The weird and wonderful world of fashion — Zambia Fashion Week 2013

Sara Drawwater
6 November 2013
That’s what

“These days, when I go to boutiques, I don’t buy much. Before, I’d come home with bags and bags of clothes when I traveled. But now all I buy are chitenge outfits.”

That’s what Karen Nakwala, organiser of Zambian Fashion Week, had said about her wardrobe. She was sharing her thoughts on the fashion industry in Zambia. As a man, I find it very intriguing that people would dedicate whole ceremonies to this ‘fashion’. Give me a t-shirt and jeans and I’m comfortable.

A reluctant dip into the Zambian fashion world

So I somehow found myself tasked to delve deep into this world of models, motifs and even mannequins! My friend Buba was more than willing to accompany me on this investigation. She too was fascinated by this fashion phenomenon.

When we arrived at the Zambia Fashion Week main event on Saturday, Tukiya from Mafashio was on hand to snap pictures of my co-conspirator and I, who kept referring to herself as a ‘drab creature’. She must have been feeling a little intimidated by all the fashionistas. I felt I looked drabber than she did, as I’d opted for my usual garb. She on the other hand seemed quite prepared in her Styrofoam top and goat-skinned skirt. Very avant-garde.

Before the actual spectacle began, I took some time to go around and take in the aesthetics. Petros Giannakakos, one local designer frantically moved between his booth and backstage. He’d told me this would be the seventh time he was attending this event. His PG label experiments with a wide variety of colorful fabrics and his creative threads were on display in the sidelines, as if paying tribute to the sacred runway. Also exhibiting some of her fashions was Cece. Her chitenge designs combine stylish Ghanaian prints with Zambian patterns to create African inspired gowns and even menswear.

How anyone would pay that much for clothes is still beyond me. But maybe that’s my problem. Maybe that’s why I’m not scoring well with the ladies. This matter needed further investigation. I decided to charter more of this territory.

The secret civilization of “fashionistas”

Fabulous females fanned themselves with flyers in the sweltering heat. Looking at these people in their element was truly fascinating. I felt like a culturalist studying some new found secret civilization.

I wandered outside to make more observations. I stumbled upon a seemingly shy female flaunting her best features as Tukiya snapped a picture of her. “What should I do? Tee hee!” she giggled as she turned around. An older lady asked Sekayi, the other half of MaFashio to hold her things so she could pose for a picture. She was like a seasoned veteran, a lioness in effortless vogue. The younger ones had an impromptu photo-shoot by a backdrop with various logos camouflaged across it; antelopes at play in the wonderful world that is fashion. Truly fascinating.

The main event of Zambia Fashion Week

Thandi Alifo’s designs were showcased first. Her journey into fashion started much earlier in her life, when she made clothes for her dolls and now her fashion style embodied a sassy, chic look.

The wondrously long-legged ladies strutted their stuff with a confidence most would admire; unwavering game faces that seemed to say they could have catwalked even on stilts.

A number of seats were still empty well into the event because numerous reserved signs lay across them. Professor Clive Chirwa was in attendance and I expected that more important people and socialites would make an appearance. The Second Lady was also on her way to the event. I wondered what security would do to me if I literally tried to rub shoulders with her…

On the runway were models draped in various designs from chitenge inspired fabrics to European style stripes. Chitenge seemed to be quite popular though, and rightly so. Zambian fashion should after all be Zambian inspired.

Cuthbert Nguni’s designs were the first to bring out a male model, and I was a little surprised. I overheard one of the ladies saying that the model had a nice bum, and then quickly dismissed the thought of myself on that runway.

Debbie Chu’s ‘Misty Personal’ collection inspired much admiration and applause from the crowd. Her out-of-the-box creations fused rock star style fashions with some casual designs.

Bright lights flashed as a mob of photographers hounded the end of the runway to immortalise the models in digital snapshots. These foul mortals were almost drooling at the fashion goddesses and I had to use brute force and shoulder shrugs to find a spot at the feet of the models. I would have loved to flash my press pass and get preferential treatment, but I knew these bottom feeders would flash their passes right back. I would have to use my pass elsewhere in this foreign land. Backstage perhaps…

Innocent Angels were on the runway. One of the designers talked into the microphone about how their collection was inspired by the summer. “As you can see, most of the pieces are yellow. Influenced by the beauty of the sun.” She almost gave away too much detail of her fashion conquest and dropped a hint at global domination as she described their earth inspired dress. “This globe outfit represents where we are going — the whole world. We will fascinate the world with our fashions.”

The fashion people continued to boggle me as they had a whole category dedicated to clutch purses. They were some creative clutches I must admit. They blended everything from leather to denim, and even the popular chitenge.

Entertainment break

The glamorous show was not all fashion. For our entertainment, a couple in some circus-like costumes came out and asked that the people of the paparazzi move their settlement to make room for the performance. I was smiling inside; the bottom feeders had temporarily been displaced. The couple broke into an amazing fusion of salsa and break dance to the sounds of Tina Turner’s Golden Eye. They twirled and flipped much to the amusement of the fashion people and the audience.

Back to the fashionLocal designer, Charity Nyirongo brought out some adorable children to much uuum… adoration. They inspired ‘oohs’ and ‘awwws’ as they showed no trace of fear while they modelled lovely yellow traditional print designs. The little boys rushed their walk and looked like they wanted to get it all over with as they almost ran off stage. But I knew, like me, they were secretly enjoying this strange spectacle.

Not all the designers were local, and Sabina Mutsvati showcased some Zimbabwean creativity. The models walked majestically down the runway to an enchanting xylophone tune that complimented her apparel. Large wire loops and rings adorned her dresses to create a larger than life collection. These fashion people must have really tapped into some distant creative part of their mind to bring their outfits alive. I needed a more in-depth perspective.

Backstage pass

It was time for me to explore the inner workings of what they referred to as ‘backstage’. Behind the scenes, everything was even more alive. It was a marriage between controlled chaos and the choreographed turning of cogs that made the fashion show machine run smoothly.

Charity Nyirongo explained about what had gone into this year’s ceremony. “I’ve been participating since 2011, and this year’s has been the biggest. From the mini shows and the run up to today’s event, this year has just been great.”

I was a little intimidated by the models as I talked to her. They took little notice of me and walked with their heads high. Like elegant giraffes walking the planes of that kingdom. One of them was curious enough to stoop down to my level and speak to me. “I have a passion for it, and I absolutely love fashion,” she said flashing a heart melting smile at me. “I love all the attention I get when I’m on stage wearing gorgeous outfits,” said Mercy.

What I saw behind the scenes was so different to the beauty that went onto the run way. Here, I got a glimpse of the intricate workings of the wonderful and sometimes strange world of fashion. Karen Nakwala was there scanning through her program and list of models with a pensive look on her face. She smiled casually and gave me a thumbs-up when I asked how it was all going. She was like a conductor working to transform the whole show into a beautiful orchestra.

Closing thoughts

When I returned to my seat in the audience, Buba had whipped out a Japanese folding fan. She fit right in with the crowd. I’m not sure if I’d learnt more about fashion at that point, but she said that she’d stolen a few ideas for her own threads.

As we traded notes, a grungy alternative song by Bjork came on urging on Towani Clarke’s models. Her new line is called Chongololo, inspired by the millipede of course. Needless to say, everyone’s attention was piqued by the tasteful display of skin through thin fabrics. “They are masters of disguise and perfect for hiding undergarments,” Towani explained to me. As she spoke to me a friend of hers came by to congratulate her on her avant-garde fashions. They laughed when she mentioned how Towani had managed to blend a level of taste with sexiness that had successfully captivated the audience.

One would think that there was a complex hierarchy that needed a cutthroat attitude to go with their scissors as they snipped their way to the top. But it seemed there was a fighting chance for the rising stars. Patricia Mulenga scooped this year’s Emerging Designers award and will be whisked away to Swahili Fashion Week to learn foreign fashion secrets and return home to share her findings.

The sun had set in long ago, and it was time for us ordinary people to return from whence we came. The spectacle wrapped up and the fashion people will return next year to grace us with new garments and show us more of the fabulousness of their secret culture.

I felt a little more enlightened on the subject of fashion. The parade I had witnessed was a celebration of creativity and clothing. It was a chance for people to witness this secret civilization at play on a grand scale. Fashion is not just garments and frolicking on a runway, fashion was a way of life. Fashion is chitenges.

Look out for a picture blog on Zambia Fashion Week 2013 — coming soon!

The above findings are an account of the spectacular event that was Zambia Fashion Week 2013, which ran from the 17th to the 19th of October 2013. It is the ultimate fashion event of the year and was brought to us by the good people at Afro Media.

Benny Blow is a writer sent from the future and is desperately trying to raise money to repair his time machine so he can return to his own time stream.You can read more of his work on his blog here, follow him on Twitter @Benny_blow and friend him on Facebook here.