/ 3 April 2009

From Obama America to Runway Africa

In an excerpt from the SA Fashion Week catalogue American academic Victoria L Rovine discusses the world’s perception of African fashion

Two fashioned Africas have lately been colliding on runways in the United States and in the pages of our style magazines. And it’s about time they confronted each other.

Two quotations appeared nearly simultaneously in the pages of the American newspaper of record, both addressing the presence of Africa in American fashion markets. On February 14 The New York Times ran a story by Guy Trebay about a newly formed African Fashion Collective whose recent show dispelled some of the “hoary clichés that cling to a continent as obscure as ever — in some ways, to the West”. And in a recent New York Times Style magazine writer Suzy Menkes wondered: “Is the current design passion for Africa a recognition of Barack Obama’s roots?”

The two quotes are worlds apart in their implications. The first, and more prominent, of the fashioned Africas is the imagined continent, signalled on the runway by forms that add a tinge of the exotic to mainstream Western styles of dress. In her discussion of fashion’s Obama effect, Suzy Menkes identifies the “feathered sandals, tribal carvings on shoe heels, burnt-earth and blue-green Limpopo River colours” as evidence of Africa’s presence on the runways.

What, one might ask, do such representations of Africa by Christian Dior and others have to do with African lives? And what is the motivation for this fashioned Africa, so distant from the cultures that are its ostensible sources of inspiration? But first, what of the other Africa on American and European runways?

The feathers and tribal carvings Menkes describes rarely appear in the other fashioned Africa, the one that is actually created by Africans. The diverse styles that constitute this version of the continent reflect the tastes and the imaginations of African designers in a wide range of markets. These dress innovations offer very different visions of what it is to be African.

The second quotation above is drawn from Guy Trebay’s description of the first New York Fashion Week runway show devoted to African designers. The African Design Collective presented the spring ready-to-wear collections of four designers (Xuly Bët, Stoned Cherrie, Momo and Tiffany Amber) and it incorporated no references to the Africa of tribal carvings and feathered fringes. These designers’ work, like that of designers the world over, reflects their complicated, globalised experiences.

Images, influences and ideas from a range of cultures and sub-cultures inform their designs — Xuly Bët presented funky, grunge-influenced garments, whereas Stoned Cherrie’s sharply tailored garments hearken back to the urban chic of the 1940s and 1950s, whether in Johannesburg or in New York City. These designers don’t incorporate forms that signify Africa, though they create African fashion.

The highlight of the show was in fact an appearance by an icon of African heritage that is not African. Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer whose collaborations with photographer Jean-Paul Goude toyed with her “exotic” identity, appeared on the runway wearing Xuly Bët designs to explosive applause. She might be viewed as the embodiment of both fashioned Africas.

Since the early 20th century European and American designers have been inspired by Africa or, more accurately, by their ideas about Africa. Making use of patterns, material and product names inspired by Africa, designers from Paul Poiret and Yves Saint Laurent to Jean-Paul Gaultier and Louis Vuitton have drawn from the continent in their quest for the new.

Yet Africa’s representation in Western popular culture has long depended on its association with the amorphous yet powerful notion of “tradition”, a concept that may be attached to particular practices, styles, cultures or even continents.

Part of the characterisation of Africa’s cultures as “traditional” is a focus on continuity with the past to the exclusion of engagement with African cultures in the present. Scholars from numerous disciplines have observed that merely identifying some styles and forms as “traditional” creates a frozen moment from which all later developments will be measured, a distortion of reality that creates distance and reinforces the “exotic”. Observations of changing styles of dress in non-Western cultures are often held up as evidence of the demise of “tradition” in the face of overwhelming “modernity”.

Despite the construction of Africa as traditional and African dress as exotic, as far too much American popular culture asserts, the African fashion presented at New York Fashion Week offers a challenge and a chance to finally put old misconceptions to rest.

The African Design Collective demonstrates that there is no such thing as African fashion — there is only fashion by African designers. For many here in the US, the Barack Obama era offers a much-delayed opportunity to gain insights into the complexities of African identities. And fashion just might lead the way.

This is an edited version of an essay that appears in a new catalogue titled Nine Takes, about collaboration between fashion designers and crafters, published to coincide with the Sanlam South African Fashion Week, which takes place at Turbine Hall in Newtown from April 2 to 4. For schedules and details got to www.sanlamsafashionweek.co.za.

Victoria L Rovine is a professor at the school of art and art history in the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida