African fashion is often viewed through a narrow lens, relegated to certain stereotypes that have been recycled over time in lieu of any real exploration into the continent’s wide-ranging, heterogenous designs.
Out to change that is Oxosi. Created by Nigerian-born Akin Adebowale and Kolade Adeyemo, the platform spotlights current designers and fashion trends from their homeland and beyond.
“The idea of African fashion has been so limited for so long, focused just on prints and wild colors, when in reality, there’s a breadth of diversity that should be highlighted,” said Kwesi Blair, the company’s COO. “We want to show that there’s a lot more to it than just Ankara and Vlisco fabrics, or Kente cloth.”
Indeed, you won’t see many of those traditional fabrics on the website, which sells styles by roughly 25 designers, including top-sellers Maki Oh, Selly Raby Kane, Dent de Man and Chuulap. “African designers are breaking traditional rules and are more avant-garde, while trying to remain affordable,” said Blair of the aesthetic. “Minds are open right now.”
The New York–based team is hopeful that that openness will extend to the industry’s oft-fleeting interest in African design. In 2011, when the idea for Oxosi first came to fruition, “there was a lot of excitement in this area,” with increased editorials and events showcasing the latest African fashion, said Adebowale. “But there were no proper retail channels to connect that energy around high-quality African design to the global consumer.”
A glimpse at Oxosi’s product offering
The duo, who were running a creative agency called BASE Official at the time, eventually decided to use their skills and contacts in the luxury sector to bring more awareness to Africa’s design scene. The result, Oxosi, was born quietly in 2015, led by an initial investment from Kupanda Capital, a firm established to incubate, capitalize and scale pan-African companies. The site picked up more traction the following year after receiving attention from lucrative publications like Vogue.
The bulk of their product comes from West and South Africa, where they have two merchandisers, though some of it is also produced internationally by designers of African descent. “We wanted brands that had a point of view and would have a presence online,” said Adeyemo, “as well as brands that were affordable across contemporary-luxury.” Their merchandise usually ranges from $200 to $2,000.
More importantly, brands on the site had to be able to meet production demands and have some manner of quality control in place.
Africa’s underdeveloped infrastructure has also prevented Oxosi from shipping to the continent — it would take far too long for customers to receive their products — though it has opened up shipping outside of the U.S., to Europe.
“We also found that a growing number of these Afro-modernist brands lacked the contact, technological prowess, logistical resources and marketing savvy to connect with the global market,” said Adebowale. So, more than just sharing their designs with the world, Oxosi helps to fill these voids for the brands involved, helping with marketing, branding and logistics, when necessary.
They partnered with Maki Oh this past New York Fashion Week, for example, by throwing a unique presentation-meets-party for the brand. “We ultimately have to educate our customer and the market on most of our brands,” said Blair, “so we are committed to developing a variety of ways to partner with them to tell their stories in tandem with ours.”
Oxosi’s online magazine
Adebowale and Adeyemo use their editorial arm to promote these brands, too, alongside the many others that they don’t have the bandwidth to sell. “We obviously can’t onboard every single [African] brand if the goal of Oxosi is to be a curation of luxury,” said Adeyemo. They’ve developed an online magazine that features numerous recurring series, including Getting Dressed, made up of videos capturing the morning routines of African-born creatives, and Black Atlas, which covers the many different subcultures and phenomenon emerging across the continent.
“We want to make sure that African fashion is not just a trend,” said Blair. “It’s really easy for something to appear on a runway for a season and have people say, ‘Wow, this is cool right now,’ but we’re trying to get them to understand that there’s a history to African fashion that’s been neglected. It’s been going on for years, and it’s an established and vibrant community that should be highlighted.”
To ensure this, the industry needs to do a better job of providing relevant education on the topic, they say. They cite the International Herald Tribune’s 2012 luxury conference as one promising example; it’s focus was on “The Promise of Africa: The Power of the Mediterranean.” However, there hasn’t been much since. “That was one of the few [venues] to look at Africa from a luxury perspective,” said Blair, “and more of those interactions have to happen.” Sending fashion editors to Lagos Fashion and Design Week and South African Fashion Week should be higher priority, too, they add.
The Oxosi team is looking for more ways to extend this narrative, as well, and are currently setting their sights offline. They kicked things off by hosting a recent conversation on African fashion at Neue House, between Vogue editor Marjon Carlos and the GQ editor Mobolaji Dowadu. Similar events are in the works with other private-membership spaces like Ludlow and Soho House.
“We’re not looking for acceptance,” said Blair. “We’re trying to tell a story that hasn’t been told before — one that will exist now and into the future.”