Africa is a continent, not a trend

Picture taken for Priscilla Yeobah Newton’s lookbook, from her graduate collection at Central Saint Martins, shot by Joyce Ng
Picture taken for Priscilla Yeobah Newton’s lookbook, from her graduate collection at Central Saint Martins, shot by Joyce Ng

When my editor asked me to interview Solange Knowles, I admit feeling fairly excited. Not that I easily get star-struck, but the idea of Beyonce unveiling a quirky sister busy exploring a (somewhat fantasized) ethnic past appealed tremendously to my ex-Media Studies student brain. For those yet to be acquainted with the damsel, her fashion (and I had yet to find out if it was more than chiffon-deep) and natural hair seemed to stand against the aggressively Western, whitewashed industry. While Queen’s B’s hair is yellow (and plastic) and her skin lightened on every campaign,

Sister S. sports a bubbly Afro and traditional African prints. Fast-forward to the day of the interview and the profoundness was nowhere to be seen: I found myself sitting opposite yet another starlet, who makes you wait out of principle as she updates her Instagram account and skypes with her besties.

We spoke of her lifestyle and her career, she provided polite answers and, to my disappointment, not much else. Her hair, she revealed, is a wig and her minidress (bearing some kind of Kente-ish print) is Marni. Her sense of self-branding, courtesy of Hollywood. Her rootsy façade seemed more of a clever package to differentiate herself from her sister than an in-depth quest. Now, before I go any further, I am of course aware that she is black and I am not. Therefore her ties to African history and the meaning of opting for such a look I cannot even begin to understand.

First of all, Africa is referred to a theme, as a homogenous whole – yet it is neither a single country nor a concept, it is an immense, complex and highly diverse continent.

What I do feel is that the Solange case points out a broader movement in fashion that is at best narrow-minded, at worst alarming. Olivier Rousteing, Balmain’s creative director (and only black designer in France), told me he wanted to push for “a more ethnically mixed catwalk” and include “both streetwear and African references” into his clothes.  The result is a fantasised, Style.com-friendly take on the continent, limited to a few animal prints and Safari-esque cuts. A couple of seasons ago, Burberry also created trench coats out of traditional wax fabric; and let’s not forget Rick Owens Spring 2014 collection modeled by dancers performing a mix of Zulu and gumboot dancing. Why is that so bothersome to me?

First of all, Africa is referred to a theme, as a homogenous whole – yet it is neither a single country nor a concept, it is an immense, complex and highly diverse continent. Yet these shows – even with the most honest of intentions — rely on the same few cultural totems– kente prints, mudcloth, bark cloth, sexy safari. Instead of modernizing those at the core and working hand-in-hand with traditional producers, the brands are manufacturing imprecise, exotified details -in Europe or China. They are addressing a mainly white market, and hence reactivating colonial ideals (as you can come across in the recent masterpiece film Tabou (Miguel Gomes, 2012) into modern consciousness.  I can see the intended appeal of course: the whole fashion world is looking for a sense of meaning and authenticity in times of deep crisis, wherever it may lie. After a wave of artisanal, locally-made labels, this trend seems to inject a sense of fairness and frontierless equality to a highly centralized fashion world. And, as a trend, it’s nothing new.

Africa is producing its own fashion – and lots of it. I recently attended Cape Town Fashion Week and met a wave of young, avant-garde, designers thinking critically about their traditional history and the world at large.

I recently flicked through an issue of France’s Elle Magazine from August 85 and the main photoshoot was entitled ‘L’Afrique c’est chic’, providing an eighties urban twist to all the aforementioned. I also remember my teenage years, enviously looking heaps of blonde celebrities parading fresh cornrows on sore pink skulls (from Gwen Stefani to Christina Aguilera), to, I suppose, indicate a bond and openness to Afro-American culture. (Public disclaimer: I also tried to dread my own hair in boarding school, aged 15). Today the issue remains: black skin is still a source of exoticism. Let’s not forget that French Numéro or, a couple years back American Apparel for I.D, still produce blackface editorials – in other words, white models with painted black skin, emphasized lips and faux afros, generally bearing a title along the lines of ‘African Queen’. In other words, borrowing from a place that still suffers from inequality and post-imperialism is problematic to say the least.

Last but not least, Africa is producing its own fashion – and lots of it. I recently attended Cape Town Fashion Week and met a wave of young, avant-garde, designers thinking critically about their traditional history and the world at large. I discovered an avant-garde scene that is both locally-rooted and globally resonant. This tends to be described as ‘Afropolitan’, bearing an African cosmopolitan quality, that doesn’t kitschify or play up it ethnicity for a foreign market, but is appealing as a modern object – with a slight twist. This includes Hugo Flear, described as the local Mary Katranzou, who creates abstract digital prints of geometrical patterns found in classical Mali costume. Eleni Labrou, founder of the label Akedo, merges touches of Sub-Saharan rock art with graffiti; Nicholas Coutts looks at local landscape and the African dung beetle’s blue and metallic glimmer to fashion shimmery Femme Fatale wear.

Unsurprisingly this appears at a time of economic growth all over the continent: with a rising middle-class and a stabilized banking system in Lagos and South Africa, a young generation can finally speak back and enter a global dialogue. As for poor old Solange, I certainly don’t mean to bash her: I just hope to see her sitting front row at the next Johannesburg Fashion Week.

By Alice Pfeiffer

Originally published on Lujon Issue 2

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