Black History Month Beyond The Frames feature: Ken Kweku Nimo & African Fashion History
Ken Kweku Nimo is a Ghanaian researcher and author who explores African fashion, culture and textile heritage. He is the author of Africa in Fashion: Luxury, Craft and Textile Heritage, and has also contributed as a freelance writer to Vogue.com. Ken believes in the potential of the fashion industry as a vehicle for job and wealth creation, and seeks to contribute to the development of African luxury brands and indigenous textile crafts through research.
In this month's Black History Beyond the Frames feature, Ken takes us through his life journey and how fashion on the African continent continues to impact his life.
Tell us a bit about your childhood growing up. Was fashion always of keen interest to you or did it come along later on in life?
I grew up in a big family, my mother was a teacher and my father an accountant. I encountered fashion through my mother who taught home economics at Holy Child College in Ghana, and operated a tailoring business at home. She trained at least 10 apprentices; our small sitting room would have up to 5 apprentices at any point in time. Ebony magazine and cut outs from the dailies littered nearly every corner of the sitting room. It is possible that my affinity for fashion was nurtured in those formative years.
Your first degree was in Economics and Statistics, and now you have carved out your own space in the Fashion industry on the African continent. Tell us about that “pivot” and the moment you decided to enter the fashion world.
My first love was for architecture, however, I gravitated towards the social sciences at the counsel of my father, who wanted me to be an economist. While at University, I started making screen printed t-shirts and eventually turned it into a full-blown enterprise a year after my graduation. I ventured into custom printing for schools and business organizations, and was the first to introduce digital embroidery to Cape Coast in Ghana. My business thrived and employed 8 people at its peak, but I was still hungry for more, I wanted a greater challenge. After a decade of growth-oriented enterprise, I left the shores of Ghana to study fashion merchandizing in South Africa.
You are the author of “Africa in Fashion: Luxury, Craft and Textile Heritage”, a book that will be used to further educate generations to come. Tell us about the journey. What gave you the idea to write this particular book?
Africa in Fashion was the result of hard-work and authentic research. It was inspired by my numerous encounters with distinguished designers in South Africa and many others from other parts of the continent who frequented Cape Town and Johannesburg for fashion shows. I conceived the idea for the book after an interview with a famous South African designer. I had collected more information than I needed for my mini-dissertation, a book was a brilliant idea! But I had no idea where to start looking for a publisher. I must have emailed about 40 agents after reading about the cold querying. After nearly a year of relentless emails, I received two offers in the end - a trade book and an academic volume on my proposed title.
How has publishing this book impacted your life and that of your community?
This book is a timely archival resource. The last book on African fashion, until this publication, was released a decade ago. So much happened in that time that was undocumented, new brands had emerged and established ones found bigger markets. I believe my book speaks to a new era of access to African voices on telling stories about our own culture. If it accomplishes nothing at all, it should serve as an inspiration to others. The book is also a resource for designers and students in design, art and management strategy.
Looking back at your career (that is nowhere near its finish line), what has been one of the biggest highlights for you?
My biggest highlight has been the possibility of sharing my work with people who appreciate the work that I have done, and of course the recognition from reputable media houses around the world. The Mail and Guardian in South Africa did a cover story in print and 4 middle spreads, I felt proud and immensely grateful.
What about the most difficult?
The toughest moments were the days I would have writer’s block in the face of an impending deadline. Completing a book manuscript is no idle walk in the park and I have come to appreciate authors profoundly.
What is one goal you are working towards that you will not stop at until you achieve it?
I think there are many more stories out there by unknown voices and underrepresented communities that deserve an audience. I see myself in the publishing space in the near future offering my knowledge and experience to project books on African culture. That is a mission I cannot wait to accomplish.
Who do you admire the most and why?
Career wise, I am most inspired by a former New York Times investigative journalist known as Dana Thomas. Her book Deluxe: How luxury lost its luster, was a springboard for me when I began writing. I was surprised with how accessible she was after she responded to my email about finding the right literary agent. Nelson Mandela also makes a great impression on me; his story speaks of hope regardless of how dire the circumstances. He is peerless in terms of diplomacy and statesmanship. I discovered from my interactions with Africa’s best designers the value of being authentic and staying your focus.
What advice would you give to the younger generation who are creating and innovating in the fashion space on the continent?
Besides discovering your authentic voice, the next best thing to do is to build a robust business around your creativity. It is the only way you can guarantee growth and success.
How can people connect with you to learn more about your work?
I am accessible through my social media handles, especially Instagram and Twitter. I love connecting with people and would be pleased to meet you!
Thank you Ken for using your passion to document the history of fashion on the African continent. Your work is truly impactful and will continue to be so for years to come. Recording our history is a powerful way to preserve the culture and share the rich knowledge the continent has to offer with the world. If you are in supporting Ken and his book, you can get your copy here.
*All photo credits belong to photographer Josh Sisly*