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African Luxury: A Contemporary View

What does African Luxury look like?
Two models wearing Moshions

“African” and “Luxury” seem like oxymorons and we might think of Africa as a place where luxury is not produced or consumed.

However, what does Luxury really mean in Africa today ?

While the concept of luxury is ambiguous and its definition varies according to cultural, economic, and regional contexts, there is an agreement on the qualities and values of luxury. Indeed, it is generally agreed that luxury is “something desirable and more than a necessity” [1]. Historically, luxury has always conveyed values of prosperity, power, and social status [2]. Critics of modern luxury argue that Luxury has lost its traditional meaning. The democratisation and massification of artisanal luxury on the global market and the presence of large conglomerates focusing on financial aspects have sacrificed the integrity, undermined its products, stained its story and deceived customers.

The concept of “sustainable luxury” has emerged to mark a movement away from “exclusivity” and “waste” and more about helping the consumer to express their deepest values. Sustainable luxury is “return of luxury with its traditional focus throughout purchasing and artisanal manufacturing; to the beauty of quality material and a respect for social and environmental issues” [3]. In this perspective, the luxury consumer becomes one which has the means and motivation to ensure care for the environment and for other people to improve their quality of life” [4].

Mohair Sweaters from South Africa

For many, talking about “African Luxury” seems like talking about two different concepts if we view Africa as a place of poverty and scarcity and luxury as wealth and exclusivity. However, luxury means more than power and material wealth, it represents “authenticity, beauty, innovation, purity, well-made, what remains, the essence of things, the ultimate best [5]. More importantly, if we talk about “sustainable luxury” or the return to the traditional meaning of luxury, a deep research into history shows that Africa is at “ the constitutive and heart base of the concept of modern luxury” [6].

In Africa, Luxury is meaningful in more than symbolic ways. Luxurious commodities, experiences, spaces, and practices have historically been part of cultural, moral, and physical landscapes. For example, hand-woven textiles in West Africa, gold mines and metal-craft in Southern Africa, forms of jewelry, and adornment across the architecture in Africa. Historically, luxury was tied to royal and charismatic authority, manifested and communicated via indigenous values and materials. Luxuries were linked with new foreign, and exotic, they were traded and exchanged with near and far communities.

Example: “Arab traders crossed the Sahara in search of gold from the ancient kingdom of Ghana

Unfortunately, the Transatlantic slave trade and European colonialism had an impact on African cultures and practices of luxury consumption and production. Africa continued to be integrated into world markets and proliferated the supply of new luxuries on the ground: fabrics, items of dress, cosmetic goods, alcohol, etc. African colonies were reorganised for extraction and they became sources of the raw material, labour, and repatriated profit that drove modern consumer cultures in colonial metropoles.

“African Luxury” challenges western and eurocentric views about what luxury means and how it is given values. African luxury is multi-faceted, locally constructed, globally influenced. It is linked to socio-economic, political and cultural structures and is associated with histories of style, wealth, beauty and craftsmanship.

Discussion

How is African luxury linked to Sustainable design?

Try and summarise your thoughts in one sentence and share it in the comments box below.

References:

  1. Heine, S. J. (2007). Culture and motivation: What motivates people to act in the ways that they do? In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of cultural psychology (p. 714–733). The Guilford Press.
  2. Kapferer & Basten, 2010. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jean-Noel-Kapferer/publication/306152247_All_that_glitters_is_not_green_The_challenge_of_sustainable_luxury/links/57bb181308ae9fdf82ef020c/All-that-glitters-is-not-green-The-challenge-of-sustainable-luxury.pdf
  3. Gerdetti & Torres, 2017. https://researchportal.bath.ac.uk/en/publications/uncertainty-avoidance-and-the-exploration-exploitation-trade-off
  4. Bendell and Kleanthous 2007. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/luxury_report.pdf
  5. Giron, 2012. <Sustainable Luxury: Managing Social and Environmental Performance in Iconic Brands>
  6. Iqani & Dosekun , 2019. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/A/bo45775100.html
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Africa to the World: Analysing the Global Appeal for African Luxury Fashion

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