By Dominique Michelle Davis ( photo credits: Law Agyei; [photo below only]: Dominique Michelle Davis)
Earlier this week we posted here my review of the 2015 African fashion Week-Chicago show that had the splendid theme “The Art of Fabric.” The following is an interview between I conducted with Christianah Ajanaku, the founder of African Fashion Week-Chicago. Our meeting took place at the Virgin Hotel located in downtown Chicago. Although we experienced minor distractions from childhood temper tantrums, we had a delightful discussion complimented with delicious food from Miss Ricky’s restaurant.
Dominique: This was my second year attending African Fashion Week – Chicago (AFW). Wow! Huge transition. How did you decide to produce and launch AFW?
Christianah: I’ve always had a love for fashion. It played a huge part in my roots growing up. I’ve always been in love with colors and fabric. There are African Fashion Weeks all over the country and the world and I thought it was time for Chicago to have something like that. We have so much talent in this city. I was waiting for somebody else to do it… I thought I would just be a volunteer to show up and help out, but I noticed there was a void and when no one did it… I just did it!
Dominique: So how did you get your team together?
Christianah: The first year I pretty much did everything on my own. I pretty much knew everyone that I worked with, but this second year I targeted people to choose from their strengths and finding people with the same passion that I have.
Dominique: How did you choose this year’s theme, “The Art of Fabric”?
Christianah: “The Art of Fabric” was the theme for Friday night’s event and kind of set the tone for the weekend to showcase fabric, where does fabric come from and how it is used.
Dominique: I saw a variety of fabric in the garments for the collections. I think that was pulled off very well. What do you think makes AFW-Chicago unique?
Christianah: I think we incorporate music and art, which is different from other runway show. We had Nola Ade, amazing performer.
Dominique: Who was your favorite designer/collection for this year’s show?
Christianah: I don’t know if I can answer that. I truly loved them all.
Dominique: As I’m sitting here and listening to you speak. Something just struck me. You are a trailblazer. You’ve created something that does not, or has not existed in the city of Chicago. Have you stopped to take that in?
Christianah: No, not really, I just do it… because it needed to be done. I know that our shows are different, and that’s what I strive for, to create an experience.
Dominique: Now that African fabric has been embraced by mainstream, what are your thoughts about that?
Christianah: I think it’s exciting. That’s another reason why we chose the “The Art of Fabric” as the theme for this year’s event. Even though it’s mainstream, I want to educate people on where the fabric comes from and it’s more than just fun and [aesthetically pleasing], a lot of history goes into making these fabrics. So, I think that’s important for the audience to know and learn… I mean, everything is being called African fabric now, and its just not. People like Stella Jean have made African Fabric really popular. Beyonce and Rihanna wear a lot of her work.
Dominique: Educate me. What is the difference between true African Fabric and something that just looks like African Fabric? How can a person not well versed tell the difference?
Christianah: Let me say, for example, there’s a fabric called Adire. I’m Nigerian, and this is a fabric from my culture. There’s so much history in this fabric and something that not a lot of people use now. There’s a new material called Ankara, it’s African and used a lot in Africa but actually originates from Switzerland. …We didn’t do a lot of marketing around the education piece. We missed an opportunity to provide that educational aspect as well.
Dominique: What has been your biggest challenge, and where do you see AFW going?
Christianah: The first year was gaining awareness. We didn’t know what to expect, which was our biggest concern. Once we knew that we could attract the crowd it was a challenge to continue to build and grow to make it bigger and better each year. It’s a lot of pressure, because I always want to do better than the previous year. I eventually would like to see this become a weeklong event. Next year will probably stay three days.
Dominique: One thing that I’ve noticed in Chicago is duplication of services and products. How do you stay focused on collaboration to minimize duplicating services and build your network?
Christianah: I’m really big on collaborating. I want to meet people. I feel like the purpose of AFW is beyond me, it’s to benefit other people. It’s not to bring shine to myself it’s to bring shine to the designers. I don’t believe in creating unnecessary competition. I don’t believe in competition, I don’t bring it into the things that I do. I believe in staying in my own lane.
Dominique: What advice would you give to designers, entrepreneurs, people trying to get into the field?
Christianah: There’s a lot of chaos that goes into [things], but I love the chaos, that’s why I do it. If you’re interested in doing something, especially if you’re creative…just do it! Do the research, do as much as the legwork you need to do and just do it.
Dominique: My last question. How else are you involved in the community, or other civic work that you may be doing aside from AFW?
Christianah: Eventually, I’d like us to grow into an organization that gives back. We’re still trying to figure out the logistics of how we see AFW creating a space to give back. Right now, we’ve created an opportunity and space for people to show their work and network, but I’d like for us to continue to work on developing a platform to give back.
If you’re interested in following Christianah and AFW, please follow them on Twitter @afwchicago or visit the website afwchicago.com.