How Can Fashion Create A Better Relationship with Africa?

(L-R) Thakoon F/W 11, Louis Vuiton S/S 12, Thakoon F/W 11

By Guest Contributor Rafael Flores, cross-posted from Fashion Mole

Fashion’s conflicted love affair with Africa is on again. Louis Vuitton featured cobalt and berry Masai prints for its S/S 12 menswear show last June, while Thakoon fused Victorian tailoring with traditional East African patterns for F/W 11. Critics unanimously exalted both collections. Nicole Phelps of Style.com hailed Thakoon’s showing as “his freshest, most alive collection in a while,” and The New York Times Magazine proclaimed Louis Vuitton as the “winner” of Paris Fashion Week for menswear S/S 12, with radiant quotes from SHOWstudio, who hailed the collection as “hugely handsome, confident and clear.”

Sure, the clothes were beautiful, as they tend to be from practiced and esteemed labels like Louis Vuitton and Thakoon. But the use of African aesthetics for the financial and cultural benefit of the West conjures a host of unanswered questions: Is this practice exploitative? What image of Africa does it create in the West? Should designers give back to the communities from which they benefit?

Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907; painting-analysis.blogspot.com)

Africa has served as inspiration in Western fashion and more expansively, Western visual culture, for decades. In 1907, Pablo Picasso painted two women with African masks for his magnum opus Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. More recently, in 1997, John Galliano featured a series of reinterpreted Masai warrior costumes for his debut couture collection at Dior. More than a decade later, for Dior’s S/S 09 show, he styled his models with vase-like hair resembling ancient Congolese head dresses. And in a similar vein, Jean Paul Gaultier used African hunter shields, African carvings, the patterns of Masai beading as the inspiration for his Spring 2005 couture collection.

Fashion critics have largely praised Galliano and Gaultier’s use of African aesthetics in the context of “diversifying fashion.” In a review of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, a retrospective of Gaultier’s work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Robin Givhan of The Daily Beast writes: “Gaultier looks outward at the swirl of life that engulfs him. And he is fully and optimistically engaged with it. Gaultier’s multicultural inspiration, which spans the entire breadth of his career, beginning in 1976, reminds us of the beauty of cultural diversity.”

Looks from Dior Couture '97

As a foil to fashion’s praise for using African aesthetics in Western design, art critics have debated the merits of this practice with more skepticism. Arguably the most famous debate arose in response to a show in 1984 at the New York Museum of Modern Art titled, “‘Primitivism in 20th Century Art,” which sought to elucidate the connection between the work of European artists like Gauguin and Picasso with African “tribal” art. The show’s most aggressive critique came a couple of years later from writer Thomas McEvilley whose piece “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” in Art Forum, sharply criticized the exhibit’s lack of information and context about the tribal objects:

“No attempt is made to recover an emic, or inside, sense of what primitive esthetics really were or are… The point of view of Picasso and others… is the only focus of MOMA’s interest… By their absolute repression of primitive context, meaning, content, and intention… [the curators] have treated the primitives as less than human, less than cultural – as shadows of a culture, their selfhood, the Otherness, wrung out of them.”

The New Yorker summarized this argument: “In other words… people of color don’t exist unless whites say they do – and, even then, they exist only as they are seen by whites.”

A portrait of Senegalese women from the 50s by Senegalese photographer Seydou Keita (via origidij.blogspot.com)

Like the aforementioned MoMA exhibit, fashion shows that reference Africa can seem exploitative due to a lack of real connection to African culture or African people. The image of Africa on runways is almost entirely created by Western design teams that convey a shallow knowledge or appreciation for the communities they are referencing. To counter this, if designers want to utilize African culture in a responsible way, it must rethink the way it interacts with Africa itself.

One way Western designers could convey a deeper appreciation for Africa is by offering adequate historical or cultural context of their designs when they reference aspects of African culture. If Louis Vuitton offered more background information on Masai prints for his S/S 12 show, for example, viewers would have a better idea of what Masai prints signify and how they became so prominent among Masai tribes. The information could be placed in a pamphlet that accompanies the show’s gift bags or sits on each seat in the audience. This, to me, would ameliorate the feeling that the label was exploiting African culture and give the sense that the label was celebrating it.

Another way fashion could start projecting a more respectful perception of Africa is by incorporating African textiles into their designs. Today, most African-print textiles are manufactured in Europe or Asia – they’re African-inspired, not African. As writer Maya Lau suggests in a Huffington Post piece entitled Senegal’s Accidental Hipsters, the African textile industry is largely foundering in countries like Senegal. Investment in textiles from these countries would 1) feed into the local economy 2) maintain traditional, or at least local, ways of producing textiles, and 3) cultivate a more human relationship between Western fashion and Africa. If Western designers continue to use African prints, sourcing fabric from Africa would give both Westerners and Africans monetary benefits (it would be cheap for Western brands to manufacture in Africa and it would power the African economy) as well as social benefits (it would begin a symbiotic relationship between the West and Africa).

Yet another way for Western designers to convey a deeper appreciation for Africa is by giving back to the communities from which they borrow. After using Masai prints for his F/W 11 collection, Thakoon has done just this. According to Thakoon.com, the label will donate all proceeds from a particular Limited Edition Masai Plaid Scarf to an international children’s relief organization working to reduce rates of malnutrition in the Horn of Africa – the area where Masai Tribes are located. The donor-benefactor relationship isn’t ideal; however, it is one way for Thakoon to give back to the community that offered him so much for his latest collection.

The relationship between the West and Africa is long and complicated, and because of this, there are no real answers as to how to create a healthy relationship between Western fashion and Africa. Here, I’ve tried to offer some solutions and have highlighted others that are currently in the works. More than finding the best solution, however, I hope that designers start thinking more critically about their relationship with Africa and the best way for them to face the conflicts inherent in utilizing African designs. This way, at least fashion can begin to celebrate cultural diversity in a way that feels new, thoughtful, and genuine.

  • Tumwine

    Good article.  African culture blends well with popular fashion. I would like to see more African designers getting world wide recognition in the fashion industry, like Oumou sy of Senegal. African culture has been slowly but surely creeping into pop culture. Africa and its talents have a lot to offer, enough with the pessimism tagged to Africa, there should be more optimism. I like the point in this article that the African influence should be credited. When cultures from various walks of life unite, the outcome is mesmeric, inspirational, generational- defining, and the epitome of art form.

     I love this page [link below]. It reveals the untold secrets of Africa’s contribution to popular culture. http://www.discoveringafricanetwork.com/africanculture.html

  • Ain’t I an African

    “…the label will donate all proceeds from a particular Limited Edition Masai Plaid Scarf to an international children’s relief organization working to reduce rates of malnutrition in the Horn of Africa – the area where Masai Tribes are located. ” Actually the Horn of Africa is Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somaliland. The Maasai are in Kenya and Tanzania (part of what is generally referred to as East Africa). So it’s likely that the presumably good intentions won’t directly benefit the communities whose cultures  the fashion houses appropriate. 

  • Devongola

    Seydou Keita, the photographer who took the photo of the two Senegalese (?) women, is actually Malian, not Senegalese. A small point of clarification, but perhaps within the theme of this post of identifying the specificity of African cultural exports.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sloane-Cornelius/100000619650077 Sloane Cornelius

    This video was posted on my Tumblr account and I think it is entirely pertinent to what’s going on here: 

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJeYCP8KMyw&feature=player_embedded‎“Я We Dead Yet? (Cultural Appropriation) (by Sahbi2thesunn)

    “I believe one of the main reasons that black and do not get a long in America is the fact that whites have often stolen, latched on to black american culture with out giving much acclaim to African American people and their way of life. Often African American culture is ridiculed, but at the same time whites take the same culture that they complain about and turn it into a profit or recognize it as something that they created. Most often African American culture becomes a stolen product that African Americans themselves are not allowed to participate in once it reaches or becomes popular among many. For example, We have gone from Marvin Gay to Robin Fick, from Betty Wright to Josh Stone, from Erica Badu to some white woman* talking about going into rehab (Amy Winehouse). What was Soul is now Blue-eyed Soul.My negro frustration with cultural appropriation: the more I notice others taking on Afro-centric cultures, the more watered down our culture becomes in my opinion. The more diluted it becomes, the less importance it becomes in merit and importance.”Listen/watch this video.. it’s awesome!”

    **I can only speak what it’s like to be constantly culturally appropriated as a Native American, so it’s important to get an opinion from a black PoC in this sense**

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sloane-Cornelius/100000619650077 Sloane Cornelius

    This video was posted on my Tumblr account and I think it is entirely pertinent to what’s going on here: 

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJeYCP8KMyw&feature=player_embedded‎“Я We Dead Yet? (Cultural Appropriation) (by Sahbi2thesunn)

    “I believe one of the main reasons that black and do not get a long in America is the fact that whites have often stolen, latched on to black american culture with out giving much acclaim to African American people and their way of life. Often African American culture is ridiculed, but at the same time whites take the same culture that they complain about and turn it into a profit or recognize it as something that they created. Most often African American culture becomes a stolen product that African Americans themselves are not allowed to participate in once it reaches or becomes popular among many. For example, We have gone from Marvin Gay to Robin Fick, from Betty Wright to Josh Stone, from Erica Badu to some white woman* talking about going into rehab (Amy Winehouse). What was Soul is now Blue-eyed Soul.My negro frustration with cultural appropriation: the more I notice others taking on Afro-centric cultures, the more watered down our culture becomes in my opinion. The more diluted it becomes, the less importance it becomes in merit and importance.”Listen/watch this video.. it’s awesome!”

    **I can only speak what it’s like to be constantly culturally appropriated as a Native American, so it’s important to get an opinion from a black PoC in this sense**

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sloane-Cornelius/100000619650077 Sloane Cornelius

    This video was posted on my Tumblr account and I think it is entirely pertinent to what’s going on here: 

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJeYCP8KMyw&feature=player_embedded‎“Я We Dead Yet? (Cultural Appropriation) (by Sahbi2thesunn)

    “I believe one of the main reasons that black and do not get a long in America is the fact that whites have often stolen, latched on to black american culture with out giving much acclaim to African American people and their way of life. Often African American culture is ridiculed, but at the same time whites take the same culture that they complain about and turn it into a profit or recognize it as something that they created. Most often African American culture becomes a stolen product that African Americans themselves are not allowed to participate in once it reaches or becomes popular among many. For example, We have gone from Marvin Gay to Robin Fick, from Betty Wright to Josh Stone, from Erica Badu to some white woman* talking about going into rehab (Amy Winehouse). What was Soul is now Blue-eyed Soul.My negro frustration with cultural appropriation: the more I notice others taking on Afro-centric cultures, the more watered down our culture becomes in my opinion. The more diluted it becomes, the less importance it becomes in merit and importance.”Listen/watch this video.. it’s awesome!”

    **I can only speak what it’s like to be constantly culturally appropriated as a Native American, so it’s important to get an opinion from a black PoC in this sense**

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  • Anonymous

    That would be nice, but they hardly have a good relationship with blacks in the U.S., so I’m not sure how they could possibly get there.  

  • Anonymous

    That would be nice, but they hardly have a good relationship with blacks in the U.S., so I’m not sure how they could possibly get there.  

  • k.eli

    I don’t know. Stories like this scream “cultural imperialism” to me. As another commenter mentioned, the lack of African models actually showcasing the clothes on the runway is very telling. It seems that when it comes to appreciating the varying beauty and style of Africa, Western designers are only willing to go so far and that to me makes such overtures to the continent somewhat disingenuous. There is a burgeoning fashion industry in Africa filled with glamorous fashion shows and native designers showcasing their work. Why don’t they get any mentions by the major fashion magazines? Why is it that such “exotic” looks only get mentioned and praised when they’re created by European designers? That, to me, is the crux of the issue.

  • EinSC

    I’m confused by the photo. Aren’t the three models wearing plaid? Is that red and blue plaid-looking pattern the  African inspiration?

    • Kmahler

      It’s interesting that you should say that, as I initially thought the same thing. However, though we commonly think of plaid-like patterns as a product of the West, these textiles actually bear a much greater resemblance to Masai designs. Google “masai shukka” and you’ll see what I mean. I think this highlights the importance of contextual information being provided when African prints are appropriated by fashion designers.

    • Kmahler

      It’s interesting that you should say that, as I initially thought the same thing. However, though we commonly think of plaid-like patterns as a product of the West, these textiles actually bear a much greater resemblance to Masai designs. Google “masai shukka” and you’ll see what I mean. I think this highlights the importance of contextual information being provided when African prints are appropriated by fashion designers.

      • EinSC

        Thanks, Kmahler,
        I found some Google images. It seems like the color combination is as important as the pattern. If I had seen it in a store I never would have considered it having African origins.  Including that context is extremely important – but I probably would feel uncomfortable buying it knowing that context, because, being white, it would seem like cultural appropriation. Is that wrong?  Seeing something you like in a store, then seeing that historical context and feeling like it would be inappropriate for me to wear it?

      • EinSC

        Thanks, Kmahler,
        I found some Google images. It seems like the color combination is as important as the pattern. If I had seen it in a store I never would have considered it having African origins.  Including that context is extremely important – but I probably would feel uncomfortable buying it knowing that context, because, being white, it would seem like cultural appropriation. Is that wrong?  Seeing something you like in a store, then seeing that historical context and feeling like it would be inappropriate for me to wear it?

      • EinSC

        Thanks, Kmahler,
        I found some Google images. It seems like the color combination is as important as the pattern. If I had seen it in a store I never would have considered it having African origins.  Including that context is extremely important – but I probably would feel uncomfortable buying it knowing that context, because, being white, it would seem like cultural appropriation. Is that wrong?  Seeing something you like in a store, then seeing that historical context and feeling like it would be inappropriate for me to wear it?

      • Anonymous

        And I think your comment very much captures the essence and reason for this post…we are so used to assuming that everything we see is a product of Western ingenuity or Western innovation, and we don’t even know to whom we should give credit for the things that  we see in circulation.  

        But way that the Western fashion world operates, it seems focused on the needs and tastes of a very small and privileged segment of society.  Whether you are behind the scenes or stomping down the runway, it is still largely a world full of the rich, white, and extremely thin.  

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the fashion industry, as a whole, should definitely create tighter relationships and be involved more in local communities across the entire African continent. I can see nothing but benefit, for both sides, from a responsible dialogue and sharing of ideas, culture and history (local culture information packs in the goodie bags is a fantastic idea, by the way).

    What I disagree with, and perhaps I have completely misinterpreted the piece — my brain can do that, is the suggestion that the fashion industry should owe the source of its inspiration a debt…for simply being inspired, as if somehow culture is only to be reflected, and incorporated into designs by, only those who originate from that culture itself, otherwise it’s some kind of theft.

    Everything in art — everything — has come from the inspiration of Other. We do not exist in a void. I personally do not view creation from inspiration thanks to Other as exploitation — it is the most natural and basic aspect of artistic creation. If the local community was creating the actual physical materials to be used in the show, and not being paid for their rich efforts, then yes, I would completely agree but the visual style of an entire culture is, I would personally argue, something that exists beyond some sort of moral copyright.

    It’s not akin to a corporate property, only to be used upon permission.

    I believe that the fashion industry should be heavily involved in Africa not because their work amounts to some kind of identity theft, but because it is the right thing to do, on every front.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the fashion industry, as a whole, should definitely create tighter relationships and be involved more in local communities across the entire African continent. I can see nothing but benefit, for both sides, from a responsible dialogue and sharing of ideas, culture and history (local culture information packs in the goodie bags is a fantastic idea, by the way).

    What I disagree with, and perhaps I have completely misinterpreted the piece — my brain can do that, is the suggestion that the fashion industry should owe the source of its inspiration a debt…for simply being inspired, as if somehow culture is only to be reflected, and incorporated into designs by, only those who originate from that culture itself, otherwise it’s some kind of theft.

    Everything in art — everything — has come from the inspiration of Other. We do not exist in a void. I personally do not view creation from inspiration thanks to Other as exploitation — it is the most natural and basic aspect of artistic creation. If the local community was creating the actual physical materials to be used in the show, and not being paid for their rich efforts, then yes, I would completely agree but the visual style of an entire culture is, I would personally argue, something that exists beyond some sort of moral copyright.

    It’s not akin to a corporate property, only to be used upon permission.

    I believe that the fashion industry should be heavily involved in Africa not because their work amounts to some kind of identity theft, but because it is the right thing to do, on every front.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Donovan

    There are lots of African Fashion designers. Many countries in Africa have their own fashion shows and scene– why can’t they just hire some of the people when they want “african” looks?  They could hire this young woman who has the most awesome fashion blog (I love her posts, and get tons of ideas from it)  http://www.nanciemwai.com/2011/09/what-i-wore-colour-outbursts.html  that’s just an example take a look at MIMI magazine to find more:   http://www.mimimagazine.com/MIMI_Magazine/MIMI_Magazine___Soul_Substance_Style__A_Voice_For_African_Women.html

    I’m all for buying textiles, but there is no reason why the designers themselves couldn’t be African too.

  • Heatherleila

    Another way designers could show respect is to include models of color in their shows. And not just a token model either. If Africa was such an inspiration, why aren´t designers feeling more inspired to hire more diverse models.

    If designers did buy their textiles directly from African countries, they would have to be careful not to upset the economy for the people who live their. I could just see someone coming in and buying up a large share of capulanas and kangas and raising the prices beyond what the local community could afford. That wouldn´t be good either.