The nature of luxury (2)
So many things influence the definition of luxury in Africa. Our diversity is one. How do you want to define luxury in a country like Nigeria with large numbers of ethnic groups? By extension, the entire African continent?
When you talk about luxury on the continent, it is usually not about price, but instead, as Nisha Kanabar, co-founder of Industrie Africa, a platform showcasing the work of African designers puts it:
“It is about the strength and depth of the story that a brand seeks to tell through its craft – be it a new take on indigenous textiles, a reinterpretation of artisanal techniques, or a genuine understanding of their identity and influences.
“Where luxury once used to be synonymous with exclusivity, and aspiration, today it resonates with a much younger consumer through pillars of authenticity, emotional connection, uniqueness, and environmental consciousness.”
The definition of luxury today might be taking a whole new form with many designers and luxury creators defining luxury to suit their cultural realities and heritage.
There are some salient questions to ask: How much influence does culture have on the creation and consumption of luxury? Does luxury exist in Africa before now? Do we have to create new yardsticks to define luxury is in Africa or do we take hook, line, and sinker the West’s definition of luxury as ours? Can creators and consumers of luxury in Africa adopt the tenets of luxury in the West to define their luxury? Or should Africa create her yardsticks to measure what luxury is? These are some of the questions that arise from my interrogation of what luxury is. In the coming weeks, I will seek to find answers to these questions through some of the points I will highlight here.
I think the first step will be to seek answers to the question, does luxury exist before now in Africa? Categorically, my answer to this is yes. Africa has always had its luxury industry from time immemorial. It may never have been so labelled, but it has been there.
Taking a look at history, in Nigeria, for instance, there are some premium fabrics associated with royalty or the wealthy. Chief among these are the Etu and Sanyan variants of the Aso Oke. These fabrics are made of premium cotton and strictly handwoven by artisans of a particular lineage. The craft is handed down from generation to generation in that family. Some designs are made exclusively for kings, and they are usually not repeated. These treasured designs of Sanyan or Etu are treasured keepsakes carefully stowed away or locked up in a portmanteau by owners who often passed them down from one generation to another. Usually, the Sanya and Etu fabrics are superior and used by Kings, chiefs or the affluent across the Yoruba land.
There are also bespoke shoes handmade of premium fabrics with intricately embroidered designs made by artisans who are skilled in that area. Often, these shoes are made specially for kings, chiefs and the rich who could afford them.
Besides, there is also well-crafted handmade furniture with carefully carved images made by skilled craftsmen. Most of these antiques are still decorating the palaces of kings and some homes were such rare pieces are appreciated.
However, like every aspect of our lives, the African luxury has enjoyed its fair share of colonisation. Now, we are beginning to use external yardsticks as parameters for measuring our luxury industry.
Not only that, Africans, especially Nigerians, are avid consumers of European and American luxury. We no longer treasure our craftsmanship. What we often hear is: “Italian craftsmanship. This piece is made by craftsmen in a remote village in Italy. It took them 100 hours to make.”
When we hear this, we become enamoured and desire to collect such prized pieces. Whereas here in Africa, there are craftsmen spending hours creating rare pieces in towns like Osogbo, Ile Ife, and countries like Benin, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe and other remote villages across the continent.
And whenever we desire any of these local brands, we often under-price them by thinking: “is this not made here in Nigeria, why should it be so expensive?” Although there have been arguments that some of these local brands are overpriced. That is another exciting aspect of pricing, quality and value that we will look at in future editions of this column.
Often, price is determined by the number of hours spent in making a piece, the quality of material used, the number of pieces made in that range (that is if it is a limited-edition piece of 1,000 or less) and the entire process involved in the production.
The argument by most people is African Luxury brands are poorly finished or packaged. But there are some local brands in leather goods, perfumery, arts and fashion who are doing remarkably well. They have turned the curve in terms of their presentation and packaging. They are emerging luxury brands that can compete fairly with some international brands.
For me, there is a luxury in Africa. We need not look to the West or be Eurocentric in our approach to understand the concept of African luxury. As Vogue International editor Suzy Menkes puts it in an interview with Luxury Society:
“There are two reasons why ‘Africa’ and ‘luxury’ should appear in the same sentence. The first is a new vision of what luxury means in the 21st Century. Consumers, particularly in the Western hemisphere, are beginning to prize objects touched by human hands – and the handwork in Africa is exceptional. From the work that the Tuaregs have done for Hermes to the bags that are created in Kenya for Ilaria Fendi and Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, African hands make artistic pieces, often with the added bonus of being sustainable and also ethical (…).”
To this end, should Africa and luxury stand side-by-side in all these descriptions or definitions of the nature of luxury? My answer is yes! African luxury has a market for luxury retail. It also can manufacture world-class luxury brands.
The world over, any handcrafted item is treasured. Africa has this in abundance. In Africa, some craftsmen are manufacturing daily interesting pieces with their hands. But how much do we value them? We need to reposition the African luxury industry and begin to see that it exists and consume what we produce.
Funke is the publisher of The Luxury Reporter magazine. Funkeadetutu@gmail.com