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

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

Elsa Schiaparelli Made Fashion For Air Raids

A Fashion Memoir series book report

Nothing suggested Elsa Schiaparelli would ever have a career in fashion. She was born in Rome to strict aristocratic parents who never failed to be displeased with their daughter’s rebellion. Let me count the ways: by twenty-two, Schiaparelli, or “Schiap”, had run away from her Catholic school to bohemian London, married a rich Polish count and was abandoned in Greenwich Village, New York with a daughter and little support. It was hard work and necessity that propelled the young mother. She supported herself by working at a boutique specializing in French fashions owned by Gaby Picabia. Through Picabia, Schiaparelli met Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. When they decided to move to Paris, Schiaparelli joined them. It was during this time that her protégé Yves Saint Laurent said she “bewitched” the city. And her subtle blend of classicism and outrageousness evolved with women as their haircuts and hemlines got shorter.

Fashion Memoir: Elsa Schiaparelli examines the Italian designer’s contribution to fashion during the ’30s. Author Baudot is a writer and critic at French Elle, and has written his share of designer profiles for the Fashion Memoir series, including Chanel and Yohji Yamamoto. This biography and photo anthology is worth reviewing for a better understanding of Schiaparelli’s place in history and her lasting impact after retiring in 1954, and is full of images of the designer, her store windows, snapshots of celebrity fans like Marlene Dietrich, and illustrations of her designs.

Baudot weaves Schiaparelli’s designs into the fabric of social history, demonstrating her ability to connect with women between the two World Wars, notably Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, and Lauren Bacall. Schiaparelli opened her boutique 1927 and soon became the voice for emboldened new women who appreciated avant-garde design. She was known for using unusual materials and bold colour choices that reflected the period’s modern taste. Baudot believes her strength lied in designing multi-functional clothing that was both simple and shocking. Think of a dress that could be lengthened by simply pulling a ribbon or a woolen broiler suit produced for a potential air raid.

Schiaparelli drew inspiration from the many avant-garde artists in her social circle, and collaborated with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Her designs were a reaction against tradition, exploiting the artistic world of Surrealism and Dada. In particular, she had a deep appreciation of the artist and designer Paul Poiret, who gave her dresses when she first moved to Paris and encouraged her to start her own business. Unfortunately, not all her relationships with designers were so positive. She had a deep disdain for Chanel, and the press often drew comparisons of the two designers. They became fierce rivals and Chanel once described her competitor as “that Italian artist who makes clothes.”

After the Second World War, the fashion industry began to shift toward accessible, mass-produced sportswear. When she tried to reestablish herself in this clime, Schiap was summarily dismissed by new-era designer Christian Dior: “Remember the Surrealist trimming with which Mme. Schiaparelli loved to decorate her clothes … to push the frontiers of elegance until it bordered on the bizarre.” Still, she left a legacy of radically new fashions like backless swimsuits, built-in bras, and shoulder pads that would become staples in contemporary fashion design, inspiring generations of fashion heirs, like Galliano and Kenzo. While the book goes into great detail about her strengths as a designer and her inspirations, it doesn’t reveal much about her personal life. If you want a better understanding of Schiap the lady, consider reading her autobiography, Shocking Life. Baudot excerpts passages from here, which make up the best parts of his Fashion Memoir.

further reading // Fashion Memoir: Elsa Schiaparelli by Francois Baudot // Thames and Hudson // 1997

book report // Brittany Mahaney
photography // Brianne Burnell