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4 things to know about the scam

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African designers are causing a stir, from fashion weeks in Dakar and Lagos, to the Parisian shows of South African Thebe Magugu. Here in the United States, designers Busayo, Telfar and Hanifa infuse their collections with the aesthetics of their home countries of Nigeria, Liberia and Congo.

With many Western consumers now embracing African designers, a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London demonstrates that Africa has always had an influence on global fashion. The ambitious show, titled “Africa Fashion”, captures the multiplicity of fashion in Africa’s 54 countries, tracing its roots from the ancient past to the post-colonial period.

installation view, Africa Fashion [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum]

But perhaps most interestingly, it shows how African designers are influencing the global fashion industry with everything from their sustainable practices to aesthetic sensibilities. “We hope the exhibition will provide insight into this bountiful scene, recognizing that African fashion designers are changing the geography of global fashion,” said project curator Elisabeth Murray.

Christine Checinska, the museum’s first curator of African fashion and the African diaspora, explains the long history of African fashion in a comprehensive book that accompanies the exhibition. She points out that Africans have always traveled across Europe and Asia, bringing with them their fabrics, prints and silhouettes, which then influence local fashions around the world.

And yet, because of racism in the world, African fashion has often been distorted, stereotyped as primitive and portrayed as immutable. Or else it is “an exotic source of inspiration for northern designers,” writes Checinska. (Consider how designers like Tory Burch and Stella McCartney have been accused of cultural appropriation.)

This exhibition highlights the history, complexity and nuances of African fashion, providing a deeper appreciation of the work of a number of talented designers from across the continent as well as the diaspora. Here are four important aspects of African fashion history that help us contextualize the work of African designers today.

Shade Thomas-Fahm, bùbá, ìró, ipele and gèlè at aso-òkè, Lagos, Nigeria, 1970s, courtesy of Shade Thomas-Fahm [Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

There has long been a robust fashion ecosystem

Shade Thomas-Fahm isn’t a household name, but she should be. Born in 1933, she is sometimes described as Nigeria’s first fashion designer. At 20, she landed in Britain to train as a nurse, but when she saw the fabulously dressed models in London stores, she began taking classes at Saint Martin’s School of Art.

When she returned to Nigeria in 1960, the country had just gained independence from Britain. At this crucial moment, she became one of the first modern African designers, establishing a store called Maison Shade and a factory in the industrial areas of Yaba to manufacture her clothes. She is known for reinventing traditional Nigerian fabrics, patterns and colors, and deliberately elevating her designs to fit Western notions of “tailoring”.

In the book, Checinska wrote that Thomas-Fahm also contributed to “the development of a fashion ecosystem that was directly informed by what she experienced abroad”, paving the way for the hundreds of designers who are now emerging across the continent. Today, African designers often draw on local crafts and workshops to create their clothes and participate in fashion weeks inspired by European versions.

Five key fabrics guide designs

Bold prints are key to African fashion. They are skillfully deployed, modernized and remixed by contemporary African designers. Western brands and designers sometimes use them too and have been accused of cultural appropriation. The exhibition showcases five distinct textiles that have become fundamental to contemporary African designers.

installation view, Africa Fashion [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum]

wax print

This fabric originated from Java, an island in Indonesia, but in 1846 Dutch traders attempted to mass-produce it in the Netherlands in order to resell it to the Javanese. However, the Javanese did not like machine-made cloth, which had small cracks and stains. The Dutch therefore marketed the fabric in West Africa, where locals appreciated the “marks of imperfection”. This fabric has become popular across Africa and is central to modern African aesthetics. Indeed, it is now manufactured locally in factories across the continent, with machinery incorporating the spots into the final designs.

ANC Nelson Mandela Memorial Cloth, South Africa, 1991 [Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Memorial fabric

Across Africa, cotton fabric is printed in factories to commemorate milestones, including the election of politicians. When Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president and Barack Obama later became America’s first black president, they each had their faces screen-printed on special commemorative fabric. These fabrics tend to be displayed as decorative items rather than worn.

installation view, Africa Fashion [Photo: courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum]

To say

This is a specific fabric that originates from the Yorùbá people of southwestern Nigeria and dates back to the 1800s. It is made by tying fabric together and dyeing it, creating intricate and colorful designs. It is worn by women as a wrap around their body and incorporated into men’s sleepwear. Over the years, Àdìrẹ’s popularity has risen and fallen. In the first half of the 20th century, it was sometimes considered backward by the educated middle classes, but the fabric has come back into vogue among many young Nigerian designers, including Busayo, whom I profiled last year.

Designed by Kofi Ansah, Ashley Shaw-Scott Adjaye and David Adjaye wedding sets; Ghana, 2014 [Photo: Robert Fairer/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Kente

This fabric is associated with the Asante people of south-central Ghana. It is made by looms that bring together narrow strips of fabric to create a strip of fabric wide enough to wrap around a person’s body. The fabrics contain intricate geometric patterns that sometimes tell stories, depicting birds, people and insects.

Design by Chris Seydou [Photo: © Nabil Zorkot/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Bògòlanfini

This fabric is made by the people of Mali and Burkina Faso, and is particularly associated with the towns and villages of Beledougo. It consists of hundreds of strips which are woven and dyed together to create garments. Experts aren’t sure when it was first developed, but evidence dates back to the 11th century, when the fabric was used to make tunics for hunters and warriors, and capes for teenage girls and women. These clothes are worn during important moments in a person’s life, including marriage, childbirth and burial.

Alchemy Collection, Thebe Magugu, Johannesburg, South Africa, Fall/Winter 2021 [Image: Tatenda Chidora (Photo)/Chloe Andrea Welgemoed (Styling & Set)/Sio (Model)/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Gender-fluid fashion is in vogue

As I have written before, many countries in Africa tend to have conservative views on gender and sexuality. But there are also a number of designers who are using fashion to push back against these prospects. Nigerian designer Adebayo Oke-Lawal, for example, launched the Orange Culture brand ten years ago with the aim of creating a space for people like himself who don’t want to be restricted by traditional culture.

While blue is often considered a “masculine” color in the West, Oke-Lawal finds himself drawn to orange, which sits opposite blue on the color wheel. Orange Culture’s clothing is gender-specific and androgynous. Men’s fashion includes tailored pink suits and see-through dresses; women’s clothing includes oversized and boxy blazers. Everything is designed to reveal how arbitrary and socially constructed our notions of gender and sexuality are.

Here in the United States, Telfar Clemens, originally from Liberia, is doing similar work. He seeks to push traditional gender norms by creating unisex clothing. Her latest Telfar collection features asymmetrical one-shoulder tops in pink and orange, which are worn by both male and female models. And her signature handbags are worn by people of both genders.

Kofi Ansah “Indigo” Couture 1997, Narh & Linda [Photo: © 1997 Eric Don- Arthur/courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

Durability is paramount

For decades, Africa has been the dumping ground for fashion waste from Europe and the United States. When Western consumers donate clothes to charities like Goodwill, more than 80% of them are unsalable and shipped to countries in Africa to be resold. But ultimately, much of it ends up in landfills in those countries.

Africans have long seen the scale of fashion waste around the world, and it informs how a new generation of designers operate. Take Kofi Ansah, a Ghanaian designer who was born in 1951 and died in 2014. Ten years ago he created collections for Saks Fifth Avenue and retailers in Milan, but he also focused on manufacturing in a way that does not create waste.

He founded a weaving center, encouraging young people to create textiles locally in small factories that produced products on demand rather than relying on the global fashion supply chain, which generates a lot of waste. Many of today’s young designers are following in his footsteps. Busayo, for example, has opened a small factory in Nigeria, creating clothes in small batches, to ensure there is no overproduction.