c.2012 New York Times News Service

c.2012 New York Times News Service

ROME Has Africa's golden moment arrived? For the gurus of the luxury world, the answer is a resounding yes at least as a source of inspiration for design trends that are rippling through the fashion industry like a bolt of lightning.

Designers from Vivienne Westwood to Jean Paul Gaultier have long drawn on the vibrancy of African culture in their clothing lines. But now the industry is taking a tentative look at whether it makes sense to put down larger stakes as the African economy begins to take its place alongside the world's other promising emerging markets.

After decades of struggle, and despite continued serious challenges that include poverty and conflict, a middle class is forming in several large countries that have managed to diversify their economies away from basic commodities and move toward modernization.

That is fueling a perceptible rise in large cities like Nairobi in the numbers of people who are aspiring to more than the basics, creating a demand for luxury goods that is in step with the trends seen in other growing countries like China and Brazil, participants at a luxury conference in Rome said Thursday. The event was convened by The International Herald Tribune.

''We all know that Nigeria was all about oil and natural resources for a long time," said Omoyemi Akerele, the creative and managing director of Style House Files, a guide to fashion, style and beauty. "Now we have telecoms, banking, marketing, retail and tourism. As a result, more jobs have been created, consumer spending has increased and there is more disposable income."

Studies offer wildly different estimates of the number of Africans moving into the middle class anywhere from 80 million to 300 million. What is certain is that economic output is surging: growth is forecast to rise to around 12 percent in 2015, after growing an average of 4.9 percent a year from 2000 to 2008.

For the moment, the big houses, including LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and PPR, have not set up retail outlets in the middle of the continent. Indeed, while Africa is slowly rising, many of its more than 50 countries continue to face deep-seated problems, including striking poverty and violence.

Other problems come in the form of a stark class divide. "There's a lot of rich countries in Africa," said Farida Khelfa, a representative for Maison Schiaparelli of Algerian heritage who recently filmed a documentary on the Arab Spring's effects on young North Africans. "The problem is that rich people keep the money; they raise their children in America or take the money out of the country with them. This needs to change."

Nonetheless, an entrepreneurial spirit prevails outside these areas, and other initiatives are taking place. Some companies, for example, are working with African women on business projects that are empowering them with their own earnings for the first time.

What is more, young Africans are increasingly hip and knowledgeable. With access to the Internet, they are plugged into the latest trends from around the world, which influence their taste in fashion even as they incorporate their own stamp of originality.

''In Nairobi, a man in a tailored jacket with a scarf wrapped around him is the coolest, chicest man I've seen," said Kim Jones, the men's style director at Louis Vuitton. Jones spent his childhood following his father's Pan-African career, and infuses many of his designs with patterns inspired from his experience there.

''There is beauty everywhere, especially Africa," said Gaultier, whose 2005 "Hommage a l'Afrique" haute couture collection featured gauzy dresses with images of African masks floating subtly out of a bodice.