Street style stars 2manysiblings (Velma Rossa and Papa Petit). Photograph: Sarah Waiswa
While western designers reduce ‘African fashion’ to tribal clichés, there’s a whole host of local designers producing material more reflective of this diverse continent
Whether in London or Lagos, Nairobi or New York, fashion is a pillar of identity: it’s a way to take risks and contextualise a sense of self and place. So why, then, does the mainstream fashion industry – be it the media, designers or international fashion houses – still reduce “African fashion” to a single, monolithic entity?
This season, it’s the likes of Valentino reaching for the “tribal” clichés (featuring mostly white models with the obligatory cornrows); Junya Watanabe’s bizarre attempt at Afrofuturism without any black models, and Isabel Marant and Alberta Ferretti’s Afro-boho collections. Others referencing Africa on the catwalk include Chloe, Louis Vuitton, Missoni and Issey Miyake.
The road between cultural appropriation and homage has always been paved with potholes, nowhere more so than on the catwalk, where one designer’s celebration of the richness of Africa’s fashion heritage is another’s blatant rip off. Designers being “inspired” by Africa is nothing new. Yves Saint Laurent did it in 1976; Galliano for Dior in 1997; McQueen in 2000, and in 2012, you couldn’t move for wax print, animal print and safari suits thanks to Burberry Prorsum, Balenciaga, Roberto Cavalli and others.
If you told someone the print on your bomber jacket was inspired by Europe they’d think you were making an obscure sartorial Brexit reference. Why? Because no one is stupid enough to reduce a continent to a single aesthetic. So why do it with Africa?
The lazy shorthand for such a diverse continent, “tribal” this, “safari” that, has to stop. With a population of over 1bn, there are hundreds of vibrant African cities, each with different influences, inspirations and priorities, all reflected by their own designers. Countries vary, cities vary, neighbourhoods vary. There are subcultures within subcultures. Given the centuries of creative output the continent has given us, it’s time to challenge the notion that a piece made by a designer in Dakar is the same as one made in Djibouti.
But rather than name-checking their inspirations properly and telling the world exactly where (and who) they borrowed inspiration from, western-based designers have a missionary zeal for “out of Africa” cliches. They also have an annoying habit of claiming to have discovered new prints or silhouettes while hanging out with the Maasai. But they no more discovered shuka blankets (which originated in Scotland) or “African” wax print (a Dutch import), than Prof Livingstone discovered Victoria Falls.
Meanwhile, across the African continent, and its diaspora, intergenerational and transnational conversations are happening through the medium of fashion. Whether it’s bespoke caftans in Casablanca, contemporary beadwork in Nairobi or loom-spun ase-oke (handwoven cloth) in Lagos, Africa’s designers are leading a renaissance that is as diverse as it is contemporary. Fabrics such as kanga (Kenya) and adire (Nigeria) are being reimagined in new ways by designers, stylists and bloggers alike – for instance Nairobi-based designer Anthony Mulli, who uses traditional bead work to create unique contemporary pieces for his label Katchy Kollections, or Lagos based Amaka Osakwe, founder of the label Maki Oh, who’s reworking of adire and ase-oke has won her international acclaim (Michelle Obama is a fan). Likewise, the fashion-conscious African diaspora, with their love of all things Afrocentric, are influencing the wardrobes of those back home, who a couple of years ago would never have dreamed of wearing wax print with their skinny jeans. This is where the real African fashion revolution is happening.