During his 25-year-long career, Swedish photographer Per-Anders Pettersson has covered a wide range of international news events: hunger in Ethiopia, civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana and South Africa. His pictures won praise and awards. But it wasn’t until he embarked on photographing fashion shows in Africa that he found his beat.
In the last four years, Pettersson has photographed close to 30 shows in Africa, gaining full-access usually by virtue of becoming a familiar face.
“Partly [why] I jumped into this was because I’ve done so many of the normal African stories for so many years,” Pettersson tells TIME, referring to his previous work on the continent. “The feel-good African story fascinates me.”
Pettersson’s images are not only set to challenge stereotypes in African fashion, which include animal prints and ethnic designs, but are also meant to confront the “Western gaze,” a media misperception in which Africa is but a war-torn continent rampant with poverty, diseases and ethnic conflicts.
Back in 2009, Pettersson had originally set out to photograph Africa’s new middle and upper class, a fast-growing population in recent years that had attracted little media attention. He received an assignment to photograph a fashion show in Johannesburg, where he thought he’d find some subjects for Rainbow Transit, a photo book on daily life in South Africa after the nation’s democratization.
Pettersson was immediately drawn to this world of fashion: glamorous models in color-rich fabrics, elegant catwalks, and the people he had come to find: well-dressed locals at fancy after-parties. Ever since, he has been documenting the boom of Africa’s fashion industry.
“I feel the story is not only about fashion but also about the new growth in Africa,” he says.
Although South Africa is the capital of Africa’s fashion scene and runs six fashion weeks a year, Pettersson says that more shows are popping up throughout the continent – a sign that Africa’s economy is developing and people’s buying power are growing.
Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at Time.com. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.