JOHANNESBURG: Three years ago two Spanish designers launched a clothing label based in Rwanda. At this week's Africa fashion week they unveiled their creations and in doing so, broke the tradition of African fashion being made only by Africans.
"We are kind of doing it the other way round because we are European designers based in Africa and creating for Africa. We are pretty much doing the opposite," said Ines Cuatrecasas Barcelo, co-founder of the Kigali-based Mille Collines (a thousand hills) label, which is showcased at African Fashion International week which runs until Sunday in Johannesburg.
Cuatrecasas and co-designer Marc Oliver say they want, through their designs, to portray African woman of today.
"People think the African woman is one from the village, yes... but there is a new African woman," Oliver said.
Their Western-shaped cuts are African tinged, made of cottons and polyesters but finished hand embroidered African motifs, accessorised with sisal bangles and pewter and wood necklaces.
They are targeting the African who wants to remain African, but who does not shun external connections. They also hope to attract the non-African client that may have an attraction for continent.
African fashion has lately swung into the international spotlight, and is moving from the stereotype bold prints that in many Western markets are not seen as high end fabrics.
South Africa's most popular designer David Tlale says African now has much more to show than just prints.
"I believe African fashion has gone beyond just being typically African prints, motifs or beads," he said.
"We cannot be stuck up from the past... we have passed that stage of the Big Five, the world has moved on, trends have moved on," he said referring to the top five wild animals that draw tourists to the continent.
Tlale's ready-to-wear collection comprises simple and clean cuts from super short skirts to floor lengths -- in sunrise and sunset colours of yellows to burnt orange and black, with none of the typical African prints.
While Ghanaian-based designer Titi Ademola stuck with the bright colours that have been the signature of African fashion, she let tradition meet with the contemporary through modernised cuts to suit her primary clientele -- the working women.
"It's wonderful to take advantage of the wonderful prints that are at our disposal but African fashion is bigger, bigger than that," said Ademola, whose fashion label is called Kiki Clothing.
UK-based Democratic Republic of Congo-born Tina Lobondi also uses African prints, but infuses them with top end leather and other fabrics, thinks there is no such thing as African fashion.
"We never use the term European fashion, so why do we use African fashion. I am a designer from an African origin trying to bring some of my culture into my designs, but I don't want my clothes to be labelled African fashion, because to me that word doesn't mean anything."
As top end designers are pushing the boundaries of African fashion, back home many ordinary Africans are proud to be African and refuse to compromise on the prints and colour.
Folake Kolawole, shop manager at a African Influence in Johannesburg's middle class district of Randburg says: "African fabric, it's unique."
A shopper Dorothy Phiri insists on a cocktail of bright colours, prints and "then nice designs. That shows then that you are in Africa."
Organisers of the inaugural Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa say the show is a launch pad for African fashion brands gunning to gain a foothold on the global market and sell side-by-side with the internationally leading names as Gucci and Louis Vuitton.