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Montclair State University’s fashion department held a fashion exhibit titled “Forgotten African Queens” by former student Safiatou Akondo on April 5.
At home in Togo, West Africa, designing paper toys and dresses as a child, Akondo dreamed of being a fashion designer, in a place that deprived her of that opportunity. The former fashion studies student reflected on the stories of African queens, but also on the lack of representation of African designs in the fashion industry.
Akondo explains how flea markets in Africa are full of Western garments that made traditional African clothing less accessible. Mass production put stores selling African garments out of business. Akondo argues that this deprives unique garments of being seen around the world.
Making traditional African attire requires more work, leaving Africans with more convenient options.
“I think Africa is the last place where they throw away all that unnecessary used clothing; it seems like it’s a dump for fashion,” Akondo said. “Someone has to do something and I think I’m willing to do it.”
She created her collection, “Forgotten African Queens,” when she participated in Atlantic City Fashion Week (ACFW). During fashion week, designers received furniture upholstery and fabrics to use in their collections. Akondo’s mission to keep African heritage alive motivated her to create designs that reflect African queens. The queens range from Nefertiti, the queen of ancient Kemet, to Kandake, the empress of Ethiopia.
“I researched queens in Africa that I didn’t even know about myself,” Akondo said. “I learned such beautiful stories about them [which] It inspired me to do this piece.”
He further said that inclusion in the industry can solve the overwhelming problem of African garments needing more than one platform in fashion.
“Not much comes out of Africa,” Akondo said. “If there is a fashion week going on, there is [are] just those very few people from Africa who can show what Africa is all about.”
Despite the lack of African representation in the fashion department, she received her Associate of Science in Business and Marketing degree in Togo, West Africa. She then traveled to the United States to receive a fashion education, which took her to Montclair State, where she graduated in the fall of 2021.
Since receiving her education at Montclair State, Akondo emphasizes that this fueled her desire to help people in Africa who want to receive an education in fashion. She sympathizes with the situation they’re in, but she also recognizes where they might be.
“After high school, there are people [in Africa] who want to be fashionable but [find it] hard to look for those opportunities,” Akondo said. “They really want that, but they don’t have the opportunity.”
Akondo said educating aspiring African designers imposes different perspectives that the fashion industry needs. He enforces the mass production of Western clothing to take a seat so that traditional African fashion can take the catwalk. Akondo argues that this allows future designers to see themselves on the platforms.
“African dress doesn’t really exist in the fashion world,” Akondo said. “So I really want to mention Africa [and] the beauty of African designers. The idea of having Africans, like the way we make clothes, especially our colorful fabric, is essential. [for] the world to prosper.”
From working 11 hours a day at her job to going home to care for her children, she saved time during her busy schedule to bring her visions to life.
“I hope that people who look at my designs will see something in me that I can’t see myself,” Akondo said. “Sometimes it’s hard to believe you’re that good and I hope people see something good in the designs I have.”
May Chae, Akondo’s teacher and mentor in the fashion studies department, was very pleased with her work and says she was one of her hardest-working students.
“She’s very creative and smart when it comes to developing her ideas and building designs, so I knew she’d have a great collection,” said Chae. “I’m very proud of her and I know people will appreciate her creativity.”
Nayana Sturzeneker, a junior illustration and animation student, said she loves the leopard print garment.
“I’m a fan of gradients,” said Sturzeneker. “If you give me a gradient, I immediately fall in love with it. The minimalist colors really work because they’re completely neutral, but I love the color pop.”
Allison Castillo, a sophomore visual arts student, said she loves the red piece with the hat that ties everything together.
“It reminds me a lot [because] I’m Hispanic, so the bright colors remind me a lot of my Latino culture,” Castillo said.
The lack of inclusion in the fashion industry and the powerful stories that African queens possess motivates Akondo to keep her legacy alive and challenge the fashion industry through her collection.
“We may be forgotten or behind, but we are rising in the world and the motherland has something to show,” Akondo said.