Made in Africa

2014-07-06 15:01

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From Louis Vuitton’s runway shows to the racks at Mr Price, African prints are in vogue. But what is it that makes a garment African? What is African fashion? Panashe Chigumadzi tries to answer that tricky question

My mother peered through the door and, seeing the outfit I’d chosen to wear to my cousin’s wedding, asked with exasperation: “Can’t you wear something else? Every function you are always wearing this ‘African attire’ of yours!”

Of course, being the cheeky millennial that I sometimes can be, I responded: “You wear something else, I’m also tired of your ‘Western attire’.”

She was wearing a lace dress. I was wearing a shift dress made with a beautiful red Dutch wax print bought in Rwanda, along with the concomitant head wrap made of the same cloth. It is true that my choice of outfit for important occasions is invariably “African attire”.

I’ve also had my designated tailor create a capsule wardrobe of tops, skirts and dresses (of course with the matching head wraps) for work.


When we say “African attire”, it usually means “west African” or to be more specific, Nigerian clothing. You see, my ethnic group of the Shona people of Zimbabwe don’t actually have a traditional attire in the way that many South African national groups may have.

While the groups have instantly recognisable items from their national attire – think the Zulu isicholos (red hats), the Tsonga xibelani skirt, the Ndebele idzilla (metal rings worn around women’s necks) and the Sotho shweshwe print – we have none.

The British did a thoroughly good job in their colonial project of ensuring we didn’t aspire to creating such for ourselves.

So when our women are instructed to wear traditional clothing for whatever function, we happily appropriate the east African kanga or the Nigerian traditional style, albeit a much more conservative version, sans the gold jewellery and sunglasses seen in the society fashion magazines from which we often cut out patterns.

I started wearing African print “actively” a couple of years ago, after the coming together of a number of factors: earning my own money, an increased desire to assert my “Africanness”, an increase in the number of functions to attend, the “mainstreamification” of African fashion by international fashion houses and, of course, the beginning of the “Africa rising” narrative.


Across the world, Africa was beginning to assert itself – ­McKinsey had just published its Lions of Africa report heralding our new-found economic strength; CNN was championing the continent with Inside Africa and African Voices; African artists like D’Banj and P-Square were doing international collaborations; the recently launched international style and culture magazine Arise, published in Nigeria, was highlighting the work of African designers such as Maki-Oh, David Tlale, Tiffany Amber and Ozwald Boateng; and Beyoncé and Solange were spotted wearing the Dutch wax print designs from Boxing Kitten.

Before this, I had always found the “African fashion” by the likes of Stoned Cherrie and Sun Goddess somewhat unappealing. I didn’t like the go-to browns and beiges they often used, nor did I like that the outfits had a way of, dare I say, making you look like a mama or at the very least like someone who spells Africa with a “k”. On top of that, they were hard to get for a girl living in Polokwane and they were, and still are, quite expensive.

So I welcomed the new-found availability of the brightly coloured print fashions seen on the pages of magazines like New African Woman and Fashizblack with great gusto because it meant versatility and something that goes well with my dark skin colour. Africa was rising dammit, and we know had our own fashion that I could wear too.


I asked the MTV Base veejay Nomuzi Mabena, who has become a local style icon, about her apparent love for African fashion and where it started.

“My relationship with African fashion is new but very ­exciting. I’m discovering more modern ways of wearing ­traditional African prints and jewellery, and I’m enjoying exploring the world of African fashion just as much as I enjoy wearing it. The older I get the more they change. I’ve always loved Brenda Fassie’s take on fusing township fashion with traditional African wear. I think [Mafikizolo’s] Nhlanhla Nciza is one of my biggest muses when it comes to wearing African fashion in a contemporary way. The swag on [MTV Base VJ] Vanessa Mdee is pretty crazy too.”

So as it becomes de rigueur for the hip and young among us to be wearing “African fashion”, the question is what do we really mean by this catch-all phrase? It is incredibly unimaginative to say that by virtue of being made of a print traditionally associated, an outfit becomes “African”.


South African fashion stalwart Marianne Fassler was copied by many designers long before this wave and agrees there is something of an African aesthetic. “It definitely has to do with the colours – the brights, as well as the browns and the prints; the textures – such as the raffia, leather and deconstructed fabrics; and the silhouette, which is very much centred on aspects such as layering, big sleeves, head wraps, big skirts, frayed edges, tassels and block beading.”

The question remains whether African-inspired designs were only legitimised after the Western fashion houses such as Derek Lam, Burberry and Louis Vuitton used them and thus became fashionable for us to wear locally.

It has also become a question of whether the Western design houses are simply referencing the continent or going a step further and appropriating African culture.

The offending Burberry range that lifted designs and called them ‘eclectic’ instead of ‘African’

Often the “appropriation” debate comes in when there is referencing without crediting. In 2012, Burberry heavily featured Ankara prints (referred to as “eclectic print” by Burberry) in its Spring/Summer 2012 collection. The label subsequently scandalised African fashion “stakeholders” after it was reported to have said it was not inspired by Africa after the now-defunct Arise reportedly placed a call to ask them the question.

Fassler notes that Africa has always been a “muse” for international designers, in the same way that India, South America and Asia often are, and that inspiration is cyclical.


The same was noted by Ruth la Ferla in a 2009 article in The New York Times, albeit in a somewhat condescending way: “A similar exoticism is casting its spell over the style world of late, as vanguard retailers like Barneys New York, mass marketers like American Apparel and designers as disparate as Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, Frida Giannini of Gucci and Dries Van Noten embrace pan-African influences, responding, as if in concert, to some faraway drumbeat.

“Western fascination with African art and design has blown in gusts for over a century, of course, ever since Picasso and Kandinsky filled their canvases with tribal motifs.

“As recently as 1967, Yves Saint Laurent introduced a collection of ‘African’ dresses constructed from raffia, shells and wooden beads.”

Part of the issue with the so-called appropriation is that it may seem one-sided, but across the continent, the colonial legacy saw many groups begin to adopt and adapt Western clothing.

Tartan was brought to Kenya by Scottish settlers and is now the material used for the blankets worn by the Masai.

Zulu people in South Africa have also been known to incorporate tartan into their attire. For more than a century, many Herero women in Namibia have worn colourful Victorian-style dresses, complete with horn-shaped headgear, in a nod to the wives of the German missionaries and colonialists.

The dapper menswear movement of three-piece suits, hats and sharp shoes seen on the sapeurs of Congo-Brazzaville and the Brentwood-wearing gentlemen of South Africa’s Soweto has also taken from former colonisers and created an aspirational style that is undoubtedly their own. Indeed, a popular phrase among the sapeurs is one attributed to Papa Wemba, a rumba musician from the Democratic Republic of Congo: “White people invented the clothes, but we make an art of it.”

Another act of “appropriation” not born of a colonial history is seen in Tata Mandela, taking over Indonesia’s national attire, the Batik, and making it “the Madiba shirt”.


Accessibility is an important part of why it is that my African attire has typically been reserved for special occasions. It’s not as if there is no ready-to-wear African fashion for the middle market.

I have?been pleasantly surprised to see some reasonably priced and beautiful African print tops and skirts here and there at Mr Price. Ginger Mary, Truworths’ “global ethnic chic” line launched in 2004, does have items priced on par with items in the rest of the Truworths store. For those in Joburg, Maria Podesta, stationed at Market on Main on Sundays, has become a go-to for affordable African print accessories.

In her TEDxJohannesburg Women talk titled Authentic African Aesthetics that Inspire the World, she said of the success of her range: “Suddenly, I got a whole bunch of attention. I was doing okay with my range before, but when I added this [African print], it really encouraged me. People were so touched to see a cloth associated with their culture, their heritage and their lives on the shoes.”

Until the distribution of ready-to-wear African fashion becomes just as easily available as “non-African” fashion, the latter will continue to be the mainstay in our cupboards.

The digital space is a tool championed for democratising everything, and online fashion, as with many things African, is on the rise. Stores like Kisua, Thula Sindi online and My Asho target the middle market, offering both locally and internationally designed African ­fashion prêt-a-porter.

I, personally, am still a Luddite who wants to try her clothes on in the store first, but certainly this is growing in popularity with the rest of the more tech-savvy population.

Another important way for designers to gain access to suppliers and distributors is the local and international fashion weeks.

Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, the executive chairperson of African Fashion International, ­owners of fashion weeks in South Africa, has said of her company’s push for the development of the local fashion industry: “Sustainability of the clothing and manufacturing sector in South Africa will need an infusion of local fashion talent that brings diversity and authenticity to the global fashion landscape.”

She went on to say that “Africa cannot compete with companies in the East, as they are able to produce large volumes at low cost. Where we can compete is in high value added products?...?The development of young fashion designers is vital to creating a sustainable and commercially viable industry.”

As Africa asserts itself on the world stage both economically and culturally, identity inevitably becomes a political statement. Fashion is an important articulation of that identity, a means to set oneself apart – both on the continental scale and on the individual level.

It can also just be fashion.

Along the way, I have begun to enjoy the freedom that the new wave of African-inspired designs have given me and no longer feel the need to be straightjacketed into a set aesthetic. As with many things design, you can’t quite define “African fashion” but you will know it when you see it.

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