Design in Cameroon

In my last post I touched on the issues with the Cameroon fashion industry, explaining why I felt it did not exist.

This one is for the designers.

Designers and the media are two groups crucial to the growth and sustainability of a healthy, thriving fashion industry. I'll write on the media later.

This one is for the designers.

 

Coming back to Cameroon in 2015, I quickly noticed everyone and their friend's cousin's sister claimed to be a designer. While I was ecstatic at the new found appreciation for fashion, I noticed a lot of flaws in the approach to design.

 

For one, despite the proliferation of fashion schools and “institutes”, the quality of the designers coming from those schools was sub-par at best. These schools seem to be nothing more than cash grab operations by savvy business-minded sharks, capitalising on the sudden surge in interest in fashion. Not one to form opinions without experience, I went to a number of these schools and attended their graduate shows.

The experience was like watching paint dry while sitting in the rain; boring and absolutely pointless.

One quickly notices these schools seem to be stuck in the 1940's; evening dresses and suits everywhere. The choice of fabric was a visual crime; shiny metallic fabrics, animal prints and wax prints. Nothing anyone would wear on a daily basis without inviting a million stares and jeers, and possibly a fine from an international environmental agency for visual pollution.

Our designers aren't being taught to design for the modern world. They aren't being taught to design outfits people want to wear on a daily basis.

 

Secondly, the apparent lack of self training is mildly irritating to me on a personal level. Why? I'm entirely self taught. I've never taken a course or class in fashion in my entire life. At 17, I realised I was naturally gifted at design and chose to study business at university for obvious reasons – most designers are terrible at business. I honed my design skills by sketching almost everyday, doing internships and visiting various brands, and watching tutorials on Youtube.

As such, I can't criticise the schools without pointing a finger at the designers themselves. Progression is a self journey, not one you should count on a school + teacher combination for. Everyone is glued to social media to find out who's bashing who with a baseball bat, but no one seems to want to use the internet to learn the finer aspects of fashion and the business of it. There is no excuse for ignorance in the internet age.

 

Now unto the most important point: there is a lack of creativity in Cameroon fashion that is impossible to ignore. Everyone is doing what everyone else is doing while at the same time, claiming to be unique and different. Madness.

 

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other”

Eric Hoffer

We're a nation of photocopying machines it seems, simply printing out ideas we've picked from others, often doing it badly. There is nothing wrong with being inspired by other brands, that happens all the time in every creative field. However, one cannot simply copy + paste the exact same idea. People copy because there is safety in numbers and they want to be seen as being a cool brand by copying other brands they consider cool. Or maybe they're just lazy. Or maybe they're not that creative. Whatever the reason, copying other brands is downright idiotic because now you're creating competition for yourself. You are literally jumping into a pool with sharks, instead of creating your own pool.

Cameroon has not been spared from the viral outbreak of the global “wax on everything” disease. Design is about form and function, creating shapes that compliment the wearer. Slapping wax prints on everything does NOT make you a designer.

Also, the streetwear movement has created an army of “I make T-shirts so I'm a designer” clones. Don't get me wrong, T-shirts are a great way to start a brand due to low costs of production and all. However, one cannot churn out T-shirt collections each year, often based on designs from well known international brands, and expect to gain recognition internationally or even locally as a designer.

If one wants to be recognised as a designer, and gain a fan base, the solution is simple: stop copying everyone else, stop slapping wax prints on everything, take your sketchbook and actually design something unique and dope. Simple.

 

In addition, I've noticed what seems to be a lack of genuine passion for design. The industry seems full of people who get into fashion just so they can claim to own a brand. A lot want fame, instead of recognition. What's the difference? With fame, everyone knows who you are and knows you own a brand. With recognition, people know and respect your brand for the designs. They might not know who you are, but they respect and recognise your skills. Fame gets you seen and gets likes on social media from the public, recognition gets you noticed by those who have the power to propel your brand further: magazine editors, store buyers, international fashion shows, etc. With recognition comes fame, but recognition never follows fame.

This lack of genuine passion explains my two earlier points: the lack of originality and lack of self training.

 

Another issue with designers is pricing versus quality. Henri Melingui wrote an interesting piece on pricing, which you should check out. Newsflash for designers: it isn't the price of a product that makes it a “luxury” product. The quality of a product must justify the price. You can't slap a high price tag on poorly made garments with sub-standard fabric and expect people to buy from you. Cameroonians aren't that naive and gullible. You want people to spend proper money on your products? You want the recognition of being a top level designer? Then your product must justify it's price point.

There is a psychology behind consumption. A customer would be more eager to buy if the price listed on the outfit is lower than the price he/she had in his/her head. If they look at an outfit, touch the fabric and think “ damn, this is going to be at least 50,000francs”, and then realise it's 30,000francs, their thinking changes to “it's ONLY 30,000francs”. That's still a relatively high price but in their mind, they're “saving” money because the price is lower than they anticipated. How do you get to that point? Dope designs, great quality fabric. Simple.

 

Lastly, there is what I consider a distinct lack of relativity among designers. Most exist in a weird state of isolation, in a Cameroon bubble. We have the same issue in various creative industries like music. We're often content to just be good in our little pool that is Cameroon, forgetting there's a wider world out there. In this internet age, potential competitors, customers, magazine editors, etc, are all over the world, far away but ever present. Rather than focus on being “Cameroon famous”, the focus should be on being internationally recognised. Designers should grade themselves on other African designers and the world at large. Being the “best in Douala/Yaounde/Buea” counts for absolutely nothing in the wider scheme of things. Aim higher.

 

Cameroon, like most African countries, is seeing a growing interest in the arts and creative industries, especially fashion. In order to compete on the global stage, our designers have to be able to look at themselves critically and evolve. Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, DR Congo all have internationally recognised designers that have dressed people from Michelle Obama to Beyonce, styled Hollywood movies like Black Panther, and appeared in magazines like Vogue. Other African countries are on the rise. Our designers need to take it upon themselves to make a mark on the world stage.

 

Cameroon is a pond. We should seek to conquer the ocean. It's better to be a top 20 designer in Africa and be recognised as one of the best, than to be the best in Douala/Yaounde/etc and not recognised at all on the world stage.

Be better, aim higher.

Stay focused, stay humble, work smart.

A. A