Visual and performing arts are augmented by fashion design in Ethiopia, especially after Kassmasse’s Negen Letizita music video and Betty G’s 2019 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony performance where Ethiopian fashion and visual art designers elevated their professions. Such opportunities provide fashion and set designers exposure to catapult their themselves, but not without sacrifice.
The industry, though seeing advancements, still has its low points. EBR’s Samuel Habtab looks at both up-and-coming as well as established industry players to the assess the confluence of fashion design, culture, and the visual art industry.
Ethiopian art critics highly grade the iconic design outfits that Kassmasse wore in his recent video, Negen Letizita, or that of Betty G during her performance at PM Abiy’s Nobel Peace Prize awarding ceremony in 2019. Their visual creativity blended well with the melodies and lyrics, giving it an additional dimension. However, few know about the creative set designers, as well as fashion experts and makeup artists behind the scenes.
Kassmasse’s music clip, took almost two months in the preproduction phase and an outlay of ETB30,000 was required for the costumes. Shooting took just two days at the Ethiopian National Theater. Contrastingly, finding the costumes to match the video’s concept and historical value took much more time. In the music clip, the dress of Ethiopian rulers, famous people, and commoners of past times are replicated.
“I was even willing to work on Kassmasse’s music video for free. I was that desperate because the concept was so good. When the artist and his team told me of the idea at first, I estimated the costumes’ cost to be no less than ETB150,000. But we found the costumes from the theater itself and from Shiromeda as well as family and friends,” said Bethlehem Abebe, Makeup Artist and Designer, as well as Manager and Founder of Cosmo Beri. For her creativity and execution of Negen Letizita’s visual effects , she was paid ETB17,000—her highest pay since starting the profession.
“After the Kassmasse clip, soon-to-be newlyweds who liked the costumes approached me for a similar production for themselves. My team and I are now building sets for couple’s photoshoots. Other people and advertisers are also enquiring after seeing my success with the music video which revolutionized the visual art industry.
Makeup, costume, set design, and props are critical for every artwork consumed by the eyes. Without these works, a piece of art cannot look good no matter the camera, cast, or anything else deployed. So, production design must be given due value. If this is not the case, I do not think Ethiopia’s visual art industry will progress,” says Bethlehem, currently designing for Sami Dan of Ethiopia’s reggae music scene.
An artist by profession, Bethlehem started practicing makeup art and designing while at home during the Covid-19 lockdown. “I did it for passion. But after I shared my works on social media, the response was beyond expectation and thus, I became a visual artist. After posting my makeup works online, over ten film producers and directors asked me to work for them.”
The other sensational designer making moves in Ethiopia’s emerging fashion design industry is Fikirte Addis, designer of Betty G’s outfit during her 2019 performance in Oslo when PM Abiy was awarded his Nobel Peace Prize.
Fikirte is Founder and General Manager of Yefikir Design. She focuses on designing and manufacturing traditional Ethiopian fashion, alongside working as a set designer for photoshoots, theater and other shows, music videos, and albums. Apart from her retail clients, she is a permanent designer for artists like Kuku Sebsibe, Danayit Mekbib, Betty G, and others. She works with influencers, models, producers, musicians, advertisers, event organizers, magazines, and many others who want her fashion products.
High-end designed fashion is taking hold in the visual and performing arts sphere. During the last Gumma Film Awards, almost all artists wore specially-designed works, seemingly following in the footpaths of the Oscar and Emmy award ceremonies.
The major deviation from the west, however, is that most of the designs are traditionally and locally rooted in handwoven fabrics, culture, and fashion sense. The designers, who also have manufacturing plants to produce specific orders as well as for the mass market, also commercialize their top designs trended by artists. Many designers have their own trademarked brands, collections, and even sales outlets.
“A lot of people are asking me to make similar clothes to the ones worn by Betty G, Danayit, or other popular Ethiopians. Such iconic people are greatly influencing consumers through social media. Digital marketing is very influential now. Immediately after a new design or piece of fashion is posted, sales grow significantly.
The inclination of popular people and public figures towards wearing local and authentic fashion designs, coupled with their activities on social media, is creating a huge market for fashion designers,” says Fikirte.
The prices of Yefikir clothes can be categorized into three groups. Traditional handwoven cotton clothes with hand embroidery cost between ETB40,000 and 100,000. Without embroidery, prices range from ETB15,000 to 40,000. Normal tops made of traditional fabrics are priced between ETB700 and 1,500. For custom-made orders, discounts are given for bulk orders.
Fikirte also produces clothes from recycled cotton. Other similar traditional Ethiopian clothes designers charge up to ETB200,000 for handwoven garments with hand embroidering. The designer is currently shifting her business model from made-to-order to ready-to-wear collections.
There is a growing change of outlook and demand for local designs, placing a severe dent on the market of imported fashion which had been dominating the local market. Most people are shifting towards local products.
Professional design schools are increasingly being opened by passionate founders, producing dynamic and talented graduates that create new fashion ideas for special events and even for occasional attires. Fashion is also currently and singularly recognized by governmental policy, after it was previously categorized under the administration’s garment strategy. The recently founded Ethiopian Fashion Designers Association, is also currently supported by the ministries of Tourism, Culture and Sport, and Industry.
However, Fikirte says traditional handwoven clothes—Habesha libse and tilf—are on the brink of extinction. “Printed traditional garments are currently increasing in the market. They are overtaking the traditional handcraft—shimena. A shemane, or weaver, takes months to finalize an embroidery weave—tibeb tilf—that can now be printed overnight. Once the print garment overtakes the market, the traditional artisanal workers will leave the sector looking for other jobs.
The danger is immense for Ethiopia. Yefikir Design is striving to save Ethiopia’s traditional artisanal weaving and embroidering ecosystem from print work. African countries used to have a handwoven clothing culture which today is overtaken by imported garments. In Japan, it is just a niche market. Around the world, maybe only India has managed to maintain the culture. Ethiopia needs to preserve its unique traditional industry.”
However, many criticize the fashion industry as environmentally unfriendly, as well as being detached from and not benefiting value chain players. The traditional garment industry in Ethiopia is accused of reaping profits without benefiting handcraft and manual workers at the bottom of the supply chain. Traditional clothes more than double in price between the weavers and embroiderers and the final selling store.
The shemane, which could take four months to weave a garment’s tilet, gets far less than his/ her fair share.
“The fashion industry needs to discharge its social responsibilities. We work with many artisanal handcraft workers in Ethiopia and we are trying to include all workers involved in the value chain. Many other designers are also following suit and linking backward in the chain.
This is starting to financially benefit the traditional weavers and embroiderers in Ethiopia, which were disregarded for too long. With so many shops being opened in Addis Ababa and around Ethiopia, big money is circulating in the designing and fashion industry.
“There are numerous regional members in the association. We use design inputs form all corridors of Ethiopia. There are so many beautiful fabrics and designs across Ethiopia. It is a matter of linking them to the market in Addis Ababa and major cities. Social media’s role is high right now, in promoting the fashion industry and its designs.
The Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office is willing to protect trademarks and creations of fashion designers, but the legal process to stop other people from illegally using your trademark, is full of hustle and could be a futile undertaking. Industry members themselves must respect each other’s creativity and trademarks. We also need to educate customers about copyrights,” says Fikirte.
A psychologist by profession, Fikirte uses fashion as a platform to empower women and especially motherhood. “We reach out to them. Pregnant women do not have to go out and work for a living. She can do so from home, through embroidery, designing, and many other simple yet creative works. Mothers do not have to leave their kids. An all-rounded development system is the philosophy of Yefikir Design.”
We have an amazing culture, rich creativity, and production system. The youth can engage in the production system with just a high school or technical diploma.EBR
9th Year • Nov 2021 • No. 101