The great fashion controversy

LONDON - Throughout the years, Africa has continuously remained an incredible well of inspiration for the fashion industry, at times with great results but all too often with a — shall we say — redundant range of stereotypes.In the past 20 years alone, an impressive number of fashion houses have thrived on this fruitfully.

Still very few brands are actually able to address the difficult paradox of combining exclusivity and availability in order to appeal to many while appearing to be right for only a special few.

Picasso was one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century and also one of the most controversial.

And now, 41 years after his death, he is been accused of stealing the work of African artists to boost his “flagging talent”.

There seems to be some clandestine agenda that projects Picasso as someone who loved African art so much that he went out of his way to reveal it the world … But all this is a whitewash … he is but one of the many products of African inspiration and creativity who lacked the courage to admit its influence on his consciousness and creativity

Although Picasso never visited Africa, his interest in its art is well-documented, from his discovery of African masks at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris in June 1907.

Thereafter he became an avid collector of “art nègre”, as it was known. However, Picasso himself remained ambiguous on the subject, once famously declaring “L’art nègre? Connais pas” — “African art? Never heard of it.”

The difference is history and power. Colonisation has made Western culture supreme, powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be.

Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African and indigenous people, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.

It matters who is doing the appropriating.  If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalise me, it is surely an insult.

The debate of whether taking inspiration from non-Western cultures constitutes as a form of exploitation or simply paying homage is a grey area most luxury brands past and present are guilty of entering into.

Naturally, these labels are very talented and their clothes tend to be from esteemed in-house designers.

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? Is it important? Where is the line drawn between an appreciation and (mis)appropriation?

Raising the perception of Africa beyond conflict and suffering is one thing, but what about designers who reference Africa without pursuing business on the continent?

I think it’s a double-edged sword. It can help spark a conversation, especially brands that have a greater presence to them.

Even if the designers don’t necessarily speak about where their influence is coming from, you can tell from their aesthetic.

But while this can help contemporise the traditional African aesthetic for a global audience, the failure to take that extra step and bring production to the continent is a wasted opportunity.

Re-branding of African traditional clothes and identities by international fashion houses has become common place in recent years.

Burberry Spring/Summer 2012 collection, which incorporated African prints, all exemplifies the unrepentant use of non-western cultural references apparent on the catwalk almost every other season.

Sold at increasingly higher prices, products aimed to reinforce a brand’s capacity to further capitalise on the illusion of luxury itself rather than upholding the high quality standards implied by their monetary value.

It is important to remember that Africa consists of 54 recognised countries, nine territories, and three de facto states with limited recognition.  People have to get past that surface level and dip into the history and culture and gain inspiration in different ways.

Africa is a continent not a country! For Western designers who want to borrow cues from Africa in a respectful way, one solution is to cultivate a relationship with the continent on a deeper, more human level. 

The collaboration between the first and third worlds is a two-way exchange. It is very much a give and take.  Frankly, all designs take inspiration from somewhere, and being inspired by the uniqueness that other cultures offer is not surprising.

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 utilise African culture in a responsible way, they must rethink the way they interacts with Africa itself.

*Pamela is a Zimbabwean fashion journalist and fashion accessory designer based in the United Kingdom. She can be contacted on pamsamasuwo@live.co.uk

Comments (1)

"Should designers give back to the communities from which they benefit?"------Ha! What nonsense is this? Has Pamela given something back to the community she comes from? I don't think so. Like many of her compatriots, she will exploit Africa----her birth continent---and never give a hoot about improving the lives of people from this continent. I see this mindset everywhere, from the sand merchants who dig great craters in outlying areas and sell their big piles of sand on roadsides, to people who dig for gold and use toxic materials to separate the mineral from the soil and rock, to Chitungwiza and Harare councils who dump their effluent and raw sewage into Lake Chivero. Pamela is really just interested in making a name for herself, screaming about Social Responsibility from her cosy London haven.

coolhand - 23 February 2015

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