ASOS Made in Kenya: Showing fashion how to empower and not appropriate
Attempts at inclusivity in the fashion world can often go awry with rightful accusations of cultural appropriation.
But the ASOS Made in Kenya collections gets it right in more than one way, showing appreciation and giving credit to African culture. The continent has always been a source of inspiration for Western designers but very rarely are African designers appropriately credited and allowed to voice their ideas. Moreover, the line - originally named ASOS Africa at its inception in 2009 - has always been partnered with SOKO, a manufacturing unit which prides itself in upholding ethical standards.
Since the Rana Plaza disaster, in which over 1000 people died following the collapse of several garment factories, retailers and consumers alike have been more conscious of the working conditions garment makers are subjected to, but it is still rare that a company makes a concerted effort with practical ideas. By contrast, SOKO’s dedication to their workers is evident in the many thoughtful schemes designed to help the community. Joanna Maiden, founder of SOKO, was conscious of the disconnect between the people who make clothes and those who wear them.
“The continent has always been a source of inspiration for Western designers but very rarely are African designers appropriately credited and allowed to voice their ideas.”
SOKO began to provide reading glasses to embroiderers suffering from cataracts, and started paying half of the medical bills at the eye clinic. Women are especially empowered through SOKO’s work; the Financial Literacy programmes help women find independence, whilst the stitching academy trains local women so they can be employed at the factory. For young girls and women who are often forced to miss school during their periods owing to expensive sanitary products and inadequate bathroom facilities, SOKO creates sanitary towels with scrap material. Moreover, the girls make them and can go ahead a sell them to supplement their family’s income.
The collection itself specialises in bold prints inspired by nature and the continent. The latest collection has ample use of ‘Generation Z yellow’, making the collection on-trend for the summer season. Drawings by local primary school children where made into prints by the ASOS design team, showing that these clothes are very much in touch with the community who makes them. Most importantly, the ASOS website proudly declares this. These pieces are much like the brand itself - designed to make a statement - and have subsequently been endorsed by figures such as Michelle Obama.
Meanwhile, the latest SS18 unisex collection features fresh collaborations with model Leomie Anderson, Beats 1 DJ Julie Adenoma, and Nairobi street style duo 2manysiblings. Each have worked towards creating capsule collections lending their creative input. Such style influencers are highly important. Velma Rossa and Oliver Asike (2manysiblings) aptly point out that Africa is not the cultural monolith envisaged by the West; styles in South Africa can vastly differ from those in Kenya. Model Leomie Anderson has always been interested in the industry's racism and colourism, bringing attention to the lack of stylists who know how to work with black hair and skin. She has also called out London Fashion Week after she was dropped because they only wanted one black model. Not only do their Instagram accounts have a massive outreach, but most of all, their visions and opinions about the state of ethnic diversity in the fashion world demonstrate that this is a company which truly does give black people ‘a seat at the table’.