As designers from Africa ease into permanence in the global fashion industry, and the words “African Fashion” are pandied about like “pure” water on Lagos streets, the meaning behind the words seems to be lost in the faux batik chic flashing lights. In the last three to five years, on every major European designer label, there has been some use of “ankara” fabric, from short shorts to tennis shoes. More and more African-based and African heritage designers have emerged, taking their work more seriously, and bringing to the world stage traditional as well as edgy takes on mainstream fashion.
But what is African fashion? Is it enough for the designer to be African? Does Oswald Boateng qualify as African fashion? Do Boxing Kitten’s ankara print shorts qualify as African fashion? Does showing at Arise Fashion Week or African Fashion Week New York provide the African stamp of approval?
Traditionally, these “African” focused platforms have been created to provide opportunities for talents who would not normally be as well appreciated by the dominant outlets. So in this sense, “African Fashion” would refer to anything created by an African designer. But what about the product, the fashion itself? Does the design need to be rooted in something common to the African marketplace, social scene, history? Does it matter if the tailors are European while the designer is African-born? Vice versa?
Clearly, this begets the question “what is African?” about any product or project claiming such identity. However, as “African” prints and designers further permeate and influence the design world, it is essential to acknowledge and harness the power of African fashion to create meaningful change on the Continent.
With so much energy and resources going into the re-branding, re-making of Africa by a powerfully positioned generation of youth, it would seem a waste if even fashion—one of the things people of African descent mastered prehistory—wasn’t geared towards re-making Africa.
While Ankara print fabric has become popularly branded as “African” fashion, it very often is block-printed fabric made in China or Europe. The lace West Africans have popularized for major social events cannot even begin to be considered African, being produced in Switzerland. Africans have developed a habit—or maybe cheaper fabric was the pre-cursor—of wearing lavishly overpriced party clothing only once. This means that many would not even know that the most common Ankara and lace fabrics fade and lose their luster and beauty after the first wash. Even the most expensive prints don’t last beyond three washes. Some of them are woven so poorly that they tear on the first or second use. There is some Ankara printed in Africa, usually in collaboration with European companies like Vlisco. Albeit, the Ankara prints used by new designers of ready to wear lines are more durable than the material sold at street festivals in Brooklyn. The bottom line though, most Ankara fabric is not African.
African cultures have such rich histories of textile design. From wax to mud cloth to hand-woven silk to Ethiopian cotton and different beading and embroidery traditions, true African fashion appears infinite. The notion of importing fabric into Africa is counter-intuitive considering we own the oldest time-tested methods of producing the colorful aesthetic the world now craves.
Fashion is defined by fabric. The most successful international design brands rely on fabric of superior quality. No matter who is starving in Sri Lanka for them to get it, they source materials that maintain their newness for generations. Design and construction—though imperative to the definition—are secondary to the Versaces of the world.
African fashion should, like anything else considered African, be an avenue for African elevation: social, economic, political. The women in the rural country who sit and weave impeccable silk and cotton fabric by hand, with minimal resources, should not struggle to feed their families while Chinese and European companies gain exorbitant wealth with the production of something they call African. Ethiopian cotton is so fine, specimens are often soft as silk. Woven kente is more durable even than wool. Brocade from Guinea, hand-woven silk from Yorubaland, even the leather of North and East Africa are some of the most durable materials known to man. The artisans behind these incomparable fabrics depend on one or two buyers in the nearest city for the survival of their trade, if that.
The textile industries crashed in West Africa a few years ago and there was no upheaval, no mass protesting. The people with power did not value the relationship between the clothes on their backs and the women in the countryside. Although there have been some initiatives to revive African textiles, the industry still suffers. These artists, these trades are some of the last remaining vanguards of world-class African art. These infinitely beautiful, near indestructible fabrics represent so much the gifted of Africa, the potential renaissance of a people for whom the most basic details always represent a durability, an intricate, elegant beauty from which the common world has altogether departed. Designers should look at this platform as an opportunity to make deep-reaching change in Africa. African designers who use fabric that does not come from Africa are aiding in the extinction of these art forms, family/social structures and economic relevance of women traders, the backbone of Africa.
We can exercise our right to use whatever fabric we want, to wear whatever we want, whenever we want. But those who wish to see Africa elevated should take it upon themselves to contribute to enduring solutions.
If it isn’t made with African fabric, African Continental labor, African minds, designers, then it’s just fashion. If it empowers Asian or European markets more than African markets, it should be called by a proper name, not African fashion. That which bears fruit is that which was properly nurtured.
Authentic African Design
Please share others you know of, especially from East Africa.