How Can Fashion Create A Better Relationship with Africa?

August 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

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

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.

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. Over 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 Hipstersthe 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.

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