Africa Takes Its Turn on the Catwalk

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Ghana, “Men know how to dress,” says photographer Per-Anders Pettersson. He’s breaking down the African fashion scene, which he’s been photographing since 2009. “South Africa has more Western influence. West Africa has special fabric traditions such as Ankara. Some areas have beading, like in East Africa, inspired by the Maasai tribe.”

Pettersson’s fashion obsession was born in Johannesburg. He had been working in South Africa for years, documenting the manifestation of a new democracy, when he heard that fashion shows were popular with the growing black middle class and elite. So he went. He attended after-parties. He photographed Fashion Week. He met trendy youth. He was all in.

“I had done so many difficult stories over the years, and I was longing for some positive and uplifting projects,” he says. “I liked it so much I continued.” He’s now worked in 15 countries, from Botswana to Nigeria to Rwanda.

At first, getting backstage was a hassle—they don’t let many people in. But since he’s shown up so many times, fashion show organizers now ask him if he’ll be coming to their shows, which are often experimental. “Many shows are held in interesting locations—on a bridge, on the tarmac of an airport, in museums,” says Anders.

Eventually, he was befriended by so many industry folk that even his attempt to act like a “fly on the wall” fell through. “I know many designers and models,” he says. “Too many!”

Most of those designers don’t yet have the acclaim of international labels, but they’re working to break through. So are the models. “Many African models are also discovered at these events,” he says. “Many of them dream of becoming the next Naomi Campbell or Alex Wek, who was born in Sudan.”

(Check out two of his favorite designers: Taibo Bacar from Mozambique and Laduma from South Africa.)

He gained incredible access by engraining himself in the culture, but don’t mistake him for a fashion photographer. He doesn’t want to be one. His behind-the-scenes documentary photos lift the veil, revealing a more candid but still artfully composed perspective on a fashion industry that’s “growing rapidly.”

Economics plays a big role in this fashion boom. “Some of the fastest growing economies in the world are now in Africa,” says Pettersson. There is “[a] massive, growing middle-class that is starting to have money to spend on luxury items.” And as the world becomes increasingly connected through smartphones and the Internet, these burgeoning designers and models are more able to participate in the business. They are so ready.

Pettersson says the one thing that surprised him most as he worked on this story was how big fashion and style already are in Africa. “How big the interest is. How many people are dreaming of working in the industry—designers, models, makeup, hair, producers, photographers, bloggers, choreographers.

“Africa is such a vast continent with 54 countries. They have so many stories to tell here.”

Per-Anders Pettersson’s book, African Catwalk, will be available on May 10, 2016. See more of his work on his website.

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