As someone who grew up in Uganda, I have been asked one too many times, during my trips back to the United States, if I lived in the jungle. I didn’t - I lived in a large, cosmopolitan city, in an image of Africa that didn’t exist in the west. In this image, fashion is not a key component of visual culture.
A quote from Shailja Patel's Migritude best exemplifies this concept:
“They are the noble savages, staring out from coffee table books. Africa Adorned. The Last Nomads. Backdrops and extras for Vogue fashion shoots. Stock ingredients for tourist brochures ... They are the myth of tribal splendour. Everything about them is foreign ... Their “timeless culture” is the stuff of children’s books, of Western fantasies. They are everyone’s dream of people untouched by modernity.” (Shailja Patel, Migritude)
Stereotypes of Africa, including animal prints and tribal motifs remain a source of inspiration for Western designers. In reality, the creative expression and output of fashion designers in Africa is so much more than what is portrayed. African design today can include a mixture of African and Western cultures, where African designers will blend the two. This is most often seen done by local tailors, who create Western and African inspired clothing.
Having been to a garment tailor in Africa numerous times, I thought about how I used these services - including their skills, techniques, and fabric choices - as an outlet of sartorial creativity. Having clothes tailored is a common cultural practice across Africa, and I wanted to look into ways of making it more accessible to those without access to this culture of tailoring.
On the global scale, the African fashion industry is not very significant, but that’s not to say that fashion isn’t big business in Africa. The combined apparel and footwear industry is estimated to be worth $31 billion. This industry is expanding, due to growing interest in Africa’s traditions, including its vibrant fabrics, such as wax and printed dye cotton, and the high quality of African craftmanship.
size of Sub-Saharan Africa’s footwear and apparel industry
Sub-Saharan Africa's textile and apparel industry share of world exports
In order to delve deeper into my design question, I conducted qualitative primary research. I arranged three interviews to gain deeper insights and knowledge about the concepts of African fashion in the West and the practice of having clothes tailored. The first research objective was to understand what fashion means to the participant and how they use tailoring services. The second objective was to understand what the experience of garment tailoring in Africa was like.
Each interview was scheduled for 30 minutes, and I interviewed people who live in the United States, have lived in or traveled to Africa, and have experience with tailors.
Based on the themes derived from the interviews, I felt that I had enough information to construct a user persona. Naledi, the subject of my persona, brings to life the most pertinent pain points, behaviors, and motivations from the interviews I conducted.
To understand what Naledi is seeing, thinking, and feeling throughout the journey of finding and using a tailor service, I created an experience map. With this, I could identify opportunities to ease Naledi’s frustrations.
With the artifacts for understanding the user assembled, I saw opportunities to design a service which allows users to design clothes and have the design sent to a tailor who could produce it for them. Because not everyone can design clothes, there would need to be a way to provide them with clothing templates that they could customize. It would give them the right amount of freedom but also ensure that the clothes can be designed by the user, and constructed by a tailor, both easily. This opportunity would also be a good way to communicate a message about the fashion and culture of Africa, through the use of imagery, fabrics, and branding.
At this point, I was at the start of the second diamond of the Double Diamond Model. I had defined the problem, decided what to fix, and was about to test potential solutions. I authored epics and user stories to explore potential features and functionalities that would improve the experience Naledi has with tailoring. These would be translated into a digital solution and allow me to choose a specific task to focus on for the problem space.
The task I chose to focus on was to “customize a garment and send it to tailor”. If the solution to the problem were a mobile app, then I would approach the task from a mobile point of view, and build out screens for an app. While constructing my task flow, I kept in mind the flow of screens and decisions the user and the system would make throughout the task.
The user would need to enter an interactive flow within the app that led them step-by-step through the garment design process, and then have a feature which would allow them to submit the design to a tailor in Africa. I wasn't sure how fleshed out this second task would need to be, and if it needed to be within the same flow or require the user finishing the first one. I had to sketch ideas, design wireframes and have this flow tested with users to make the decision.
What content, layout, and interactions could I have in a mobile app for fashion, tailoring, and Africa? I looked to the internet for inspiration and began sketching concepts in a notebook.
These sketches included ideas for features, screens, components, and icons.
I then selected the most compelling features and made more detailed sketches. During this stage I focused on essential copy, labels, and layouts.
I also sketched a template with variable content that could be used for each screen. This layout would be repeated throughout the app's screens for consistency.
After sketching came wireframes. Without making visual or stylistic decisions, I was able to focus on the features and functionality of an effective user experience. When designing with a set grayscale palette and simple typography, it was easy to try out new layouts.
I conducted two rounds of user testing, each with five different volunteers, to see where my designs could be improved. I took notes and recorded all feedback, then decided which improvements were most feasible and impactful. With this information I revised my grayscale prototype after each round.
I began to develop the brand which would be adopted by my app. It needed to convey a contemporary and fashionable Africa.
To decide on a brand name, I thought about what could best represent fashion in Africa. When I think of the fashion I observed when living in Africa, I usually think about the signature wax batik printed cotton, which is used to construct clothes for men and women all over the continent.
Ultimately, after discussing the options with a few Swahili speakers, I decided to go with Kitenge. Based on this name, those who speak Swahili are able to immediately understand that the app has something to do with fabrics and prints. And those who don’t speak Swahili can tell that the word is of foreign origin and can spark their curiosity.
I then assembled a moodboard to bring to life a visual narrative for my app, Kitenge. The concept of this moodboard is retrofuturistic Swahili. I was inspired by my recent trip to Kenya, where I spent most of my time on the Swahili coast. The moodboard incorporates swatches of African fabrics and simple shapes derived from these complex patterns, as well as art suggesting a retrofuturistic land in Africa.
I selected my brand colors from an assortment of colors extracted from the moodboard. The colors were categorized into primary, secondary, and accent colors. I then examined typographic and branding design inspiration and iterated a series of potential wordmarks for Kitenge. I sketched these out and accompanied them with digitally typed wordmarks. I also designed a logo to be used for the brand, as well as on the app icon. The logo was inspired by a pattern found in kitenge fabric, and resembles a sun rising behind hills.
The visual identity and high-fidelity design stages of the process were my favorite. I love playing with colors, fonts, and imagery to convey an unspoken message. Every small design choice tells a story. I started with the mobile app screens, where I applied the 60-30-10 color ratio, accounted for spacing and hierarchy, and sourced interesting icons and imagery. Overall, the visual direction for the UI is influenced by the neubrutalism trend, defined by modern typography, exposed grids, and contrasting colors.
The design system I built using Brad Frost’s Atomic Design methodology served to communicate the appropriate usage of app components and elements. I wanted to achieve visual consistency by defining a unified language to be used throughout the app.
It was an incredible experience being the lead designer of my own passion project. I am proud of the work I put into this project and of how much I’ve learned. That being said, with something so personal, I don’t think I could ever be completely satisfied with the final outcome. I wish I had the time and resources to conduct primary research with actual tailors, considering that they are one of the main stakeholders in Kitenge’s platform. I had to work with assumptions, which got me through the project for now, but would certainly be an obstacle in the future.
I gathered many important learning outcomes from this intensive design process, which I hope will improve my skills as a designer constantly in iteration.