Why African Fashion Is Impossible to Define

I climb into an Uber on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Afro B’s song “Drogba (Joanna)” thumps out of the speakers. Indeed, turn on mainstream radio and you would be hard pressed not to hear the instantly-recognizable voices of Wizkid or Davido — two Nigerian musicians who are such global megastars this explanation is superfluous. At the helm of British Vogue sits a man of Ghanaian lineage named Edward Enninful. Recently commissioned by Apple to shoot an iPhone campaign is Ghanaian photographer Prince Gyasi. Tune in to Top Chef lately? One of the finalists is Ghanaian-American chef Eric Adjepong and he titillates audiences and tongues alike with his fusions and deconstructions of African cuisine. Virgil Abloh (a Ghanaian-American) literally flies the flag of Ghana on the garments in Louis Vuitton’s Men’s FW 2019 show, a moment which just may be the climax of the pop cultural hype Africa and its nations seem to be enjoying.

Suffice it to say, in cultural arenas where Africans have often been cited (if even that) as inspiration but denied participation, it appears we are finally being globally welcomed for what we have always known we possessed: a wealth of cultural agency and influence.

Location: Labadi, Accra Art Installation by Serge Attukwei Clottey

With this thought in mind, and also with 2019 marking the 400-year anniversary of the Middle Passage (when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the United States in 1619), I’ve wondered where African fashion falls in the mix of this recent attention, and what imprint our past has on our current fashion culture. What makes contemporary African fashion uniquely African? What is its defining characteristic after epochs of mélange with western stimuli (both forced and chosen, welcome and unwelcome)? European fashion is celebrated for glamour; American “sportswear” (in the strictly fashion-industry sense of the word) is the stuff of legend: but what is the calling card of the contemporary African sartorial landscape? These are the questions I sought to explore (because I was sure that I could hardly actually answer them) through my own meagre means during a recent visit to my home country, Ghana. What does African fashion have to say about itself?

Perhaps any attempt to unravel the double helix and decode the DNA of “African” fashion is an experiment in futility when operating from such a narrow lens as a visit to only one of the continent’s 54 countries. Africa is not a monolith and neither is its fashion. Anything that is borne of Africa’s bounty is as much a function of disparate national identities as it is one continental cohesion. That being said, for all the pride of nations that course through the veins of our borders, I am reminded that our national demarcations were largely not of our choosing and that some ineffable and inextricable oneness of being abides despite the imaginary lines and the very real differences in our cultures, values and identities. So then, it is not strange to surmise that there may be some thread that links the continent’s fashion, right?

Speaking for Ghana specifically, and quite likely the rest of the continent, Ready-to-Wear is a relatively new concept. Growing up, I was accustomed to buying clothes “off the rack” only when I traveled abroad, and having my clothes in Ghana made by a seamstress. Almost everyone in Ghana has a seamstress, and this is true across not all but a breadth of socioeconomic milieus. In current times however, Ready-to-Wear brands, several of which illustrate this story, have cropped up across the continent, leading to the advent of western-inspired fashion weeks, e-commerce platforms, concept stores like Untamed Empire and Viva Boutique and even influencer marketing: In short, the makings of a fashion industry, though plagued with structural issues as to be expected of any entity thusly nascent, that in many ways resembles that of west.

Location: Elmina

When you ask most people what comes to mind when they consider “African fashion,” you are likely to hear a reference to brightly-colored wax prints (known in some circles as Ankara) from which seamstresses would sew our parents and grandparents’ traditional garb. (Surely no exegesis of African clothing would be quite complete without paying homage to the unique way in which we embrace and employ color, but that is a whole other story). The sort of Ghanaian traditional clothing I am referring to is the sort Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey (whose canary-colored upcycled plastic tapestries that themselves tell a story of journey and exchange between the west and Africa and of turning toxicity into triumph are featured in Looks 3 and 4) dons in his performance series “My Mother’s Wardrobe”.

Never mind that “African print” itself is of Dutch origin, a consciousness ossified in my mind through a long-ago exhibition by Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare in which he dressed black mannequins in wax prints sewn in classic Victorian style. His work, an exploration of colonialism at large and specifically how these prints supposedly divined by the Dutch to mimic Indonesian Batik came to be ubiquitous on the West African subcontinent, marked a seminal moment in my understanding of my own culture. While wax prints are, of course, now produced on the African continent (and also still in Europe as well as in China) and are inexorably linked to (West) African fashion, to me they alone cannot be the answer, but do point to a bigger clue in the puzzle of defining African fashion. That clue is textile.

Location: Sirigu

Africa boasts a depth and breadth of traditional textiles. Kente, which originates from Ashanti and Ewe cultures; the Aso Oke of the Yoruba; Fugu from northern Ghana (Look 7); the Bogolan (mudcloth) of the Bambara ethnic group (inspiration for the knit headwrap in Look 6); the Kikoi cloth from the horn of Africa (particularly Kenya); the kaleidoscopic woven cloth of the Ndebele people of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe; and no textile aficionado has truly lived until they’ve visited a Moroccan “tissage.” In the land of textiles, particularly those of the hand-woven variety, African is king. I have noticed in my study (the word is used lightly here) of current fashion from the continent a propensity for modern African fashion designers to cull from this cornucopia of history-rich textiles while reaching for modernity in the rendering and silhouettes of clothing.

Location: Labadi, Accra Art Installation by Serge Attukwei Clottey

Perhaps it is this very syncretism that may be considered the genome of African fashion, generalization be damned: that a panoply of indigenous references is coiled with foreign allusions to result in a genre of clothing that is sui generis. Whether by African designers or non-Africans who have fallen in love with what the continent has to offer (or by designers who draw from their mixed heritage as the Japanese-Ghanaian designer Alexandra Tomiyama does with her Kanji Kente kimono), there always seems to be an interplay of looking in (at the culture) and looking out (at the foreign) in that which concerns African fashion. Beyond our current “en-vogueness” and seeming designation as the zeitgeist du jour, our fashion, like our very being, is rooted in a past both painful and pulchritudinous, and in a future we are determined to define for ourselves.

Creative and Art Direction, Styling, Model: Natasha Nyanin
Photography: Colby Blount
Assistants: Untamed Empire
Art Installation: Serge Attukwei Clottey
Make Up: So Aesthetic
Manicure: Paintbox Nails
Shot on Location in: Elmina, Sirigu and Accra, Ghana

Special Thanks to Turkish Airlines for getting us from New York to Accra and back.

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