The ever-current kente cloth has for years been the go-to African pattern for designers across the fashion spectrum. Internationally acclaimed designers borrow from the cloth, which has a long association with West Africa, and specifically Ghana. Far from the glitz of the international catwalks, the traditional kente fabric has a history steeped in culture.
In Ghana, kente cloth is known as nwentoma. The name “kente” is derived from the word “kenten” which translates to “basket”. This cloth is worn across the west of Africa amongst the people of Akan and Ewe of Ghana, Togo and the Ivory Coast as a nod to their proud heritage. The cloth itself holds strong significance as it draws on ancient ancestral ties while also denoting the wealth and nobility of its wearer.
Gwen Stefani’s Lamb collection includes Kente-inspired textiles
The story behind the origin of the fabric is woven in folklore. Dating back to 3000 BC, legend tells of a man from the Ashanti region of Ghana who learnt the art of weaving by watching a spider spin its web. He started out by weaving a simple strip of raffia fabric in a manner similar to the insect, and presented it to the tribe’s chief. The royal leader was so impressed with what he saw that he embraced the fabric as the new royal cloth. Today, the fabric is made by a special weaving process using a traditional loom. But instead of raffia, strips of cotton and silk are interwoven together, although many weavers these days have replaced silk with rayon due to the cost. What makes kente cloth so unique is the fact that instead of using two double heddles during the weaving process, a kente weaver will use a third pair. According to many, this is the hardest and most labour-intensive form of weaving worldwide.
Ghanaians across the world are known to wear their kente garments with pride. Ask any native of the country and they will tell you of the special manner in which to wear the cloth, i.e. the pattern of the cloth needs to fall perfectly straight both horizontally and vertically, with the bottom edge forming a straight line along the bottom.
That said, every kente pattern has a specific name, meaning and historical significance. There are over 300 unique patterns and motifs in circulation. Every colour has a specific meaning and connotation attached to it. Gold and yellow, for example, allude to wealth, royalty and high status. Blue is a symbol of peace and tranquillity while red refers to bloodshed and death, although the latter also has political associations. In general, many women prefer to wear kente cloth in lighter colours while men generally choose darker, shaded fabrics although this is not a rule and comes down to personal choice.
Elle Varner radiates the unabashed brilliance and boldness of the Kente cloth
Think of the kente wrap as the Ghanaian answer to the western tuxedo – it is known for its elegance and formality at social gatherings, especially weddings. Members of the bridegroom’s family will typically wear a garment known as Sika fre mogya, which means “money attracts blood”. This is a symbol to show the new bride and her family that the groom has the wealth and means to support her.
Kente made a grand entrance at the 65th Cannes Film Festival in 2012 when Ghanaian actress Jackie Appiah walked the red carpet in her traditional garb. But it’s not only the fashionistas of Ghana that are sporting this sought-after design on an international stage. The iconic print can currently be seen on display in the store front windows of American Apparel stores in the US in the chain store’s range of kente-esque knee-length skirts.
Jackie Appiah commands the red carpet with a Kente cloth gown
Design label Boxing Kitten are renowned for their African-inspired prints and is fast becoming a favourite with Hollywood celebrities like Solange Knowles, Rihanna and Fergie wearing the label’s kente prints on more than one occasion. In the Spring/Summer 2011 fashion show for her fashion label LAMB, singer-turned-fashion designer Gwen Stefani borrowed heavily from kente patterns in her designs. And the singer herself walked the runway wearing an outfit that paid homage to the Ghanaian fabric.
But one label that didn’t quite get it right was Adidas. In yet another case where a zealous global giant makes a faux pas The sportswear brand appeared to make a faux pas when it named one of its sneakers after this traditional cloth. But instead of naming the design “kente”, they called the colourful sneaker “kenta”. This sparked outrage amongst consumers who obviously knew better. This resulted in an official apology from the company and the typo was corrected.
The cloth is also making headway in urban pop culture, with singers like Rihanna sporting the cloth in various appearances.
Also worth a mention is up-and-coming American soul singer Elle Varner, who wore a beautiful kente-patterned dress in the music video for her debut single “Only Wanna Give It to You” . Her proudly African outfit is receiving as much attention as the music itself.
Ghanaian label Ayikai Couture’s Kente-inspired clutch, available to buy from sapelle.com
For further reading on traditional kente cloth, be sure to visit http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/kente/top.htm as well as http://kente.midwesttradegroup.com/history.html
And for more information on the unique weaving process of kente cloth, be sure to visit http://www.popularpatchwork.com/news/article.asp?a=33
For products inspired by kente and other traditional African textiles, visit http://sapelle.com/collections/bags/products/glitter-medium-clutch
Contributor: Lesleigh Kivedo