10 Classic African Style Icons

When it comes to the world of fashion, Africa’s famous people, spanning from presidents to musicians, have done well to show off the continent’s style to the world. Famous people from the continent have used fashion as a reaffirmation of African identity, and as a way for the continent’s identity to make its mark on the global cultural sphere. Africa’s style is a fuse of bold and eclectic prints and colours, tailor made to show off the continent’s unique take on design. A style icon is described as someone (usually well known) who embodies the unique spirit or nature of a particular era in their sense and presentation of style. Africa is filled with well-known people who embodied the culture of the continent in what they wore and left an indelible mark on the continent and the world. Below is a list of 10 classic African style icons.


The late Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner, popularized the Indonesian batik shirt, which is claimed as a cultural heritage of Indonesia by UNESCO. Mandela wore specific shirts that were made out of silk and that were hand-painted in brightly coloured geometric patterns and floral designs. His shirts were designed by Cape Town-based designer Desré Buirski. The shirts became his signature dress style after he wore his first one at the dress rehearsal of the opening of South Africa’s first democratic Parliament in May 1994. The shirt popularly became known as the ‘Madiba shirt’. It also made its debut in the international film ‘Invictus’; a movie about the life of Nelson Mandela, when Buirski was asked to design several shirts for actor Morgan Freeman, who played the lead role of Mandela.


Somali-born model Iman is considered as one of Africa’s top fashion icons for her historic achievements in the fashion industry and for her unique style. She was discovered by photographer Peter Beard in 1975 while she was a student at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. She became the first African model to grace the cover of Vogue in 1979 and also the first African model to sign a major cosmetics contract. She is famously known for her elegant and chic style, consisting of well-cut and rich hued garments made out of fluid fabrics such as satin and silk.


Beninese-born singer Angélique Kidjo not only puts Africa on the map with her music and creative music videos, but also with her love for bold African prints, which have become her signature style. She is also known for her fresh and classic take on natural hair, with her short, blonde-dyed crop. She created an African twist for the modern suit by wearing it with an African print shirt, and she popularized the African print mini dress with a longer fabric tie around the waist as well as the African print head-wrap. She owned the stage of this year’s Grammys in Los Angeles in her bold and unique Ankara styled dress where she scooped the award for ‘Best World Music Album’.


The late South African singer Miriam Makeba was considered as one of the country’s top fashion icons of the 20th century. Her distinct style was her presentation of African heritage to the world. She wore her hair in an afro, and never wore make-up as she liked keeping her look natural. Due to her extensive travels throughout the continent, she collected accessories and fashion pieces from countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Mali and Zimbabwe, which she incorporated into her Swati and Xhosa style consisting of colourful beads and isicholo hats. She effortlessly switched between figure-hugging A-line dresses and bold African print gowns and hats. She was affectionately known as ‘Mama Africa’ and was the first African to popularize African music across the world.


The ‘Queen of Morna’ Cesária Évora was a Cape Verdean singer who was not only known for her captivating voice, but also for live performances which she did barefoot as a symbol of solidarity with poor women and children. As a result, she became known as the ‘barefoot diva’. Évora, who was born in Cape Verde in 1941, was popularly known for her morna style of music, which was a musical style sung in taverns on the Cape Verde islands consisting of slow, pensive ballads sung in Cape Verdean creole. Her trademark barefoot performances were what made her a style icon in Cape Verde, apart from the fact that she was the country’s greatest musical gem.


Malian singer Salif Keita is not only popular for his reputation as the ‘golden voice of Africa’ but also because he has albinism and has made it his duty to bring awareness of the condition through his music. In his 2010 single ‘La Différence’, the 66-year-old musician sings “I’m a black man, my skin is white and I like it, it’s my difference/I’m a white man, my blood is black, I love that, it’s the difference that’s beautiful.” He is not only seen as a style icon for making albinism beautiful and acceptable in a climate often filled with discrimination against albinos, but also as spokesperson for those living with albinism in Africa.


The late South African pop singer Brenda Fassie was considered as a style icon in the 80s with her street-savvy style consisting of blonde, short hair, figure-hugging outfits, coloured contact lenses and disco harem dresses. The Cape Town-born musician wore her signature disco outfit – a blue and white satin harem jump suit and a pair of heels – in the video of her hit single ‘Weekend Special.’ As she grew in popularity, so did her taste for elegant and sometimes eccentric casual clothes and sportswear. When the multi-coloured fashion trend exploded in the mid-80s, Fassie popularized it in her ‘Zola Budd’ music video with a short bright purple coloured skirt, an oversized shirt opened to expose a different coloured T-shirt and double layers of brightly-coloured socks. Her fashion sense resonated with teenage girls who felt that they could easily mimic her style as it was accessible to them. As a result, her fans attended her concerts not only for her music, but also to see her latest fashion trends.


Baaba Maal is a Senegalese musician who is not only known for his top selling albums such as ‘Firin’ in Fouta’ and ‘Nomad Soul’, but also for his eclectic fashion sense in his earlier years. He sported the fade haircut which was popularized by various celebrities in the 90s, including Will Smith as an actor on ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’, and wore bold African design accessories, especially necklaces over kaftan-styled tops. He also wore traditional Senegalese attire during performances, and eventually swapped the fade haircut for dreadlocks. Maal released his 11th album in January this year titled ‘The Traveller’.


Congolese singer, dancer and producer Koffi Olomide is considered as Democratic Republic of Congo’s top fashion icon, having a taste for eccentric and flashy outfits. He is known to add bling to sportswear, including embellished caps and metallic sweatpants and jackets, and adds a touch of haute couture with horseracing derby-styled hats and a classic black suit. His signature fashion trademark would be his sunglasses, which he wears with his eclectic street wear, formal wear and sportswear. Olomide struck gold with his music career when he popularized the genre of soukous music, which made the signature dance move ‘ndombolo’ famous across Africa. His music struck a chord with conservatives as it tackled topics considered as taboo.


The ‘Princess of Africa’, singer and philanthropist Yvonne Chaka Chaka, not only captured the heart of Africa with her great voice and humanitarian work but also with her great sense of style, which fuses classic dresses with isiZulu attire and accessories as well as bold Ankara style gowns. She has also captured the hearts of fashionistas with her beautiful, jet-black dreadlocks, which have been her trademark look. Born in 1965 as Yvonne Machaka in Soweto, Johannesburg, Yvonne burst onto the music scene when she was a teenager with the disco inspired hit titled ‘I’m In Love With A DJ’. She successfully fused the mbaqanga sound, which is a traditional Nguni music style, with the ‘bubblegum’ pop music sound which was popular in South Africa in the 80s and created a platform for the birth of Kwaito music, which became popular in the 90s. Her impeccable ad unique style earned her a SA Style Icon award last year.

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