Between Us: African fashion pop-up at Bluebird
A celebration of craftsmanship and colour is bringing summer to Covent Garden by way of Cape Town, Lagos and Nairobi at London store The Shop at Bluebird's latest fashion pop-up
Covent Garden just got a whole lot more colourful, as beloved London fashion boutique The Shop at Bluebird hosts more than 20 womenswear, jewellery, accessories and homeware brands from Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and more as part of its summer fashion pop-up 'Between Us'. A celebration of some of the most exciting designers Africa has to offer, the project was co-curated by Katrina Macpherson and Tammy Tinker, a former British Vogue staffer now based in Cape Town, and took six months to bring to fruition. 'We've been curating these pop-ups for the Shop at Bluebird for quite a few years now,' explains Macpherson on a flying visit to London to launch the pop-up.
Jacket by Lukhanyo Mdingi
'We were looking for the right project for the summer,' explains Macpherson. 'I had recently moved to Cape Town having been based in London for years, and I'd been to Lagos fashion week. Africa represents so many things to so many people in different ways. It's not really a nationality, but a culture, a community. It felt like the perfect summer project, because of the colours but also the spirit that comes with it.' The duo enlisted Omoyemi Akerele, the founder of Lagos Fashion Week to help them round-up a list of brands that would resonate with London shoppers – visitors and locals alike. Macpherson, Tinker and Akerele worked for six months to bring the fashion of Africa to London, dealing with the infrastructural challenges of importing from various African countries as well as the logistics of coordinating multiple designers many of whom have never sold their products in the UK before.
Shoes by Galago (centre)
Their hard work has certainly been worth it. The fashion featured is exciting and inspiring – stand outs include Lukhanyo Mdingi's one-of-a-kind vibrant woven blazers, Galago's printed espadrille slides, Lisa Folawiyo's hand-crafted bead bags and Asha : Eleven's super soft summer dresses. But it's the story behind the garments that are perhaps even more interesting than the vibrant prints and the hand-crafted details. 'Fashion is this community, people are working together; they're cross pollinating – that's where the name 'Between Us' came from. These brands are each representing something in their own way, and they feel very proud to do so.' Most, if not all, of the brands are built on ethical foundations: ensuring traditional crafts are kept alive and shared with new generations, empowering women through employment, sourcing sustainable and ethical materials.
Bags by Lisa Folawiyo
'It almost feels like second nature, these brands aren't backtracking to include it, it's inherent,' says Macpherson of the ethical nature of many of the brands. 'Maybe because fashion represents more than just clothing: it's employment, it's looking after people. There are so many issues in all these countries, but fashion is a very positive industry and has a sense of responsibility that comes with it. Take Studio 189, co-founders Rosario Dawson and Abrima Erwiah see their business as a social enterprise and that's probably the most important aspect of the brand to them, but the fashion is beautiful too. There's this feeling of wanting to change things, and that's really exciting.'
Chair by Malawi Cane, Cushions by Daisy de Villeneuve
For Akerele one of the most important aspects of the pop-up is the cultural exchange it represents – not just between London and Africa, but between African designers and artisans too. 'The future is inter-African fashion, that's why Lukhanyo Mdingi's collection is truly special. The textiles have been sourced from different parts of Africa: Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa. That creative exchange is very important today if we're going to ensure that the skills that have been passed down from generation to generation continue on to the next generation.' Another brand she's keen to highlight is Iamisigo, designed by Nigerian-based former stylist Bubu Ogisi using bright multicoloured fabrics woven together by artisans in northern Nigeria. 'It's an area that people don't really like to travel to because of terrorist activity and Boko Haram,' explains Akerele. 'So for a designer to go to northern Nigeria and decide to collaborate with artisans and craftsmen, it says a lot.'
Jewellery by Tilayo
For Akerele defining 'African fashion' is a near-impossible task, but she believes that 'when people think of Africa and they want to relate that to fashion they think colour, vibrant prints, wax prints. We want them to understand that fashion from Africa is diverse.' Case in point is the importance of 'beach life', an aspect of African culture that is perhaps overlooked by those from outside the continent. 'If you look across brands such as Galago, Eclectic Chic, even part of Crystal Birch the collections feel like resort. Not just because of the weather, but because we go to the beach almost every weekend. It's our way of life. That ties to surfing, which is part of who we are.' That side is represented in the pop-up by Mama Wata a surfing brand from Cape Town who source soft South African cotton for their casual sportswear inspired pieces.
Jacket by Orange Culture
Another pleasant surprise awaiting visitors to the pop-up is the accessible pricing of many of the collections. 'After the blood, sweat and tears of bringing this together we really want the brands to have commercial success,' says Macpherson. 'When designers are unknown in a country you're more likely to get traction because they're vibrant and gorgeous and well-priced and you might not know the brand's story but you're discovering something new. You don't want the price to be a barrier to sales, especially in Covent Garden, where it's a tourist destination too. We've chosen designers we know will work here, even some of the more outlandish ones. The product needs to stand for itself, and I think it does.'
Between Us runs for six weeks from 2 April at The Shop at Bluebird, Carriage Hall, 29 Floral St, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DP