Gallery: Is the African-Inspired Fashi...

Design Africa, Africa, Loomstate, Suno, EDUN, Barneys New York, Barneys, Julie Gilhart, Ali Hewson, Scott Mackinlay Hahn, Bantu Swimwear, Tomoko Ogura, Yodit Eklund, Nadiyah Spencer, Enyinne Owunwanne, Heritage1960, Constance White, Essence, Bridget Russo, Passion Projects, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

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?

Design Africa, Africa, Loomstate, Suno, EDUN, Barneys New York, Barneys, Julie Gilhart, Ali Hewson, Scott Mackinlay Hahn, Bantu Swimwear, Tomoko Ogura, Yodit Eklund, Nadiyah Spencer, Enyinne Owunwanne, Heritage1960, Constance White, Essence, Bridget Russo, Passion Projects, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

DESIGN AFRICA

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.”

Design Africa, Africa, Loomstate, Suno, EDUN, Barneys New York, Barneys, Julie Gilhart, Ali Hewson, Scott Mackinlay Hahn, Bantu Swimwear, Tomoko Ogura, Yodit Eklund, Nadiyah Spencer, Enyinne Owunwanne, Heritage1960, Constance White, Essence, Bridget Russo, Passion Projects, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

GLOBAL INFLUENCE

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.”

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One Response to “Is the African-Inspired Fashion Trend a Form of Cultural Imperialism?”

  1. Huarache Blog (@Huarache Blog) says:

    Cultural mining is nothing new, for example traditional English fashion and the Preppy American style have in time been copied by most European, Japanese and American fashion brands. But cultural mining in fashion goes beyond borders, it also mines from subcultures like punk and heavy metal to professional groups like lumberjacks, construction workers and cowboys. How many times has the Maine Hunting Boot (Duck Boot) or the Redwing Moc-toe boot been copied?

    I understand the frustration in seeing wealthy companies get richer from using designs traditional to the poorest people. But I don’t believe we should begin patenting traditional design. We have already patented too much in this world including Nature with GM seeds.

    Maybe the protected views of Tuscan Cypress Trees in San Quirico d’Orcia could be a solution to the problem of Cultural Mining. But this might in some cases lead to problems of having to pay for the privilege of copying a traditional textile print.

    A Rug maker from Segou, Mali once told me that she believed any advertising was good advertising. She believed that even if her designs were copied internationally she would still have customers wishing to buy her original ones. This is also the side I sit on.

    I believe when traditional designs are copied by successful international brands, they can pave the way for the original to be accepted by the global consumer, almost like a good reference, or introduction. Often the makers of traditional textiles, or garments don’t even know the global potential their craft has and knowing that their craft is being imitated in other markets should flattering not angering.

    My only wish is for designers and brands to mention their source of inspiration, in the name of the style or in a press release. So that at risk crafts and communities in great need can become known for their great talents.

    I run an online resource on the craft of Mexican Huarache Sandals and one of my focuses is to reveal to readers the Huarache origins of many woven sandals for sale in the global market.

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