/ 20 June 2009

Identity complexity

Aloye Adede’s label Eyola. Photograph: Paul Botes
Aloye Adede’s label Eyola. Photograph: Paul Botes

‘There is no such thing as African fashion — there is only fashion by African designers.”

The Arise Africa Fashion Week, on at the Sandton Convention centre this week, is, if anything, an embodiment of these words by American academic Victoria L Rovine.

It is fashion that unites an array of individuals from across 20 African countries. There’s Aloye Adede, Nigerian by descent, but raised and based in London. There’s Olivia Kennaway and Alice Heussen of Lalesso — two blonde girls with boarding school accents and a concession in UK retailer TopShop for their Kenyan-created clothes. There’s also attorney-turned-designer Lisa Folawiyo from Lagos and South Africa’s own Heni Este-hijzen.

The international fashion industry’s relationship with Africa and its diverse inhabitants has long been a painfully ambivalent one. It occasionally shows signs of coming down with a rash of ”African” trends — Louis Vuitton’s Spicy sandals bearing African-like masks, animal print and beading, for instance.

But as so often happens when the sophisticates of international fashion houses take inspiration from the continent, it is a large lump of source material translated through Western perceptions.

South Africa’s designers constantly battle with the question: what makes them distinctly South African? They must walk the elusive line between creating clothes that appeal to Western sensibilities without being derivative, or outright plagiarists, of established European or American fashion houses and create clothes that bear testament to their cultural heritage, without being labelled costume-makers or creators of tribal wear.

Many loathe being asked to define their African identity, wanting simply to be seen as designers. Few succeed in striking a balance. Added to their burden is the fact that to the global fashion industry they remain a mere blip on the screen.

Collections at the current event show there is a great deal happening across the continent that is relevant and commercially viable, even if in many African countries a globally competitive fashion industry is in its infancy.

Nigerian labels, such as Jewel by Lisa, work of designer Lisa Folawiyo and the ”ankara and beads” collection by Ituen Basi use ankara fabric in different ways to create some chic accessible items. Ankara itself has its roots in Dutch wax-print fabrics, which the likes of Vlisco design.

Adede’s label, Eyola, meanwhile was vastly different. Her fascination with and reworking of Victorian design elements seems counter- intuitive, the era being synonymous with colonialism. But it is attention to detail and the era’s use of ”intricate tailoring” that interests Adede.

Whether the event will be a success remains to be seen. It is facing recession fallout and competing with the Confederations Cup for public attention. Seats at the shows have been disconcertingly empty, and designers have no boutique area to sell their garments, which is unfortunate to say the least.

The week will end on a high note with the announcement of the Arise Africa Fashion Award. The winner will be given the opportunity to showcase in September at New York Fashion Week. For schedules and details go to www.africanfashioninternational.com.