At last week’s Vogue Festival in London Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, and supermodel Naomi Campbell discussed their work in Africa.
Despite Vogue Italia’s troubled history of featuring offensive content—like photographing White models in blackface, selling “slave earrings,” and the now infamous Haute Mess editorial “celebrating” African-American women—Sozzani says she’s concerned about improving the image of Africa around the world.
Sozzani, who was named global goodwill ambassador for Fashion 4 Development, a United Nations initiative that aims to improve economic conditions through fashion in Africa’s developing countries, explained her passion for the continent.
In slightly broken English, she explained why she’d created the May 2012 “Rebranding Africa” issue of L’Uomo Vogue. “For me, L’Uomo Vogue is not a fashion magazine — I mean, it is, of course, but it’s more how to use fashion as a media to awareness for something else. So when we did [the] African issue, for example, I stayed two weeks in Africa, I interviewed the president of Nigeria, and we put, on the cover, Ban Ki-moon [secretary general of the United Nations].” The goal of the issue, she said, was to show some of the many positive things happening within the continent — because “if we go home and say Africa is poor, Africa is civil wars, Africa is AIDS, Africa is malaria — how can people go there?”
Her work for Fashion 4 Development seems to have had two main tactics: nurturing African talent and encouraging the development of a fashion economy; and drawing international attention to the best creative work. She spoke about the talented designers and beautiful fabrics she’s seen in Nigeria and Ghana, but lamented that many fabrics sold as “African” are currently manufactured in Holland. More manufacturing needs to happen on African soil to build a sustainable industry, she suggested.
During the conversation, Campbell wondered when Vogue, which has expanded throughout Europe and Asia, would create an African-based publication.
Naomi Campbell turned to the front row and directed a public request toward Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast International. “I’m hoping, Jonathan, that we can have African Vogue,” she said, laughing in the deadly serious way that only she can. “I would be the editor,” said Sozzani, and Campbell replied, “I’ll be an assistant.”
Although she joked about running the mag, Sozzani admitted Vogue Africa won’t be happening anytime soon because people don’t believe in Africa.
“We really have to work much more, and to have more people believe in [Africa]. There is not confidence in these countries [from the international fashion industry] because they’ve seen too many things, and of course in the newspapers they only put [negative] things. The good side is huge … So now, everybody’s talking about Africa, and probably something will happen. I hope so.”
Here’s the thing: something is happening, but just not at Vogue.
Five years ago the New York Times, ran an article about Africa’s influx of fashion magazines catering to a growing, underserved segment of “ladies of leisure, successful businesswomen and aspirational middle-income housewives” in “wealthy neighborhoods of Lagos; Nairobi; Luanda, Angola; Dakar, [and] Senegal.”
While Sozzani is waiting for the mainstream (read: White, European) fashion industry to “believe in Africa,” black women throughout the continent and beyond are already putting in work.
“Upwardly mobile African readers are crying out for this magazine,” which was started by Nigerian media tycoon Nduka Obaigbena, who also owns the country’s leading newspaper, This Day. “Because the local magazines aren’t as high end or progressive, and no other international titles speak directly to an African readership, Arise has really caused a stir.”
Arise isn’t the only one. Magazines like South Africa’s True Love, London-based pub New African Woman, France’s FASHIZBLACK, Ghana’s Glitz Africa Magazine, South Africa’s Destiny magazine, Uganda’s African Woman Magazine, Zen Magazine, Afrostyle Magazine, Wanted Magazine, Fab Afriq, and several other print and digital publications are shining a bright spotlight on Africa’s diverse culture and booming fashion industry—no blackface necessary.
And though it may be nice to see a magazine that has the resources and reach of Vogue setup shop in Africa, I doubt it would be any different (or any more diverse) than other “mainstream” pubs like Marie Claire and Glamour, which have South African titles that look very similar to their American and UK counterparts.