African Fashion Design: Global Networks and Local Styles (1)

By Victoria L. Rovine

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Africa is home to some of the world’s most dramatic dress practices, including textiles, jewelry, coiffures, and apparently infinite combinations of all of these elements. These include embroidered boubous and intricately woven strip cloth in West Africa, richly beaded blankets in southern Africa, and vibrantly patterned kangas in the east-some of the most famous of African adornments. In popular imagination, both in Africa and elsewhere, such garments often represent African culture. All are in fact the result of global interactions and historical change; in short, they are part of fashion systems. Boubous traveled south from north Africa along with Muslim religious, political, and economic influence; seventeenth century kente weavers unraveled Italian silks to incorporate them into their new cloths; beginning in the sixteenth century, Portuguese, British, and Dutch traders found highly discerning markets for their beads and blankets in southern Africa; and kangas are the product of centuries-old exchanges across the Indian Ocean. Like all fashion, then, these garments are the result of changing influences, shifting tastes, and new markets. An examination of clothing and its contexts, therefore, provides insights into local identities and global markets, creativity and tradition, the movement of styles, and the reshaping of meanings.
Africa’s rich fashion culture continues into the present, manifested in a wide array of markets and forms. Africa is home to numerous contemporary designers, some of whom take part in international fashion networks, while others work primarily in local markets. All draw from a wide array of inspirations to meet the demands of their markets, some working in distinctively local styles and others drawing from international fashion trends. Contemporary African fashion design is receiving increased attention in both academic and commercial realms; like contemporary African art, the continent’s fashion production is on the cutting edge of both scholarly research and popular.
A small but growing literature has begun to address the work of Africa’s haute couture fashion designers, including van der Plas and Willemsen (1998), Revue Noire (1997), Mendy-Ongoundou (2002), Mustafa (2002), (add: L’Afrique C’est Chic), and Rovine (2004). Other recent work has explored specific local markets for clothing design in Africa, revealing the degree to which these practices reflect creative change over time. This analysis of local design practices is exemplified by Rabine (2002), Bastian (1996), Gondola (1999), Hansen (2000), Picton (1995), Renne (1995), Rovine (2001), and Perani and Wolf (1999). All demonstrate the complexity of local fashion production, many exploring the diverse aesthetic, economic, social, and political forces at work in the production and marketing of changing styles.
The manifestations of African style in global fashion markets reflect diverse relationships to African cultures and realities, for African fashion appears in the global, Western-dominated realm of haute couture as well as in indigenous fashion economies, where designers may draw from international styles yet remain distinctly local. Fashion is difficult to define in a global context, for it is usually associated with a particular market for modern, Western garments, beginning in mid-nineteenth Paris and since then centered in that city, in Milan, and in New York. Africa, and other non-Western sites, have long been absent from this conception of fashion, except as an occasional source of inspiration for Western designers. As Neissen has asserted, a reassessment of this conception of fashion is long overdue: « A great divide between the studies of Western fashion/clothing processes and the universal phenomenon of dress/adornment still obtains. As a result, global dress events of profound implication for fashion theory are kept either hidden or barred from scrutiny. » (Neissen 2003b: 250)
The conception of time is central in this division between Western and non-Western dress practices, epitomized by the all too prevalent discussion of non-Western dress in terms of an « ethnographic present » as opposed to the « perpetual future » associated with Western fashion’s constant rush to the next season. In but one recent example of this tendency, a reporter for the New York Times breezily noted the absence of changing dress styles in one rural Kenyan community, where British scouts for a modeling agency were looking for likely prospects: « Orma girls grow up wearing flip-flops, not heels. Their fashion is the same every season: colorful robes that billow with the breeze and shield virtually every bit of flesh. » (Lacey 2003: 2) By declaring their dress to be unchanging, this reporter implicitly excludes Orma attire from the realm of fashion. Yet Joanne Eicher, whose research on African dress practices has been in the forefront of non-Western fashion studies, notes: « Fashion is, after all, about change, and change happens in every culture because human beings are creative and flexible. » (Eicher 2001: 17) Recognizing the histories and networks out of which change emerges is key to any analysis of fashion, placing garments within the contexts that transform them from clothing into fashion.
That African dress has changed over time is clearly evident. The Western influence on African clothing has been well documented, and often characterized as a « loss » of Africa’s traditional cultures in the face of overpowering Westernization or Globalization (the two terms are often used interchangeably). A clear example of this rhetoric of loss can be found in Angela Fisher’s immensely popular and lavishly illustrated book, Africa Adorned. Over the course of her many visits to Africa, she noted the disappearance of « some outstanding styles of jewelry and dress, » and she found that groups whose « cultural and moral framework is still strong » were able to resist transformation from traditional to Western dress.(Fisher 1984: 9-10) While certainly the drive to colonize and convert Africans led to coerced or forced adoption of Western clothing, the presumption that the presence of Western styles in Africa today often constitutes a creative adaptation rather than a capitulation. By exploring the movement of clothing forms between African and Western cultures-exchanges that flow in both directions-studies of African fashion demonstrate the inadequacy of the « change as loss » model. Many of the styles of clothing that are produced in Africa’s highly internationalized urban centers draw from diverse sources, enriching rather than impoverishing their distinctly African styles. As is the case everywhere, African designers and consumers draw forms and styles from outside their immediate orbit, making these forms their own. As Hendrickson notes, the identities associated with clothing may shift as garments and styles travel: « When we see Africans using our products to create their identities-and vice versa-we learn that the meaning of body or commodity is not inherent but is in fact symbolically created and contested by both producers and consumers. » (2)
African Fashion/Africa as Fashion
An examination of Africa’s role in fashion production is particularly timely, for with the new millennium the continent is remarkably prominent in the realms of fashion design and marketing. Suzy Menkes-arguably fashion’s most widely read journalist-recently published a piece in the New York Times Style Magazine entitled « Next Stop, Africa. »In it, she predicts that global fashion markets are on the verge of creating « a fashion first: a popular movement that sees the beauty and craft in sub-Saharan Africa. » (Menkes 2005: 60) In the past five years, references to Africa have appeared in haute couture collections on major European and North American runways. Africa seems to be the muse du jour for a wide array of designers, including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Donna Karan, Kenzo, and Dolce and Gabbana.
While Africa’s profile in international fashion circles has been heightened by its appearance as a source of inspiration for Western designers, the many African designers who are themselves engaged in innovative transformations of African style have historically received little attention in the international fashion press. Their work emerges out of a long history of fashion in Africa, a continent whose styles of dress provide insights into both ancient cultures and the latest global fashion trends. Many African designers today create garments that make reference to or borrow from local clothing practices, often melding these forms with international influences. Their work spans diverse markets, from the seasonal runways of international haute couture to local markets, where garments reflect swiftly changing local styles.
Fashion: Indigenous Everywhere
In her 2004 survey of current anthropological analysis of dress, Karen Hansen noted that recent scholarship in a variety of academic venues « demonstrates that fashion no longer is an exclusive property of the West » (Hansen 2004: 370). Much of the attention to non-Western fashion in academic circles has been centered on Asia, which has been a source of « exotic » inspiration for Westerners (much like Africa) as well as a producer of internationally renowned fashion designers (unlike Africa). As Lisa Skov notes, Japan in particular was the first non-Western player in the rarified realm of haute couture: « the 1980s was the first period when non-Western fashion designers came to influence mainstream fashion, when Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo, along with a series of other Japanese designers, proved themselves to be the leading fashion innovators of the world. » (Skov 2003: 216)
Two recent publications provided rich insights into the intersections of traditional and contemporary impulses in Asian fashion cultures, important precedents for the analyses of African fashion. China Chic: East Meets West (Steele and Major 1999) focused on multiple dimensions of Chinese fashion-historical styles, the absorption of new influences, revivals of historical styles, and the internationalization of those styles. Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalization of Asian Dress (Niessen, Leshkowich, Jones, eds. 2003) explores contemporary Asian garments as symbols of local identities, diaspora communities, and international chic. While African and Asian fashion systems have in common only their mutual « otherness » for the Western-dominated international fashion industry, the study of clothing design in both realms vividly demonstrates that fashion is not « indigenous » only to Western cultures.

1. Adapted from the introduction to an upcoming special issue of Fashion Theory on African fashion design.
Research on African fashion supported by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study Center, the Getty Foundation’s Curatorial Research Grant program, the University of Iowa (Arts and Humanities Initiative and International Programs), the University of Florida’s Transnational and Global Studies Center, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
2. Hildi Hendrickson « Introduction » in Hendrickson: 2. (pp: 1-16)
Victoria Ravine is Assistant Professor of the School of Art and Art History, Center for African Studies, University of Florida

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