African Fabrics: Fashion or Fad?

The next time someone compliments you on your African attire or asks you where it comes from don’t simply says it’s from the Motherland. Actively promote the designer, the label or at least where you bought it from.

This is probably something most of us would not think of doing. But as British-Eritrean journalist and author Hannah Pool pointed out on Saturday 7 September 2013, we would not think twice about revealing that our outfit is a Valentino – so why should clothes made by African designers be any different?

“We call Italian-designed clothes couture but beads made in Johannesburg are considered craft,” Pool explained during an Africa Talks discussion entitled ‘Social Fabric’ at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, London. 
Kenyan beaded jewellery © MisBeee Writes
She touched on how those of us who wear African textiles have a shared responsibility to make the current trend in African fashion more than just a fad but something that has sticking power.

The seminar challenged commonly held views on what we accept as African fashion and debated on whether African fashion ceases to be African  if it is designed by non-Africans. Or if an African designer produces labels that do not fit into the narrow ‘animal print’, ‘ethnic’  or ‘tribal’ stereotype. See here.

Would you class British-Ghanaian Ozwald Boateng, who is best known for his trademark twist on classic British tailoring, as an African designer? Or can we truly say that the African-inspired designs that adorn British high streets currently are examples of African clothing when they are produced in India and China and popularised by Western celebs? Who owns the creative capital?

With the exception of the Kente which has managed to achieve world-wide status as a Ghanaian and African textile, is there the same level of ‘brand’ awareness with other types of designs?
As Pool pointed out, could we confidently differentiate between a Nigerian-made outfit or if the finishing was from Mogadishu? And if not, is this not the next evolutionary step to keep the eyes of the world still firmly fixed on Africa's fashion?

Hand-woven Kente from Ghana with Aya Adinkra© MisBeee Writes
Since the inception of African fashion expositions, African fashion has increasingly moved more towards centre stage to the point where the likes of Michelle Obama and Beyonce are now comfortably pictured sporting styles and prints that I’ve been wearing all my life.

Events such as Africa Fashion Week London can be applauded for their contribution to providing a platform for these designs.

But isn’t it time that more granularity is added to the mix to prevent onlookers from viewing African fashions in the same way that some people view Africa – as a homogenous entity?

We are, afterall, forgetting that there was a time when Africans, nay the thousands of tribes making up the 'Dark Continent' could be identified purely by their unique style and tailoring textile choices.

So why can’t the same level of differentiation be visible in our fashion houses today to the point where we are able to showcase labels from Chad or Zimbabwe, or even  take the vision one step further as showcase Zulu or Masai Fashion weeks?

Food for thought...?

Kirsty Osei-Bempong

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