New African Fashion

A refreshing look at the vast array of gorgeous fashion coming out of Africa

In university, I was in the hippiest program to ever grant a legitimate Bachelor’s Degree: Environmental Studies. In third year, my dreadlocked friend came back from a summer volunteering in Ghana wearing the most explosively patterned pants I have ever seen: multicolored rainbow fish swimming in a sea of deep blue Batik, custom made for him by a skilled tailor.

Right from its cover, New African Fashion supported my perception of Africa as a continent bursting at the seams with vibrant colour and patterns. The book is packed with rich visual spreads, accompanied by short profiles of African fashion designers. It’s a fascinating portrait of how the world’s poorest continent fits into the scheme of the global fashion industry.

Author Helen Jennings, (editor of ARISE magazine, “Africa’s first and foremost international style magazine,”) uses a broad brush to define “African Fashion.” She profiles designers living, working, and contributing to the rich cultural fabric of the continent, like Lagos-native Folake Folarin-Coker. Some are African-born and have gone on to find success in other countries, and others use Africa as their inspiration (the French-Ivoirian designer, Pierre-Antoine Vettorello).

Duro Olowu is one of the more famous names in African fashion. Olowu moved to London to pursue his career in fashion design and shows his funked-up bohemian garments each season at New York Fashion Week. Olowu’s busy textiles have earned consistent acclaim from the fickle fashion industry. He was named New Designer of the Year at the 2005 British Fashion Awards, the same year US Vogue coined his v-neck patterned shift the “Duro dress.”

Not surprisingly, most of the designers in New African Fashion cannot be lumped into one aesthetic category. “African fashion is as varied as the continent itself,” says Ann McCreath, designer of KikoRomeo. Hebret Lakew of the label Kooroo strives to design colourful “ethnic fusion” garments for everyday wear. Omer Asim and Maya Antoun of Khartoum, Sudan design delicately pleated, Audrey Hepburn-inspired little black dresses. Bunmi Koko goes the Lady Gaga route, designing pointy-shouldered space-age garments that would be perfectly at home on an episode of Star Trek.

Maki Oh, hailing from Nigeria, is, in my opinion, the book’s most memorable designer. Many of her designs focus on breasts: a jersey dress with two strategically cut spirals, or a trompe l’oeil mosaic print reminiscent of Vivienne Westwood’s early punk designs. Oh’s Autumn/Winter 2011 collection was based on the Dipo rite of passage into womanhood of rural Ghana; it included a jacket painstakingly adorned with reeds, referencing the sleeping mats traditionally given to brides on their wedding day.

Though most of New African Fashion falls into the womenswear category, there are a few menswear designers in the mix. South Africa-based Stiaan Louw designs silky warrior-esque pieces “for guys who don’t usually wear suits.” And his work includes everything from drapey trousers cut from indigenous fabrics to more traditional, double-breasted looks.

New African Fashion is a survey intended to cover the gaping void in media coverage of fashion in Africa, and should be prominently displayed next to the tired Chanel retrospectives. It is a refreshing and commendable stab at an extremely broad and underrepresented market. In the words of Ghanaian-born designer Mimi Plange: “Fashion is fantasy, it makes us dream big and that is what Africa needs right now.”

New African Fashion by Helen Jennings. Prestel, 2011.

book report // Isabel Slone
photography // Brianne Burnell

T-Shirt Manifesto

Threadless tells the story of how an idealistic vision became a design revoluion

Threadless is not just a t-shirt company that produces inspired graphic work, and it’s not just an internet upstart that championed “crowdsourcing” and social networking. In the words of co-founder Jake Nickell, Threadless “is a living breathing community of people that can’t be told what to do.” In Threadless: Ten Years of T-Shirts from the World’s Most Inspiring Online Design Community, Nickell chronicles the scrappy start-up’s rise over the past 10 years and makes a pretty good case that the company is something of a (t-shirt) revolution.

Nickell is joined by a cast of new media experts, designers, and fans who collectively recount the company’s deal: users are encouraged to upload designs and visitors vote on which t-shirt will go into production. Guest essayist Seth Godin writes that Threadless is, “a company that hires the unhireable, codes the uncodable [and] markets the unmarketable,” and Jeff Howe notes, “The genius of Threadless is that they put the community on a pedestal and then stepped into the background.” The mini-essays illustrate a company that democratizes art, and are the highlight of the book’s written content.

Text is dwarfed by the technicolour t-shirt designs and I found myself recognizing a lot of the prints as I pored over the pages, like this graphic of a badass Scooby-doo fanfic drawing of Velma with a shotgun and a bloodthirsty Scooby. Threadless’s designs have become pervasive over the past decade, and my sentiments on ubiquity were shared by those interviewed. Barnaby Bocock from New Zealand, speaking of his design “Nuts” said, “I think the ultimate compliment is seeing how much it has been ripped off. It was especially surreal when I found fakes being sold in Bangkok.”

Nickell’s strength as a businessman is sharing the spotlight. And although he’s writing about the company he started, the charismatic and critical engagement of other thinkers and artists are what put his success into a broader context and make it shine. As Nickell says: “Threadless is a community of people first, a t-shirt store second.” He gets away with wide-eyed utopian statements because the book is just as much an inspiring testament to sticking to your principles as proving that innovation can be more than empty business jargon. Threadless isn’t so much a coffee-table book as it is a colourful manifesto.

further reading // Threadless: Ten Years of T-Shirts from the World’s Most Inspiring Online Design Community by Jake Nickell and Jeffrey Kalmikoff // Henry N. Abrams // 2010

book report // Cayley James
images // Brianne Burnell

Tresses in Texts

Five fantastic literary hair moments.

There’s nothing more precious than seeing someone grin or chuckle when reading a book. It makes you want to interrupt their reading, asking, What? What’s so funny? Tell meee.

I set out to accomplish the insurmountable task of selecting the greatest hair scenes in literature, ones that induce those grins and chuckles. At first I looked for moments that perfectly encapsulate the cultural landscape in which they were written (if the word “literature” doesn’t carry highbrow connotations, then what does?). In the end, I went with five hair disasters. My reasoning as to why I was drawn to these scenes can be concluded thusly: 1. They were hella funny and 2. Let’s face it, who doesn’t delight in a little in laughing at another’s misfortune? (What? It’s fiction.)

That’s not to say that these hair disasters existed in their literary contexts purely for the schadenfreude. As your high school English teacher would be all too happy to point out, these scenes of hair gone awry are actually momentous turning points in these characters’ lives. Bad hair days can teach very important life lessons. If it weren’t for these moments, we would never know that even nice domestic girls can get caught up in their looks; that attacking one’s vanity can be a powerful weapon; that Prince Humperdink is a big-time douchebag.

So without further ado, I present to you five of the very best hair scenes in literary history. I realize five is nothing in a sea of stories, so if you have any of your own favourites, please share them in the comments.

Matilda (1988) by Roald Dahl

Matilda is a mostly charming story with some pretty disturbing child abuse thrown in, because Roald Dahl had a twisted mind. Matilda (the character) was a vindictive bookworm with telekinetic powers who lived with awful, idiotic parents. Her dad, Mr. Wormwood, was particularly sadistic. I mean, the man tore up her library copy of The Red Pony in front of her. Pure evil. In retaliation, Matilda set out one morning to ruin his nice mop of black hair. She mixed his “Oil of Violets” hair tonic with her mom’s platinum blonde hair dye and waited for the magic of peroxide to happen:

Mrs. Wormwood looked up. She caught sight of her husband. She stopped dead. Then she let out a scream that seemed to lift her right up into the air and she dropped the plate with a crash and a splash on to the floor. Everyone jumped, including Mr. Wormwood.

“What the heck’s the matter with you, woman?” he shouted. “Look at the mess you’ve made on the carpet!”

“Your hair!” the mother was shrieking, pointing a quivering finger at her husband. “Look at your hair! What’ve you done to your hair?”

“What’s wrong with my hair, for heaven’s sake?” he said.

“Oh my God dad, what’ve you done to your hair?” the son shouted.

A splendid noisy scene was building up nicely in the breakfast room. Matilda said nothing. She simply sat there admiring the wonderful effect of her own handiwork. Mr. Wormwood’s fine crop of black hair was now a dirty silver, the colour this time of a tightrope walker’s tights that had not been washed for the entire circus season.

Anne of Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne Shirley would not be Anne Shirley without her red braids. Anne without her signature ‘do would be akin to Bonnie without Clyde, Thelma without Louise, Dumb without Dumber (I’ll stop with the road trip movies). But throughout the series, Anne always struggled to love her locks. In L.M. Montgomery’s first novel, future-dreamboat Gilbert Blythe teases Anne for having red hair by calling her “Carrots.” (Boys are just the worst.) Anne is convinced her red hair is a curse, so she buys a bottle of hair dye from a peddler to turn her hair a bold black. Instead, it turned green (the characters react in horror, but you know Anne would be on trend today). Anne comes homes to her guardian, Marilla, and fesses up to her silly mistake:

“Anne Shirley, what have you done to your hair? Why, it’s GREEN!”

Green it might be called, if it were any earthly colour—a queer, dull, bronzy green, with streaks here and there of the original red to heighten the ghastly effect. Never in all her life had Marilla seen anything so grotesque as Anne’s hair at that moment.

“Yes, it’s green,” moaned Anne. “I thought nothing could be as bad as red hair. But now I know it’s ten times worse to have green hair. Oh, Marilla, you little know how utterly wretched I am.”

The Princess Bride (1973) by William Goldman
Chances are, you know the movie version of The Princess Bride by heart. Heck, if you’re anything like me, you probably weave the quotes into everyday conversations (You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means). But did you know the movie skipped out on a pretty great hair scene in William Goldman’s novel? Before Buttercup, Prince Humperdink was supposed to marry Princess Noreena of Guilder. At a grand feast, Humberdink is about to propose to Noreena until suddenly, a breeze blows through the castle and Noreena’s hat comes off to reveal that she is—gasp!—bald. A bald princess! Humperdink refuses to marry such an ugly woman and in his true-to-nature assholery style, he threatens to wage a heavy war with her country for the embarrassment it has caused him:

Prince Humperdinck made his angry way to the balcony above the Great Hall and stared down at the chaos. The fires were still in places flaming red, guests were pouring out through the doors and Princess Noreena, hatted and faint, was being carried by her servants far from view.

Queen Bella finally caught up with the Prince, who stormed along the balcony clearly not yet in control. “I do wish you hadn’t been quite so blunt,” Queen Bella said.

The Prince whirled on her. “I’m not marrying any bald princess, and that’s that!”

“No one would know,” Queen Bella explained. “She has hats even for sleeping.”

“I would know,” cried the Prince. “Did you see the candlelight reflecting off her skull?”

The Outsiders (1967) by S. E. Hinton
Confession: Ponyboy Curtis stole my heart in the eighth grade. He digged sunsets, cited poems by Robert Frost, and his association with fellow Greasers gave him brooding undertones of danger. Could you blame me? I would have run from the law with him, curfew be damned. In all seriousness, if you look past the dreamy boys and the fights, you’ll find that hair played a crucial role in The Outsiders. After the incident with the Socs (no spoilers here), Ponyboy and Johnny attempt to disguise themselves. Ponyboy gets his hair bleached, while Johnny gets his greasy hair cut off. The hair change was symbolic of their new identities as fugitives and no longer that of Greasers. After it happens, Ponyboy bemoans the loss of his greaser hair:

“It was my pride. It was long and silky, just like Soda’s, only a little redder. Our hair was tough—we didn’t have to use much grease on it. Our hair labeled us greasers, too—it was our trademark. The one thing we were proud of. Maybe we couldn’t have Corvairs or madras shirts, but we could have hair.”

Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott
I re-read the classic tale this year and was reminded of a darling scene when Jo March, second eldest sister-slash-writer-slash-rebel (she was portrayed by both Katharine Hepburn AND Winona Ryder onscreen), convinces a barber to buy her hair for $25 so dear Marmee can take the train to see an injured Papa. When Jo comes home, she removes her bonnet and to the horror of the sisters, reveals her newly-cropped hair. Jo is so proud of her boyish ’do and gloats that it will be good for her vanity. Later that night, she sobs herself to sleep and confesses to big sis that vanity isn’t so easy to chop off:

“Jo, dear, what is it? Are you crying about father?” says Meg.

“No, not now,” says Jo.

“What then?”

“My… My hair!” burst out poor Jo, trying vainly not to smother her emotion in the pillow.

It did not seem at all comical to Meg, who kissed and caressed the afflicted heroine in the tenderest manner.

“I’m not sorry,” protested Jo, with a choke. “I’d do it again tomorrow, if I could. It’s only the vain part of me that goes and cries in this silly way. Don’t tell anyone, it’s all over now. I thought you were asleep, so I just made a little private moan for my one beauty.”


illustration //
Jenn Woodall

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Stories About Jewels

"Drawing Jewels for Fashion" is more about how to dream than how to draw


There is whole world of jewelry that exists beyond Tiffany’s and Cartier, and Carol Woolton’s Drawing Jewels for Fashion is the place to begin for anyone who wants to learn about it. Don’t be fooled: this is not a how-to. Although its title and cover indicate that it might be, the book profiles 36 modern jewelry designers and the ideas and stories behind their work. (This was a relief for me, as it meant I wouldn’t be reminded of how poor my drawing skills are.) Along with photographs of the actual jewelry, Woolton features pages from artists’ sketchbooks and images from their mood boards, helping the reader understand all of the processes that precede the pieces. Drawing Jewels for Fashion is for readers who are strangers to the who’s-who of contemporary jewelry design, and who want to know more about the “how” behind the art.

The book is organized around six different themes: Civilizations, the Natural World, Art and Architecture, Culture and Literature, the Material World, and History and Symbolism. The sections explain themselves—in the Natural World, designers found inspiration in everything from animals’ movements to different kinds of fauna. In the 36 designers profiled, no two are alike, and the book includes names I recognized, like Diane von Furstenberg, and designers I didn’t know, like Victoire de Castellane, who I learned designs jewelry for Dior.

It was hard to pick favourites, though the work of London designer Hannah Martin stood out to me. Most of the artists featured were creating jewelry for women, but Martin’s pieces were different. She explains that he dreams up various masculine characters, places them in made-up worlds, and then combines this masculinity with feminine elements to create jewelry that is both imaginative and androgynous.

What I took away from reading this book was that everything has a story, jewelry included. My understanding of clothing has always included designers’ inspirations—I obsess over fashion collections and their back-stories. But I had never extended those thoughts into the world of jewelry. I had always given my own stories and values to the pieces that I owned, but hadn’t considered the other histories that might exist behind this ring or that necklace. Not anymore. Long gone are the days where I simply muttered, “That’s a nice watch. It’s shiny. Cool, cool.”

further reading // Drawing Jewels for Fashion by Carol Woolton, Prestel Publishing, 2011

book report // Sofia Luu
photography // Brianne Burnell