What Makes Fashion African?

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Ralph Lauren Gowns

Ralph Lauren Gowns

Valentina Zeliaeva Ralph Lauren

Valentina Zeliaeva Ralph Lauren. Time tested designers rely on quality fabric and design.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Authentic African Design

Wow Wow by Wunmi Olaiya

Maki Oh

Loza Maleombho

Viv La Resistance

Please share others you know of, especially from East Africa.

About these ads

5 responses to “What Makes Fashion African?

  1. Really pleased to find African fashion wrestled with so coherently. I especially like that a clear between rebranding Africa (and resuscitating some of our cultural sensibilities) and fashion has been established – it’s easy to get lost in the buzz of fashion weeks and forget a positive overarching purpose.

    Now, as for one definition for African fashion, I haven’t yet found one that satisfies me 100%, but I appreciate that textiles and labour are integral to the definition. For instance, Duro Olowu is Nigerian, some of his pieces carry Nigerian sensibilities but rarely does he use African textiles, nor should he have to. However, his success and openness about his Nigerian background have arguably done their fair share in altering misperceptions about the country/continent. Osei Duro, on the other hand, is made in Ghana by Americans, using indigenous textiles and local labour. They, too, are making a tangible difference. I find this notion of authenticity a little tenuous as a result. Tiffany Amber’s offerings are not less African fashion in the strict sense than Maki Oh’s. I appreciate that Maki Oh is invested in preserving and promoting local techniques, but by virtue of Tiffany Amber’s size (3 stores in Nigeria, factories employing labour), she, too, is making a difference. ‘African fashion’ is elastic enough to accommodate this diversity.

    However African a designer is, an increasingly globalized world has ensured a mishmash of influences. So, Bridget Awosika may work with aso-oke today and decide she’d rather work with European silks tomorrow. Also, customers don’t necessarily want to be fed the same diet: We love and buy ‘African’, but we also love and buy Chanel. African designers are aware of this and I believe there is room for multiple interpretations. The Nigerian design house, Grey (begrey.com) has positioned itself as a sort of H&M because it appreciates the growing demand for fast fashion a la the British high street. Their work is not any less African fashion because they use chiffon. What needs to be done is to empower local industries and make fashion profitable on the continent. There will always be those who work with African textiles and others who won’t. It shouldn’t be a requirement for being African that one feels responsible for African textiles whether or not it is consistent with their design aesthetic. Designers, too, are open to multiple influences. The Maki Ohs of this world show the possibilities that exist with one textile, and her success will likely shift the focus to local production faster than statements like ‘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.’ I appreciate the passion, but guilt-tripping (or at least that’s how they very well might interpret it) is not the solution. Finding creative ways to open their eyes to the potential in their backyards is more sustainable and worthwhile :-)

    I am a big believer in the inherent profitability of our local textiles – I wear and promote locally-dyed indigo as much as I can, but Vlisco prints sometimes catch my eye. The fact that they are produced in Europe doesn’t detract from the fact that Africans have made them what they are. This, too, is significant, and we should be working to forge partnerships that are mutually beneficial, like this one: 06/vlisco-group-woodin-brand-set-to-create.html#.Ud_kpsu9KK0 [Don't forget that our colonial heritage is part and parcel of our Africanness and has introduced us to external influences which we've recreated in our own image. I think you'll find 'Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress' a worthwhile read.]

    Finally, the Made in Africa trend (or movement) has seen everyone from Vivienne Westwood to Sass and Bide get involved. This presents yet another possibility, in addition to strengthening our local industries and entrepreneurs and forging mutually beneficial partnerships. Africa should position herself to take full advantage of all these emerging possibilities. Also, and not just because it’s something I’m passionate about, Africa-based entrepreneurs absolutely must creates strong businesses and brands, not just fashion. We have lots of labels but very few who have what it takes to contribute to the rebranding of Africa on a meaningful level. All this considered, I agree with you that African fashion (I don’t want to get into the debate about whether or not this is even a useful moniker as far as the way it’s currently bandied) should benefit Africa and Africans where it can, and that those who recognize this possibility are not more or less authentic, just perhaps more visibly interested in social and economic development that their counterparts :-)

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Kay. Definitely got me thinking. The idea here was not to police or guilt-trip designers, but to highlight something that many designers don’t seem to be considering or acting on. But with such a major platform–developing at rapid speed–this is a crucial time to make these considerations. True, it is a complex matter, and there are many designers benefiting the Continent in other ways. This article was written in response to the overwhelming use of Vlisco-like fabric in what is considered “African Fashion” by the mainstream media. If we saw Vlisco being used in fair proportion to what is available on the Continent, the issue of dying art forms would not be so critical.

      Many designers resist because of the sometimes high cost of using our own textiles. But, even if using chiffon, designers with the means to have that chiffon made on the Continent sustainably, controlling the means of production, could give a tremendous boost to our local economies for generations to come. This contributes to building those sustainable brands. This writing comes from a school of thought that says everyone should have some social responsibility, but of course the reality is that people will contribute to change at different levels, or not at all. Some language use will always be controversial…”authentic”/”African fashion”…but I chose to be this exacting because I just think fabric is too great, too crucial an issue to miss. This small shift has the potential to create the swift, radical improvement on the Continent that the other factors–ie employment in fashion industry–can not. Your site is awesome, keep up the great work.

  2. Pingback: What Makes Fashion African? | BONNIE SANDY IN DeMarketplace·

  3. Very interesting discussion. Fast fashion here in the U.S. is recycled and sent in container loads worldwide destroying the clothing industry in many developing nations. True African Fashion is made in Africa by Africans.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s