What Makes Something "African?"

Posted by Beverly Lwenya on

2012 is the year for African fashion, and the web is taking note. Fashion houses are embracing the "Tribal" trend and fueling discussion online about everything from who benefits, to how beautiful the interpretations are. Some are even blurring the line between creativity and "sampling". A good example of this trend is the new Spring/Summer 2012 line by Burberry Prorsum. I recently came across some items from the collection and pondered if my eyes were deceiving me or if they did, in fact, have a distinct "African" aesthetic. With a bit of research I learned that the pieces were in fact, African inspired and according to Vogue Magazine "The fabric, is reminiscent of the wax-print technique used in Ghana".

The Burberry items like this beaded parka, or this one, (both going for a cool $2,459 and not a penny less) amazed me at how they captured the "Africaness" of the print yet conventionalized it enough to be in a Burberry collection. So too, did the matching trench coat with "electric print" going for almost $3,000. So then, what makes something "African?" I suspect it probably has something to do with color, and a lot to do with print. If you get both right, you get an "African look".  African print comes in every color, but generally falls either in the earth tone category, with every shade of brown and tan, to bright, bold colors, especially reds, greens and yellows (just look at our national flags). African designers from long ago must have realized that bright colors look good on dark skin.

With the increased mainstreaming of African fashion, comes opportunities for great commentary but also unfortunate editorial mistakes, like the colossally bad pieces by French Elle and Jackie Dutch Fashion Magazine on black fashion. So is this "Tribal" trend good or bad? Who knows, but it wouldn't be the first time something African has been used for windfall profits that don't necessarily make their way back into the continent. On the other hand, fashion is a business with margins and bottom lines, so profits need not surprise us. If the best thing to come out of the trend is an increased appreciation of African creativity and exposure for African designers, then more power to it.