It was author Isaac Bashevis Singer who said: “What a strange power there is in clothing.” While clothing was once used solely for basic protection against the elements, it goes without saying that today it is so much more.
Clothing can define a nation. Think of the traditional Indian sari, the Islamic burqa or the Japanese kimono. Each style is sacred and symbolic to its wearer, the meaning behind it dating back to its cultural and ancestral roots. And nowhere else is this heritage more evident than in Africa. The cultural footprint of a people can be finely traced in the eclectic and unique patterns worn by its members.
This richness in visual and textual design could explain the recent surge in African-inspired fashion worldwide. Well-known international designers are using the African landscape as their muse. Watching the 2012 Spring/Summer collections at the major fashion weeks, it would appear that many of them are drawing some inspiration from the same African source. Burberry Prorsum’s 2012 Resort collection featured a decidedly African theme – trench coats, dresses and shoes crafted in traditional Ankara fabric, which also proved popular on the runways of Proenza Schouler. The African cloth also appears to be a favourite on the Hollywood red carpet, seen on famous figures from Beyoncé Knowles and Alicia Keys to Gwen Stefani and Fergie.
On the high street too this trend is gaining traction. One example is the design collaboration between fashion house Marni and Swedish retailer H&M. The Italian design team are known for their inspired use of quirky textures and unique patterns in their clothing. So it came as no big surprise when the label expanded its creative sphere to experiment with African designs. In March 2012, the company announced its collaboration with Swedish fashion retailer H&M. The collection featured a definite East African kitenge accent that proved a hit with the European market – the London store had sold out the entire collection by lunchtime on its first day, reported Vogue UK.
African textures and patterns seem to be replacing the stalwart designs of yester-year. However, there has been much debate about this trend, especially around the fact that international designers and retailers are borrowing from an African aesthetic but not actually producing their garments on the continent itself. Many feel that this sends a message that while the African prints and textiles are good enough for design, the African manufacturers aren’t.
One international brand getting it right, however, is the collaborative clothing company, EDUN. Thirty percent of their clothing is reported to be manufactured in Africa, in eight factories across the continent. The label was launched in 2005 and is fronted by U2 singer Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson. While their previous designs focussed mainly on T-shirts with African motifs, their Spring/Summer 2012 collection showed a whole new aesthetic. The garments were all brightly emblazoned in typical African patterns meshed with more Western-inspired floral prints. Particularly striking were dip-dyed indigo garments handmade in Mali.
At the recent “Design Africa” summit in New York, which comprised a panel covering all sectors of the fashion industry, the discussion around the future of Africa as a fashion hub was the highlight. The real question seemed to be advancing the continent from more than just a source of inspiration for overseas designers, but also a collaborative partner. Online retailer and advocate of African design Enyinne Owunwanne brought light to the fact that there are invaluable craftsmanship skills that only African tailors can impart. The best solution, it seems, would be a mutually beneficial relationship between foreign designers and their African counterparts.
For this reason, Sapellé has a vested interest in showcasing the best of what the African continent has to offer . And while the discussion around Africa’s fashion footprint is certainly an extensive and far-reaching topic, the important thing is that the conversation is an on-going one. And the more the spotlight is shone on the unique design potential on the continent, the brighter it will shine. In the words of Nigerian-born London-based fashion designer Duro Olowu: “The world, including the fashion world, is becoming ever-more global. I think the African influence is more than a new trend. Now it’s part of the melting pot.”
As an ardent supporter of ethically-produced African products, we at Sapellé understand the proud heritage and importance of the African connection. This is why we have provided a platform for African labels to showcase their work to the rest of the world. Not only do we focus on world-class designs, but even more importantly on socially-responsible business practices that will ultimately make their mark on well-being and economic development in Africa.
Contributor: Lesleigh Kivedo