Bold is beatiful in Africa

2011-11-04 09:27

There was a time when African fashion meant animal prints and wooden beads.

All of that is now a distant memory in the wake of the bold colours and strong prints on the global catwalks.

From the Malian bazin to the Nigerian ankara, from the Tanzanian/Kenyan kanga to Zaire’s kuba, from the Ghanaian kente to Egyptian cotton to Ndebele and seshoeshoe prints, the ramp has been ablaze with dramatic colour.

Says Michael Roberts, editor-in-chief of fashion bible Vanity Fair: “The African print in fashion is a trend for 2012 and follows on from last summer’s tropical print. Instead of making a big break of going to plain, they just extended it to African print. It took years to get people back into colour so when they finally got around to it, they found that there’s a whole healthy industry of print fabrics.”

A regular at fashion weeks around the globe, Roberts was in Joburg for the Africa Fashion Week as a guest of SA Tourism.

Roberts, who says he has always been fascinated by the continent, creates collages inspired by the design and African influences of 1930s Paris. This year, some of them were part of the Marc by Marc Jacobs autumn collection.

Two years ago, the fashion guru predicted that this trend would come back in a big way when he put together an African Queens spread in Vanity Fair.

It illustrated how fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Lanvin, Gucci and Marc Jacobs would catch a “full-blown case of Afrophilia” and use zebra, python, and leopard prints – along with feathers, fringes and bangles – in their upcoming collections. And it happened.

Now the world is African print crazy – from Simonetta Ravizza and Jil Sander’s spring/summer 2012 tribal collections at Milan Fashion Week to Michael Kors’ undeniably Colonial South Africa-inspired collection called Afriluxe showcased at New York Fashion Week.

In London, the Burberry Prorsum collection shelved tartan for bold African prints on their signature trench coats in teals, yellow and blues. Beyoncé’s House of Dereon showed that the “tribal” theme runs the world.

At the September New York Fashion Week, Project Runway 2008 runner-up Korto Momolu showed a line heavily influenced by Africa.

Bright colours, kaftans, bold prints made her spring 2012 collection one of the more hyped collections of the event.

“I hate it when designers who are more established don’t give it (African culture) its due,” she said.

“That it’s only popular this

season and that next season it’s not going to be popular. There are so many things you can take from Africa: the colouring, the print, the traditional garb. Just give it its props and don’t give it a time.”

Momolu cautions mainstream designers: “Stay away from traditional garments, because some of those garments have specific reasons why people wear them in our culture.”

Momolu’s statement brings up the issue of “appropriation of culture” by Western designers, which is problematic for some quarters in the African fashion industry. However, there are those who feel that this trend can only benefit African designers.

Says Roberts: “That’s the way in fashion. The loudest boys will make the loudest noise. Appropriation happens all the time in fashion. For instance, Chinoiserie was once a huge trend. The Chinese feel that designers like Yves Saint Laurent (his Opium collection) appropriated their culture. Even I was appropriated by Marc Jacobs for their winter collection this year where one of my collages was used without my permission. I suppose one could see it as a compliment. Although the dress was so bad, I would think it’s an insult.”

Helen Jennings, the author of New African Fashion and editor of Arise magazine, says: “I think it’s short-sighted to think that big designers using African print is appropriation of cultures. A good design can come from anywhere and it’s good for the African designers to become part of the global competition for African-inspired designs.”

Nigerian designer Lola Faturoti believes it would “benefit African designers because it opens the world’s eyes to Africa’s art, designs and culture”.

Faturoti says as long as designs are done tastefully and the meaning of the cultural connotations is researched, there shouldn’t be any reason
to complain.

Another designer who concurs is Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah of Maksi, a design label in Ghana that specialises in ready-to-wear contemporary outfits.

“Burberry is a global brand, and their use of African print puts it on the global stage. Yes, it is annoying that the global mass media didn’t get so excited when African designers have been doing the same thing for aeons, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

She adds: “What I think will happen is that all the people who cannot afford to buy Burberry’s African-inspired fashion will start looking for alternate ways to find that look. And when they do, they will find Maksi and all the other African labels that have been rocking African contemporary fashion.”

African print is as old as the hills of the Mother Continent. Many prints are largely worn as traditional or ceremonial dress, or casually by the older generation.

However, in recent years, many designers have started to show the versatility of these materials – from Palesa Mokubung and Stoned Cherrie’s use of the seshoeshoe, to Nigerian designer Ituen Basi’s use of ankara, to Nigeria’s Lisa Folawiyo, the designer behind Jewel by Lisa, and Deola Sagoe, who reinvented ankara and gave it a modern twist.

Folawayo has gained a fan base from international stars such as Solange Knowles and Kelis, who have worn her designs.

Adds Jennings: “Having that calibre of celebrity wear designs by African designers, made from an African fabric like ankara, helps that fabric to be taken seriously alongside others such as silk, leather and satin.”

Even Dreamgirls star Anika Noni Rose has been seen on the red carpet in a Deola Sagoe design. And who can forget Nigerian lawyer-tuned-designer Duro Olowu, who caught US First Lady Michelle Obama’s attention with his impeccable designs using colourful African prints.

The only people left to benefit from this trend – at least while it lasts – are the fabric manufactures from the continent. Until then, let’s hope this African fever lasts for a long time.

As Roberts puts it: “Africa will never go out of fashion; it will always be there, even as an underlying trend.”

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