African fashion is rising to global acclaim; a form of expression, a mark of heritage, African fashion has contributed in transforming the perception of what was dubbed the ‘dark continent’, ‘hopeless Africa’ by Western media. It wasn’t cool to be African in the UK during the ‘90s, but it sure is now! Back then, nearly everything was up for ridicule, from our names, hair (especially if you had a threaded hair style as a child), features and food. Roll on the 2000s; African diaspora millennials are embracing their culture with zeal, especially when it comes to fashion. Instagram and Pinterest are adorned with African-inspired wax print designs, from clothing brands, bloggers, party nights and weddings.
However, if the diaspora doesn’t celebrate authentic African textile techniques more often, we’re subconsciously complicit in potentially rendering a key part of our heritage obsolete.
African prints infused with Western style silhouettes are worn with pride by millennials in some of the most cosmopolitan cites in the West – London, Paris, New York etc. In 2005, Taiye Selasi coined the term, ‘Afropolitan’. Subjectively interpreted by many, the Afropolitan is a stylish city dwelling, socially and politically astute person of African descent, with multicultural heritage. The curation of our multicultural heritage gives us a unique and empowering perspective on style and fashion. This cultural hybrid comprising African and European aesthetics has featured in magazines and catwalks around the world.
It’s no secret that Dutch wax prints are the emblem of African Fashion. Africans and the diaspora have fervently championed these prints for decades. This has been to the detriment of authentic African textile techniques. Batik is a process of using wax/dyes to create patterns on fabric. Believed to have originated in Egypt during the 5th century, it was later adopted across Asia, most notably Indonesia. During Dutch colonisation in the 1800s, Indonesians taught the Dutch the Batik process, who then mass produced their own ‘Dutch-wax’ version also known as Ankara.
After unsuccessful attempts to sell their version back to the Indonesians, they took it to West Africa and the rest is history, as they say. Currently European companies are the main financial beneficiaries of what is commonly referred to as ‘African-prints’.
Social media is a powerful platform, where we’re able create and tell our own narratives. As consumers, we create the demand that produces the supply of Dutch wax prints. If we want authentic African textile heritage to thrive and Africans to have a greater stake in African Fashion, we should support brands that celebrate this. Rather than always wearing printed imitation versions of Kente cloth (usually printed in China), why not wear the real hand-woven Kente made by artisans in Ghana? Foundations like Nubuke collaborate with diaspora designers making bespoke Kente fabrics. Similarly, why not wear clothes made with the adire cloth, created by Nigerians for centuries or kanga fabrics of Kenya /Tanzania?
The Internet has made African fashion very accessible and the appetite for this has created opportunities for companies in the diaspora. American based ONYCHEK, Oxosi and UK based Styled by Africa, sell apparel made by artisans in Africa to the diaspora and beyond. Designers are expressing authentic African heritage though their collections. Maxhosa by Laduma celebrates traditional Xhosa symbols and colours, through Knitwear. UK based, AAKS’ handwoven bags, typify weaving techniques used in Ghana and AMWA Designs create their own printed fabrics using Adinkra symbols for their home furnishing ranges.
The influence of Afropolitans / the diaspora in shaping the African fashion narrative globally is undeniable. When Beyoncé wore an outfit featuring designs by Burundian artist Serge Alain Nitegeka, from the South-African based fashion platform Kisua, the brand was immediately thrust into the spotlight. Through the Internet we have the power to tell our true stories. Whether it’s celebrities or you and I snapping selfies for Instagram and Twitter, we should incorporate traditional African textile techniques within our fashion repertoire, as much as we do Dutch wax prints. Doing so will project an authentic image of African fashion heritage.
There isn’t an African fashion utopia; Dutch wax prints will probably always be the main fabric used in African fashion. However, as African fashion continues to flourish, we should be careful not to inadvertently contribute to its dilution, by mainly championing Dutch wax prints. Our multicultural Afropolitan heritage is valid but should be balanced. This balance is key because we’re representing African fashion in lands from which we don’t originate, but are intrinsically part of us though birth or habitation. Rather than left languishing in the shadows, authentic African fashion textile heritage should get the props it deserves for its artistry, craftsmanship and elegance.