Fashioning Africa exotic, colonial and tribal

Cross-posted from Huffington Post


African style is very much in vogue. Numerous runways in both New York and London fashion weeks could as well be called African fashion week. There were African influenced textiles such as the Malian Bogolan, also known as tribal in Donna Karan-review-speak. Proenza Schouler also gave a preview of their take on ‘modern tribal’, a key trend next year. African-inspired headwraps crowned the runways, however, this sophisticated African accessory was more likely to go down as the colonial look. Of course, prints inspired by the big five (Kors, Kors, Kors, Kors and Kors) were present too. Not to mention Burberry’s ankara revival.

The only thing that was painfully absent on this African fashion savannah was, well, Africans themselves.

For those of us experiencing yet another African moment in fashion, we took notes on the African-inspired trends for spring/summer 2012 and wondered where are all the African designers?

The answer is that they are in the so called heart of darkness looking for the next tribal bone to hang around the necks of noble tribesmen and hunting for exotic animal prints that will decorate their textiles. They are drafting raffia skirts on local bush dwellers and drumming up endearing tribal beadworks. They are in other words, paving the way for the international fashion elite, who will be inspired by them but give them no credit as they dictate the next exotic trend to style-craving fashionistas.

Oh indeed, African fashion has much to offer western designers as we know all too well. From Kenzo to Yves Saint Laurent to Ralph Lauren to Thierry Mugler to Malene Birger, the big players habitually pinch ideas from the African continent and that’s all right; the world is and should be a diverse source of inspiration for all. What’s problematic is the lack of credit to the African fashion industry, in so doing stifling its progress, as well as the appropriation of African fashion aesthetic into a perpetual spiral of tribal, colonial and exotic.





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  • Kemi for Shop Liquorice

    Very interesting read :-) Before I comment further, may I ask how the ‘appropriators’ of this world should go about crediting the African fashion industry? Really, really curious about this.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Hey Kemi, thanks :)
      On their websites, product descriptions and press releases mainly. Rather than insistently say they are inspired by for example ‘exotic and tribal patterns’, why not quote the exact pattern and where it originates. If they don’t know the country, they can at least refer that it is African-designer inspired. Occasionally some designers do, like Vivienne Westwood but mostly they behave as if something just fell out of the jungle and landed on their runway. You cannot copy a pattern straight up, that is plagiarizing. It reminds me of how Picasso copied African art and sculptures yet condemned Africans as primitive.

      For example, Malene Birger has said that her creativity “finds its source of inspiration in her personal style and ideas, which she uses to create the eloquence that characterises her entire universe, looks and collections.”
      I for sure know that her ‘silk linen tribal skirt’ finds its source of inspiration in Africa, because I have a piece of cloth with that very print in my house that I bought in a Lagos market.

  • Barbara M. McDowell

    Absolutely Beautiful!!!

  • MichelleUK

    Thank you for this article. It’s particularly relevant and drives my inspiration for a project that I’m working on.
    The thing is “they” won’t give africans credit for inspiring their collections. Africans, African-Americans, Caribbeans, Black British, will have to TAKE the credit by proactively owning our artistic and cultural heritage and pay homage to OUR diaspora which far extends the continent of Africa, America and the Caribbean. After all, it was black people that made sports wear fashionable for everyday wear, divas of the dancehall in Jamacian ghettos shaped ghetto fabulous style and made white girls learn to move their asses on the dancefloor, it was also because of black people that the words “bootylicious” and “chill-out” were not only listed and defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, but also used in everyday street and boardroom conversations amongst every race.
    The problem with black people is that collectively, we don’t realise how powerful we are…

  • Nikki B. Decadent

    Appropriation at it’s finest. This is part of the reason for my ambivalance towards thr fashion industry as of late. Its okay to use traditional African prints and textiles but it’s a struggle to employ more models of color in worldwide campaigns and on the runways. Its sickening.

    I honestly don’t see the industry changing anytime soon. However, I’m hoping the rise of independent designers and the use of less conventional mediums to display work continues to propel these emerging artists and their under represented muses into the forefront where they belong.

    And WTF is tribal? Is it Masai, Igbo, Dahomey? Oh you dont know? Seriously, we are not lending credit to any specific tribes so we’re just gonna call everything “tribal”? Disgusting.

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