Photos by Nneka Salmon
Fashion and cultural appropriation are more than passing acquaintances. The latter, which is typically bandied about with terms like “borrowing” or “inspired by,” refers to the unauthorized adoption of elements from another, often minority, ethnic group. The issue came to a head in February when the Navajo Nation sent Urban Outfitters a cease-and-desist letter demanding the removal of the “Navajo” trademark from than 20 of the retailer’s products, including “hipster” panties and liquor flasks, both of which the tribe deemed “derogatory and scandalous,” But the sovereign Indian Nation isn’t the first culture to be gobbled up and regurgitated under the catchall—and woefully non-specific—”tribal” heading, nor will it be the last. With Africa’s sartorial influence on the ascent, one question begs to be asked: Should the practice be lauded as diversifying fashion or is it just a different form of post-colonial exploitation?
The topic was among several discussed “Design Africa,” a panel held at Soho House in New York City on Thursday. Hosted by Topaz Paige-Green, founder and director of the Lunchbox Fund, and moderated by Essence editor-in-chief Constance White, the event wrangled opinions from the likes of Nadiyah Bradshaw, head of production at Suno; Enyinne Owunwanne, founder of Heritage1960; Yodit Eklund, founder and designer of Bantu Swimwear; and Scott Mackinlay Hahn of Loomstate and Rogan.
Earlier in the week, the International Herald Tribune penned a piece about “rebranding” the continent.
The dialogue couldn’t have been more timely. Earlier in the week, the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes penned a piece about “rebranding” the continent. Italian Vogue event dedicated this month’s menswear issue to black creativity, beauty, and elegance. “All the pictures are made in a glamorous way—there is nothing sad, trashy or poor,” Franca Sozzani, the magazine’s editor, told Menkes. “People may say that Vogue does not want to talk about sickness and poverty, but if we can give an uplifting image, it is helping people who would not have considered Africa at all.”
Raising the perception of Africa beyond conflict and suffering is one thing, but what about designers who reference Africa without pursuing business on the continent? “I think it’s a double-edged sword,” said Owunwanne, who runs the African and African-inspired fashion boutique Heritage1960 out of Nigeria. “It can help spark a conversation, especially brands that have a greater presence to them. Even if the designers don’t necessarily speak about where their influence is coming from, you can tell from their aesthetic.”
Drawing inspiration is one thing, but the failure to manufacture on the continent is a wasted opportunity.
But while this can help contemporize the traditional African aesthetic for a global audience, the failure to take that extra step and bring production to the continent is a wasted opportunity. “You’re always gaining inspiration from somewhere; nothing is new,” Owunwanne admits. “[But] there really needs to be more attention on the craftmsanship of the product and how it can add value to the brand.”