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