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.

A Gloomy Couture Season – Recap

July 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

I think Karl Lagerfeld is in a bad mood. For the Chanel Couture show last Wednesday, he transformed the elegant Grand Palais into a dystopic replica of the historic Place Vendome, replacing the iconic stone sculpture of Neopoleon with a robotic statue of Coco Chanel and minimizing the rich texture of the plaza into a smooth, mechanized landscape. The black set was lined with rod-shaped bulbs and the runway was speckled with reflective shards, creating what looked like a glistening lazer tag pen. Prepare for battle!

Looks from Chanel

Karl worked the moodiness of the set into the collection itself, constructing most looks in shades of black, grey, or midnight blue. There were a couple of looks in fuchsia, but those seemed as if they had lost their way from the 80s bash at Dior. The overall silhouette was less feminine than usual – lots of square shoulders and undefined waists – and some of the fabrics, particularly the tweeds, had the visual weight of shag carpet. Some added heft makes sense for a winter collection, but some of the clothes were so bulky that the models looked like they were trying to hide a paunch. Overall, the collection seemed a bit out of touch, but it definitely had its share of highlights. The strongest look for me was a stiff, shiny pullover in pistachio with a floor-length, transparent skirt adorned with speckles trickling down like raindrops. I loved the rough, protective look of the top against the airiness of the skirt – it created a nice tension.

Looks from Dior

The word “tension” was also present with me while looking at Dior’s collection, but it was for a different set of reasons. This season, Galliano’s absence led the design team, overseen by Galliano’s ex studio assistant Bill Gaytten, to send down a hodge podge of looks recalling the Easter Bunny and Saved by the Bell. The color palette was an explosion of pastels – light pinks, mint, sky blue – and patterns referenced graphics of the 80s – squiggles, shrunken zebra patterns, confetti. The silhouette and proportions were unflattering as well, shrinking the models to look like children at a birthday party. Karlie Kloss, one of the most leggy, statuesque models working today, managed to look like a Polly Pocket in the finale look – a voluminous ball gown constructed from numerous square pieces of violet fabric and accessorized with a ruffly ring around her neck as well as a hat that strangely looked to big and too small at the same time. It was a circus of a show, but at least it got Dior through a Galliano-less couture season.

Looks from Jean Paul Gaultier

There was a circus-like feeling at Jean Paul Gaultier too, although this one, with its more aggressive styling, was for the grown ups. Gaultier didn’t skimp on the luxe this season, striping gowns in fur and accenting coat collars and sweater openings with thick tufts of black feathers. The strongest looks channeled a quieter luxury, however, like a grey speckled sweater worn with an ankle-length skirt constructed with an under layer of tulle and what looks like curled balls of misty mauve fabric. It had a simplicity and subtle elegance lacking in the rest of the collection – a moment of calm in the mist of a storm. Although Gaultier offered a wide range of looks and showed mastery of technical abilities, there lacked a clarity to his vision. Too many refrences and too many themes. I think it would have benefitted from a little restraint.

Looks from Givenchy

The opposite was true at Givenchy, who produced a streamlined, coherent vision and the most sensational clothes of the season. There were only 10 looks total, a breath of fresh air among the visual clutter of other shows. Collectively, they had a grandness to them (it’s couture afterall), but they also possessed a poetry and purity that recall the flapping of a dove’s wings or a fresh mound of snow. I loved the first look in particular – a diaphanous, white, floor-length dress accented with caviar beading toward the hem and clusters of 3-D flowers swirling around the sleeves, neck, and chest. It was worn over a one-piece, white body suit. The look evoked a softness through its sheerness and creamy color, but it it also had a strong power – the floral patterns transformed the part of the dress covering the upper body into beautifully ornate armor. The model looked like an ethereal angel ready for battle. The closing look possessed a similar feminine strength – a floor-length dress with a sheer bodice, long pale gold fringe covering the legs, and gold bird of paradise motifs covering the groin. There was a vulnerability in the sheerness exposing so much of the body – the neck and breasts in particular – but the shiny gold fringe covering the legs had a protective heft.

Looks from Valentino

I had mixed feelings about the Valentino show, even though it was the best couture I’ve seen from designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Peter Paolo Piccioli to date. Their recent collections tried too hard to gain a “hip” factor and the result look silly and overworked. (If this gives you a better image, they put Freja in a white bird cage for their Twilight-inspired collection.) This season they worked around a 15th century fairy tale theme to create clothes fit for a modern-day princess. A handful of the dresses in red and black velvet looked heavy and stuck too closely to the theme – some of the models looked like they sold turkey legs at the State Fair. But as the theme and fabrics lightened up, the looks began to shine, particularly, a floor-length, long-sleeved, transparent white dress with opaque white chevron pattern rising up from a sea of tulle at the hem. It looked like she was floating down the runway on a cloud. Another stand-out piece was a dress with a transparent bodice covered with gold leaf details and soft, autumnal paillettes meeting a bed of ostrich feathers at the hem. It was a complicated dress, but the subtlety of the colors and lightness of the fabric gave it an overall ease.

Looks from Armani

As I wrote in a post yesterday, the Armani show was designed around a Japan theme, resulting in a stream of black looks accented with traditional Japanese motifs like cherry blossoms in shades of salmon. The clothes seemed to have a strong structure to them, perhaps as a nod to oragami or the sometimes geometric quality of traditional Japanese robes. Overall, the collection was fine, though the mincing of the models’s steps was too much and the general cultural performance aspect kept me thinking of Epcot. The finale look was quite spectacular, however – a form fitting, long, strapless dress constructed in a slick mandarin-colored fabric with a band of silk at the hem covered in a delicate floral pattern. The model looked like a giant, luxurious gold fish, in a good way.

There was a feeling of gloom that seemed to cast over the shows this couture season. It was in the clothes – muted color palettes, bulky silhouettes, heavy fabrics – but it was also in the dismal spirit of the sets and the conspicuously sad showing at Dior’s first couture show sans Galliano. Hopefully, the fashion world will get a bit brighter for New York Fashion Week in September. It’ll be the end of summer – not too late for some sunshine.

Circus, Circus

July 5, 2011 § 2 Comments

It’s couture season in Paris, and the big story of Day 1 was that the circus came to town at Dior. Pastel confetti prints decorated pleated skirts, Zuba-like squiggles covered jackets, and random shapes – cones, spheres, pyramids – nested in the models’ hair like Easter eggs. The collection was like a Project Runway challenge: make a couture dress out of party materials! Except in this episode, nobody won.

(via Style.com)

(via Style.com)

The disappointment of this collection has left critics wondering if Dior can succeed without its recently fired star designer John Galliano. Cathy Horyn of the New York Times has speculated that this show was part of a test run for Galliano’s long-time studio assistant Bill Gaytten, who designed this collection and has served as the interim designer for both the Galliano and Dior labels since Galliano’s departure. If this is true, I think it’s safe to say that at least for Dior Couture, Gaytten has failed.

So the question still remains regarding who is talented and marketable enough to maintain Dior’s status as a luxury and design powerhouse. Whoever it is, I hope it’s someone that can handle the pressures of heading such a mammoth label. They can leave their party hat at the door.

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