African prints, what will happen when the trend is over?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013




Stella Jean AW12 pieces.  Stella Jean is a Haitian Italian designer who is causing a quiet storm in Europe with her consistent use of bold ''African'' prints. 

This post was unplanned, I was going through some images I collected on the internet in the past couple of weeks and came across these ones from Stella Jean's Winter12 collection.  I remembered a Skype conversation I had with a friend of mine in the US last week and thought, hey here's a topic that people might find interesting.  

I work in fashion. I work with designers in South Africa selling and promoting their clothes at Mememe in Joburg, I write about designers that people need to hear about on my blog, I sell at pop ups and am constantly looking for new opportunities to help spread the word about local and African designers.  I don't do it as well as say, this website www.heritage1960.com but I try. I am fortunate to deal with customers and kind of know what people want to wear.  

Judging by the current ubiquity of the so called ''African wax print'', a name I often times struggle to use because, well, the prints are not always wax prints but I have not come across a general name that describes the fabrics that are considered to ''look African''.  Anyway, this is not about that, let's just call a spade a spade.  We've stocked some designers at the shop that make clothing with ''African'' prints and while we have sold some of this clothing because it's beautiful, it has not exactly been flying off the rails.  I've seen some stylish people who can pull off a ''bold'' look wear designers like Loin Cloth and Ashes and Hunadi, who both cleverly use these prints and I can see how popular labels like Babatunde and Maria McCloy are becoming because of their use of these fabrics in their accessories. [In fairness, Loin Cloth and Ashes and Hunadi use a range of different fabrics, not only African prints] But if you look at the increasing number of African designers who work with these fabrics, one wonders two things.

The first is, who are we making these clothes for? Are we making them for ourselves or for the rest of the world to look African?  I ask this because the clothes are not nearly selling as fast as the catwalks and magazine features suggest.  The people that are buying them are the trendy ones who aren't afraid to wear them or ones that are going to a traditional wedding or some or other special event.  I know this because this is what people say.  I wonder what general women think of these fabrics, are they nice to look at and admire but too much to pull off? Is it a case of designers expressing their pride in Africa, a pride that patrons are not ready to wear on their sleeves? 

The second thing I wonder is, are we going to move on from this beautiful, yet limiting and overly literal approach to expressing our Africanness?  These items are a nice to have but they are the stand out pieces, people don't dress like this every day. Or should they? Are the runways paying lip service to a pride we should have about ourselves?  What will happen next season when the trend has petered out?

That said, there is solace in the direction that African designers like Maki Oh and Sindiso Khumalo are taking in terms of expressing their African roots.  They make ready to wear clothing, clothing that can live in people's everyday style all over the world. They make clothing that is nuanced in Africanness but is not defined by its Africanness and that, I think is how we should be selling our continent. The colour, soul and texture of Africa's beat is inimitable and should be banked on, but perhaps it's time to stop resting on our printed laurels.  

A look from Maki Oh SS13 Collection 
A look from Sindiso Khumalo's SS13 Collection

6 comments:

Aileen said...

Great post and food for thought. Now being half Ghanaian i know that in West Africa people DO wear 'African' prints every day. There you refer to them by their name i.e. batics, Holland Prints (as actually and sadly many of the prints are produced in Holland and lately China) or Kente. I have also noticed an increase of younger 'trendy' folk getting 'modern' cuts made in traditional prints. But i remember that 6 years ago while in London 'tribal prints' as politically incorrectly referred to, were all the rage. So maybe that indicates that it is not just a fly by trend? Secondly you are right, is there maybe a way of creating 'every day' wear that one would be 'bold' enough to wear to the office? there is plenty of prints that are not so 'bold' but still beautiful. Funnily enough, for many people i know here in the EC the rest of the continent is as much of a black hole as it is for someone from the french alps, no matter how pretty the print. Come visit soon, i need some stimulation :)

Aileen

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Ms. Overproof said...

I am in NY and read your blog often and my take is that the pieces that I would wear (traditional prints fashioned in modern designs) are out of the price rage of the average person and stuff that is are tacky knock offs that fall apart after one wear.

The price point for me is a big driving factor on whether or not to buy

Creative Soul said...

I think in South Africa African prints are considered a trend,whereas the rest of Africa wear them every day,which is evident when you walk the streets of Hillbrow, Yeoville, Berea and the Johannesburg city centre where many of our African brothers and sistaz reside. So my thoughts are even if it dies to the rest of the world, in Africa it will continue to be an everyday wear as it was before. What also makes it a trend, I think, it mostly has to do with the design or pattern.

So when the trend dies to the rest of the world,I really pray and hope that designers such as Babatunde, Loin Cloth and Ashes and many others will continue to produce fantastic and trending clothes and accessories using the African prints, because as african people we will never stop loving these prints, but will forever exploring innovative ways to utilise them and support these designers by purchasing their works so that they continue producing more "Made in Africa" goods.

muguet said...

I am in northern Germany and have questioned this myself already!
I just could say that I can see this trend here but hardly in the streets and if on young fashion addicted black kids. But I have some people around me who are in fashion as well and do some adorable stuff.
Check out Bisi-B-Creations (facebook), a South African friend of mine doing dance inspired unique pieces.
And another woman, Ghanaian origin, I met on a street market who manufactures her designs in Ghana but sells them mostly in southern Germany. What is interesting about her is that she makes 'Dirndl' a very traditional Bavarian/southern German dress out of African print fabrics! She told me she sells them well down there but I'm not into Dirndl so bought a fancy bold modern summer jumpsuit from her!

I would say that this trend would hit the masses worldwide if H&M picked it up and at the very same moment I don't want this to happen.
I wish this runway trend could work as an invitation to the world to look closer to the African creative scene but to built on the wax-prints won't work for them in the long run. I want young African designers to be honored for their very own creative work, not like putting an 'African-wax-print-stamp' on them. This makes it just another ethno chic trend.
There is another thing I stumbled over called Africa Fashion Day Berlin (facebook) they created a brand new platform to support African designers at Berlin fashion week.
But in those actions I can't help feeling somehow a taste of development aid though but well support is support attention is a start.......

So I see African creations do spread around the world and there is a change about publications and attention which hopefully lasts and grows!

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