/ 19 September 2009

New York’s African catwalk

New York is arguably the most glamorous city in the world.

It is draped in lights and gorgeous, carefully coiffed girls and guys are its living accessories, whether serving pizza behind a counter, playing doorman at a hotel or striding across streets with names such as West 65th.

But during New York Fashion Week, the voltage is turned up exponentially and its beautiful denizens seem thicker on the ground.
In the city to attend the Arise Promise of Africa Collective 2010 Spring Show, sponsored by Arise magazine, the Mail & Guardian quickly learned that the patina of glamour rides on the solid brass of hard work. Here, details are fine-tuned to within an inch of appearing on the catwalk.

My first inkling of this was at the crew’s temporary headquarters, on the 11th floor of a building on Broadway. Close to the city’s historic garment district, in a series of egg-yolk yellow rooms, designers Lisa Fola­wiyo, Folake Folarin-Coker, Eric Raisina and David Tlale put together the final elements of their collections.

Panic was surpassed by a glassy-eyed determination to simply get through the final stretch before the show.

For some, last-minute changes to the models in their line-up meant almost entirely new pieces had to be sewn on the spot. For others, garments needed to be taken in or adjusted to fit the waif-like creatures who would wear them.

Arise had landed the likes of Oluchi, the aptly named Chanel Iman and the lean, chiselled-featured Tyson Beckford to carry off the clothes.

Lisa Folawiyo’s collection hung beside seamstresses whirring away at sewing machines. Her signature Ankarra fabric, embellished with hand-sewn beads and crystals, was cut into chic modern lines — forming clean suits, bright cocktail dresses and sleek mini-skirts.

Folawiyo worked with her vision of the ”New York girl”, ”from Soho to Fifth Avenue”, as her muse.

With all of the United States’s modernity and life, it is ”still quite conservative in a way”, she said. The colour and vibrancy of the fabric is a ”big step” for the fashion elite.

Folarin-Coker used a print from a painting by her favourite Nigerian artist, Kolade Oshinowa, to create a number of her voluminous, feminine dresses and kaftans. A second-timer in New York, she was less concerned with meeting the dictates of the market and more concerned with establishing herself as an African lifestyle brand.

”The first time [I exhibited in New York] I went outside my comfort zone to cater for the New York market, but this time I’m more focused on what I want,” she said. ”There is a huge market in Africa. It would be more difficult for me to come into this market than it would be for me to cater for the African market.”

Her refreshing attitude has kept her focused on countries such as her native Nigeria, reputedly the largest consumer market in Africa, where she has four outlets.

For home-grown David Tlale, though, showcasing his brand on a global stage was important. ”Where we are at right now is about how we want to be defined by the world and the fashion industry,” he said.

Tlale carried African detail, such as a belt of polished Nguni cattle horn, on chic silhouettes in solid colours of black, cream and grey.

The designer’s work continued into eve of the show, with Tlale sewing the final touches on a garment backstage while simultaneously talking into the glare of TV cameras as celebrities and press began to congregate.

The drizzling, muggy New York weather did not stop the likes of musicians Sean Paul and Amerie turning up to face the armada of photographers.

The venue was packed. Even standing room was a rare commodity, assigned, just as seats were, to the lucky few who made it past the clipboard Nazis stationed at almost every doorway.

Sounds of the jungle, both bird and animal, clicked and whooped over the loudspeakers and over the crush of the crowd, until, in a crescendo of lights and music, the first model walked out.

All the trends were in evidence — towering stilettos, severe shoulders, short skirts and voluminous maxi-dresses. Piece after piece on beautiful model after beautiful model appeared, each as different as the designers who created them and the countries they hailed from.

This was the second show hosted by Arise magazine at New York Fashion Week — the first was hosted earlier in the year ahead of the autumn show. Then, as now, fashion was dictated by an insular West, which occasionally borrows influences from the rest of the world.

Although African designers have stirred interest in this realm, whether they can maintain it remains to be seen. Africa in fashion is still a highly political space — and rightly so.

But the key to this dilemma, perhaps, was in the evidence on the ramp.

The designs and designers were deeply, delightfully different, yet spoke to a global aesthetic, which could be worn in Milan, Tokyo or Antananarivo alike. The recognition of this diversity is a bridge for Western observers towards African designers, while its exploitation is a way for designers to find their place in a realm plastered over with a stale, old-world glamour.

But for these emerging young designers, their work is far from over. They received their standing ovation from the crowd.

Publications such as Women’s Wear Daily have eyeballed at least one collection, naming the Jewel by Lisa (Folawiyo) range the best example of combining a ”strong African aesthetic with urban chic”.

Now the trick will be to raise that glamour bar and demand that heads keep turning their way.

  • The M&G travelled to New York as a guest of Arise magazine. This was not declared in the print version of the article. We regret the error.


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