China, even if it means compromising on quality [usually 25 – 50GHC]. The old school method of dressmakers getting the fabric and making clothes for customers seems to be less of a practice now.
Years ago, if anyone wanted an outfit, they just went to the seamstress to take measurements. Days later you’d go for a fitting and pay for the cost of production. This is not so anymore because a lot of young people are scanning through fashion portals online and picking up style ideas and creating unique outfits for dressmakers to stitch together.
Hazel Quaye owns Fashionista Trends, a local clothing shop in Osu. Lately, Hazel hardly designs her own clothes because clients come to her with their own fabric and ideas. “In the last five months, all the people I’ve made clothes for bring their own fabric with their own designs. The reason why I don’t design and sew often is that the local fabric like GTP and Printex are very expensive, and I don’t want to waste money on them because the business is not as profitable as before with all the cheap imports coming in from Asia,” Hazel said.
In the last few years, emerging fashion houses have to cope with street designers as people find the street fashion shops more affordable. For example, you can have clothes made by a street tailor and pay approximately six times less for a similar outfit at Kofi Ansah’s Art House.
Kwame Boateng is a tailor and shop attendant at Nana Yaw Broni Fashions on Oxford Street. He thinks the fashion houses that stock designer clothes have customers who are very different from his. “The people who like my clothes are different from the people who would by from Woodin,” remarks Kwame. Usually his expatriate clients buy in bulk to sell in Europe and North America. This sort of business is bringing him USD1300 a month, which is pretty swell for a small business like his.
Hazel, Francis and Annie make slightly less than Kwame Boateng, but with the current high demand for African fashion, they are hoping to boost sales in the coming months. These sales are driven primarily by Ghanaians looking to buy affordable styles and tourists who are paying a bit more for these outfits. What all these street designers have in common is the consistent tourist traffic for already-made clothes from these stalls. The current economic strain has seen domestic sales take a nosedive, however, tourist spending seems to be what is keeping a lot of these businesses afloat.
The only thing missing now are the factories to mass produce clothes in Ghana for large-scale distribution throughout Africa and the rest of the world. Recently, Ghanaian designer Christie Brown made outfits for Beyonce’s “Mrs. Carter World Tour” . The future of the industry is up for grabs as it stands and the big steps taken by the likes of Christie Brown will soon be replicated the world over. Emerging designers like Dedo Azu, Duaba Serwa, Alikoto Clothing, Afro Mod Trends and Poqua Poqu are building a presence at international fashion weeks.
This also means that Ghana’s quickly gaining traction as the hot spot for fresh African styles and luxury couture.