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    Boutique Fashion News — Origins Series

    Musings Over Mudcloth

    Mali may be world-renowned as the site of the mystical Timbuktu, especially following the most recent events. But just as fascinating is the country’s national design heritage which has transcended generations – the intricate fabric, mudcloth. Known locally as bògòlanfini or bogolan, this hand-dyed cloth is sacred to the Bamana people of Mali and symbolizes their history and cultural heritage – of particularly significance with the country finally gaining its independence in 1960. The fabric has since become a symbol of national pride.

    Mudcloth drying in the sun in Djenne

    WOVEN IN TIME

    You will not find any two mudcloth fabrics exactly the same. This has to do with the unique and labour-intensive manufacturing process whereby the cloth is made using fermented mud.  The word bògòlanfini literally translates to bogo meaning “mud” or “earth”, lan meaning “by means of” and fini which means “cloth”. The men of the Bamana tribe weave the fabric while the women dye the cloth. This is typically done during the dry season between October and May. Agricultural activities slow down during this time leaving more time to devote to craftwork like cloth-making and pottery.

    The process itself is most fascinating. After the cloth is woven, it is left to soak in a bath of mashed-up leaves from the n’gallama tree, native to the region.Once the fabric has turned a yellowish colour, it is left to dry in the sun. Once it is dried out, the cloth is painted in intricate patterns using mud which has been left to ferment in a clay pot for over a year. An interesting chemical reaction occurs between the dyed fabric and the mud, so that after the mud is cleaned off, only the stained brown patterns remain. The yellow-coloured dye is lastly removed from the unpainted fabric with bleach which leaves the cloth white. After a length of time, the paint changes to different hues of rich browns and orange-toned colours.

    Oversized authentic mudcloth clutch by Ayikai Couture, available from sapelle.com

    MUCLOTH GOES GLOBAL

    One Malian designer who has been influential in bringing mudcloth to the rest of the world is the late fashion ingénue, Chris Seydou. This native of Mali’s Koulikoro province moved to Paris in 1971 where he first worked under iconic French designer Yves Saint-Laurent and then alongside Spanish designer Paco Rabanne. Seydou is still celebrated for his exemplary efforts in introducing bògòlanfini to the world, and is further credited with founding the African Federation of Fashion Creators in 1993 (just one year before his death due to a short illness).

    Chris Seydou

    And judging by the enormous popularity of this fabric in the Western world, Seydou would be proud. In support of Project Red, the anti-AIDS organisation fronted by U2 singer Bono, sneaker brand Converse created a limited edition shoe in African mudcloth in 2006. The design of the sneaker was inspired by legendary Malian mudcloth artist Nakunte Diarra.

    US First Lady Michelle Obama is no stranger to this trend, sporting the print on more than one occasion. She was first spotted aporting a mudcloth jacket while speaking in Chicago in 2006, followed by a mudcloth pencil skirt in Albuquerque that same year.

    Michelle Obama taking mudcloth to a new level of prominence

    Other celebrities seen wearing the fabric are Rihanna, Solange Knowles and Rachel Bilson, who after being snapped carrying a Threads of Change iPad case in mudcloth, caused the product to swiftly sell outs. Also paying homage to the original creators of the fabric is US fashion designer Kevan Hall (famous for working with style mavens like Jordin Sparks, Vanessa Williams and Katherine Heigl). In 2008, Hall presented his “Africa: A Safari” Spring collection at Los Angeles Fashion Week, using mudcloth produced and manufactured in Mali.

    Kevan Hall mudcloth dress

    French fashion label BCBG Max Azria is known for drawing inspiration from the African continent. In their Spring/Summer 2012 collection, the designers featured prints and patterns inspired by mudcloth. One fitted mudcloth-inspired trenchcoat from Max Mara’s Spring 2010 collection proved a fan favourite amongst customers. Designer Rachel Roy, known for her chic and classic pieces, also drew inspiration from the Malian traditional fabric in her Spring 2009 collection and infused mudcloth with a touch of Western modernity.

    A stunning Sass & Bide creation

    Also adapting the West African print was Australian design duo Sass and Bide. In their Fall/Winter 2011 collection, the edgy designers borrowed heavily from the authentically Malian print, even infusing mudcloth with colourful tie-dye. Further inspiration from mudcloth could also be seen in collections from Bottega Veneta, Proenza Schouler and even Donna Karan.

    Then, of course, there is the stunning mudcloth dress by House of Deréon that singer Beyoncé wore during a photo shoot with L’Officiel magazine. The shoot drew attention for different reasons however as Beyoncé’s skin was darkened to a dark brown colour. The uproar over the photo shoot may have died down, but it helped to shine a spotlight on a fabric steeped in culture. And that’s priceless.

     

     

     

    For further reading on this fabric, visit http://www.mnh.si.edu/africanvoices/mudcloth/index_flash.html

     

     

    Contributor: Lesleigh Kivedo

    Eye on Kente

     

    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.

     

    ORIGINS

    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.

     

    KENTE TODAY

    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.

     

    INTERNATIONAL APPEAL

    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

     

    Ndebele Notions

    The Ndebele people of South Africa and Zimbabwe are arguably one of Africa’s most distinctive and therefore easily recognisable tribes. With their unique geometrically patterned homes and garments of ornate beadwork, the Ndebele people are proving to be an endless source of inspiration for artists and designers around the world.

    Hollywood sat up and took notice when fashion mogul Kimora Lee Simmons arrived at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s prestigious Costume Institute Gala in 2008 swathed in a knock-out Ndebele-patterned ball gown. Simmons helped design the gown with American designer Kevan Hall and VogueUS’s former editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley. Her fashion choice certainly made people sit up and pay attention, and it brought this unique design even further into the limelight.

    Kimora Lee Simmons showing off a Ndebele-inspired gown

    So what’s the story behind this popular unmistakably unique print? Well, the Ndebele tribe has its origin in South Africa and Zimbabwe dating back to the 1600s. The design and patterns used by the tribes are most visible in the creative paintings decorating their homes. Interestingly, these designs were once used as secret communication during post-occupation times – the patterns spoke of strength and perseverance, and possibly even communicated secret plots of resistance. But the history behind the graphic design of this print holds far more significance for the Ndebele people.

    ORIGINS

    Marriage symbolizes a significant rite of passage, particularly for the Ndebele woman. Once she is married, the new bride is responsible for decorating her home in the distinctive geometric colourful designs. She will use her free hand to create the images adorning the walls of her home, typically drawing inspiration from the environment around her.  The back of the house is painted in earthy colours, using charcoal, clay and ground ochre. The front, in comparison, is a vivid representation of the Ndebele wife’s creativity, with vibrant shades of yellow, blue, green and red.

    One identifiable fashion trinket of the Ndebele people is the isingolwani, the collection of multi-coloured hoops worn around the neck. In traditional customs, these hoops are worn by girls during their initiation into womanhood. During this period, they are secluded from the rest of the tribe and are taught by the older matriarchs in preparation for married life. The girls learn invaluable skills like beading, cooking as well as the symbolic painting of their new homes. The colourful neck hoops are made by twisting grass into a circle, securing the hoop tightly with cotton. To ensure the rigidity and sturdiness of the hoop, the band is boiled in sugary water and then laid out in the sun to harden for a number of days. Thereafter the hoops are decorated with brightly coloured beads in distinctive Ndebele fashion.

    At their initiation ceremony, girls are also presented with an apron called an amaphephetu, a sturdy rectangular garment decorated with vivid three-dimensional graphics to symbolize the event.  These aprons are later substituted for robust, square-shaped aprons made of leather. It is on her wedding day that the prestigious nguba or marriage blanket is worn.

    Another striking form of jewellery distinctive to this tribe is the idzilo or idzila – elegantly stacked brass rings worn around the neck, legs and arms. On her wedding day, a bride is given a set of these rings from her husband to be worn as a symbol of her devotion to him. Generally speaking, the wealthier the husband, the more elaborate the rings. In earlier days, a woman was to wear these rings until the death of her husband. However, this is no longer customary, with modern-day wives only wearing their adornments for traditional gatherings. This may be a good thing, considering that some women were known to wear rings weighing up to 20 kilograms!

    CONTEMPORARY CULTURE

    It is no wonder that fashion designers from across the globe are drawing inspiration from the distinctive and eclectic Ndebele style. One designer that displayed a totally unique take on this classic design was Brazilian designer Alexandre Herchcovitch who, in his 2007 Spring collection, fused Ndebele patterns with street punk style. Herchcovitch recognized the one-of-a-kind designs of traditional Ndebele fashion and fused it with non-conformist punk-rock wear. The result was a critically acclaimed collection of never-before-seen African-punk fusion.

    Most recently, UK Vogue dedicated an extensive fashion editorial to the plains of Africa in their May 2012 issue.  Entitled “High Plains Drifter”, the photo shoot was shot by acclaimed photographer Mario Testino and featured an eclectic mix of Ndebele patterns alongside other bold graphic prints.

    Today, visitors are welcome to explore the Ndebele culture by visiting sites such as the Kghodwana Cultural Village in Bronkhorstspruit, or the Botshabelo Mission Station in Mpumalanga, South Africa. The latter is the traditional home of renowned Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu.

    The prolific Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu donning full Ndebele regalia, standing in front of one of her works

    For further reading on the influence of African culture on contemporary fashion, check out http://www.afroccentric.com as well as www.krugerpark.co.za and www.southafrica.net for further information on the Ndebele tribe.

    For your own taste of authentic Ndebele art, visit Sapellé’s Artisan Collection where you will find beaded Ndebele hairbands made by women from South Africa. Each one is said to tell a story about love and life. Find them here

     

     

    Contributor: Lesleigh Kivedo