30 May 2024 ///

Chapter 27 | ‘Conversations With An Expert’ with African Fashion Specialist, Innocent Ndlovu

Africa’s fashion renaissance is a magnificent thing to behold – it is also a vast phenomena to maintain a full scope of. Interlude has focused primarily on South African fashion, and after 27 chapters, there is no ceasing the emergence of topics and discussions that can be had here.  

The idea for this month’s Interlude was to broaden the discussion to include Africa as a whole though this is a tall order, considering the expanse of our continent and the nuances involved regionally: lest we fall into the trap of homogenising Africa which is something that tends to happen in conversations about our continent abroad. For this edition, I knew I needed to call in an expert and Innocent Ndlovu’s TikTok account arrived on my feed to initiate precisely this.

With an educational background in PR, Strategic Communications and Political Studies, Innocent is the founder of Renoch Group and has transitioned from fashion being a fashion journalist to a PR and Commercial Director. With over a decade experience in the industry, his TikTok account, @theglobalspec, is an archival, historical and contemporary storyboard of African fashion – its triumphs, its stories and ultimately, its inexplicable influence on sartorial consciousness. From deep dives into South African fashion brands, to stories about how Kofi Ansah led Ghana’s fashion industry to global runways, or how Shade Thomas-Fahm changed how Nigerian women dress – Innocent joins Interlude as an expert with a vast swathe of knowledge, on a mission to champion and uncover Africa’s fashion history and future.

Innocent Ndlovu, photographed by Vuyani Mnguni

South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi knitwear, referencing 1970s African sensibilities, photographed by Luke Houba, via @lukhanyomdingi Instagram

Fashion is Innocent’s first and most enduring love, as he explains that “it’s been twelve years since I first entered the industry. I was 20 or 21 when I attended my first fashion week – SA Fashion Week – it was right after high school and I was still trying to figure out what to do. I stumbled upon writing, and became a fashion journalist – I was at GQ, MTV Base, Industrie Africa – mostly companies that were based overseas but had an interest in connecting with African audiences. Writing was something I loved as a child.” After a decade as a fashion journalist, Innocent amassed a profound understanding of the strategic needs involved in brands and designers succeeding. Launching his company, Renoch Group, was the next step in broadening his ability to serve the fashion industry; “my pivot to PR happened in 2022. I felt like I had reached a ceiling and I wanted to find the next thing to turn my attention to. I had written about designers and African creatives – interviewing them, promoting them and telling their stories, but I began to see that there was a gap in brands needing more than just exposure. You need to sell, be featured in more publications, you need collaborations. I had some friends asking for my help in how to tell their story on social media. I don’t just do PR because I saw that brands needed wholesale management – publicity is one thing, but being able to sell is what happens. I offer a 360 degree service to help brands reach the next level.”

A lot has changed in a decade and Innocent has seen the spotlight on African fashion grow with tangibility. As he notes, there is a contrast between the interest in our landscape in just the last ten years, saying that “it’s been such an interesting progression. Ten years ago, we saw a lot of sporadic moments in African fashion – historically, there was momentary interest and people would say ‘Oh, look, there are African designers!’ – Now, there seems to be some real staying power and consistent momentum. I think it has a lot to do with social media and the success of other cultural expressions from the continent, with music genres like amapiano. There is this very interesting intercontinental, collaborative spirit that is happening – like a South African designer winning an award, or being able to showcase in Paris. We are definitely seeing a new age of African fashion developing.”

I ask Innocent what he believes is the defining factor in the shaping direction of African fashion? Innocent explains that truly, it is access, “I think designers all around the world have experienced this revolution in being so direct with their consumer, through social media. Previously, media was always the mediator between brands and their audiences; it was the power of magazines to tell brand stories. If an editor didn’t like your brand or know who you were, there was no access. Now, brands can build their own following and community, and really tell their own story in their own way. Magazines are still important, but I think we have seen the possibilities widen in Africa and around the world, from the digital revolution.” Social media has helped designers and creatives bypass traditional gatekeepers, with creators reclaiming narratives and contributing to a more authentic representation of African aesthetics and identities. 

Innocent believes that African fashion can be understood as a dual influence and inseparable from its historical context, and that to fully grasp the essence of African fashion is to acknowledge its deep-rooted connections to history, culture, and the ongoing processes of decolonisation; as Innocent explains, “I like to distinguish African fashion this way; there is the original, pre-colonial African fashion which is mainly rooted in ceremonial dressing, and then there is the post-colonial, new age African fashion. That influence of colonialism is embedded in our fashion cultures across the continent, but the history, techniques, the dying, the beading – the fabrications – inform so many designers today. In the 1960s, when African countries began to get their independence, there was a huge movement in reclaiming their culture and we saw this in fashion, too. I think of Chris Seydou in Mali, a pioneer of African couture who built his design philosophy on the use of ‘mud cloth’ or Malian bogolan, or Oumou Sy in Senegal, the ‘Grand Dame of Dakar’. This was revolutionary at the time, to hybridise traditional techniques and tools through a modern lens. The designers that we see today are the inheritors of the work those designers pioneered from the 1960s.”

‘BEAUTÉS’ an archive image series by Lafalaise DION, via @lafalaisedionn Instagram

Lukhanyo Mdingi knitwear, inspired by West African Photographer Seydou Keita, photographed by Luke Houba, via @lukhanyomdingi Instagram

The misconceptions of African fashion are often rooted in a ‘cos-play’ style western interpretation of inherent, cultural dress traditions, “a lot of people associate African fashion with prints, but it’s so much more than that – and in fact, many of the prints come from a colonial production lineage. Batik, for example, is of Dutch and Indonesian origin and aren’t inherently African, but have become embedded into African culture,” says Innocent, and “as we regain our ability to share our stories, we see designers and creatives on the continent being able to use systems and techniques as a way to continue reclaiming what Africa is actually all about and what it can mean in 2024, and beyond.”

Being a designer is a challenge across the globe. In fact, since the monopolisation of the fashion industry by giants such as Kering and LVMH, we have seen a consolidation of power and influence that has marginalised smaller, independent creators. In the African context, Innocent’s work as a PR Strategist is informed by his understanding that “people see the finished work and the collection. Behind all of that, designers really go through the work – they have to really dig deep to stay the course financially and logistically – from production costs, to shipping, to wholesale management. How do you meet between Mali and South Africa, or Nigeria and Mali? We are talking about a huge continent with many countries and systems involved. There is also limited access to retail opportunities – beyond the direct to consumer online stores.”

So, what does Innocent’s view as the most pressing thing for us to consider about the continent’s fashion climate? “The dynamics between online retailers and brands is very interesting right now and it’s happening across the global industry. The global economy is creating huge pressure and leading to acquisition like we saw with Matches and FarFetch, so it’s been an interesting landscape for independent designers. I think it’s going to be a challenging year for retail and wholesale, and getting onto the right platforms. I don’t think it’s all bad – despite the challenges we are seeing, African designers are demonstrating real resilience. Thebe Magugu just launched a multi-purpose store in Joburg, and he isn’t the only one opening physical stores in the country. Globally, we are seeing stores closing everywhere, but here in South Africa – despite our economic challenges – brick and mortar is clearly part of our scaling as a fashion industry.” 

Designers have always relied on department stores and retailers to purchase their collections, leading to cash injections that can then facilitate the next production run: with the resilience in mind of African fashion, I go back to my view that the unique opportunity for our ‘emerging’ industry is that its infancy can also mean our ability to do things differently. Right now, Innocent is looking to North Africa – countries such as Egypt and Morocco – as areas to take notes of, and “West Africa is very interesting to me. They gained independence much earlier than South Africa for example, so they’ve had a very strong, creative industry for a long time. In the past, to be in South Africa and know what’s actually happening in Senegal, for example, has been a challenge. I am really interested in Senegal and Ivory Coast, but that’s not necessarily new, it’s just that our access and communication has changed,” and that, “I’m seeing what we previously may have considered ‘second tier’ cities or countries are really producing such interesting creatives and designers.”

Thandiswa Mazwai for Man of Africa’s One Year Anniversary Issue, photographed by Trevor Stuurman, via @trevor_stuurman Instagram

Studio Madoch, Photographed by @oneshotstudios, via @studiomadoch Instagram

Speaking with experts like Innocent Ndlovu demonstrates that the Africa fashion revolution is a movement – beyond an economic sector, and its purpose is a reclaiming of past injustice, and the birthing of new identities and ways of being. Through a sartorial lens, Innocent shares his final thought, on how he was encouraged to tell stories through his TikTok, “I was a little frustrated that there wasn’t a lot of African fashion history that was easily available. I decided to do something about it! So my contribution started on TikTok, uncovering fashion lore and stories from the continent – and to ensure that I can assist in sharing how important the historical context is so important for us to move forward as an industry.” To more learning, deeper research and an archival history the making; Innocent’s manifesto reminds me of designer Lukhanyo Mdingi’s quest with his ongoing showcases, Provenance, founded on the premise to leave behind records for African designs, still to come, in the 21st century. This is legacy-building; and Innocent Ndlovu is alchemising the fashion future he wishes to see. Onwards and upwards. 


Follow Innocent Ndlovu on TikTok HERE

Follow Innocent on IG HERE

Follow Renoch Group HERE

Written by: Holly Beaton

For more news, visit the Connect Everything Collective homepage www.ceconline.co.za

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