The world is still infatuated with African style and design. So which is it then: Appreciation or appropriation?
As African fashion gets more attention and exposure around the world the debate around ” appropriation vs. appreciation” gets heated. I think it would be fair to say, up until now that is, I have kept the topic of appropriation in fashion, which to me indirectly yet immediately says cultural appropriation, at arms length. Only because it opens the proverbial can of worms, with so many blurred lines and so many more questions without immediate answers. However, in this buoyant time of creative renaissance happening within the continent, and in the context of two high profiled European based global luxury brands having ‘Africa-themed’ shows in the last several months it seems appropriate to delve right in.
In the current ‘African fashion’ (a term to collectively yet loosely describe fashion emanating from designers within the continent) landscape, there are at least 12 cities excluding the count in North Africa that produce fashion week platforms. And in some, like Johannesburg, Lagos, Accra and Kinshasa more than one platform exists to support, nurture and build African fashion, design and talent.
It simply comes down to this. Who makes money off of what?
From my own experience of attending multiple fashion week platforms in some of the cities, the sheer breadth and depth of diversity and difference on the runway is nothing that one can prepare for. To discover the multifarious heritage, artisanal skill and ingenuity that exists in varied forms in such a distinct aesthetic makes it feel like magic.
Fashion stories in a modern sense are being told on the continent, about the continent and the future world. Even within an embryonic African fashion eco-system that is still disjointed and business environments that are not easy, or existing in the capacity they should with a lack of access to finance, resources, fashion education, manufacturing and limited support in terms of investment and government policy, this is just the beginning. The most recognized brands at the moment are the ones creating from what’s engraved within or refashioning what has come before in a contemporary way. Like Maki Oh, Orange Culture, Loza Maléombho, Maxhosa, AAKS, Adele Dejak, Taibo Bacar, MillesColline, Thula Sindi, Nadir Tati, Chulaap, Kisua…to name only a few.
The Internet and technology has had a massive impact in our lives and is ushering in a new age. Living in a hyper connected hyper sharing hyper virtual world, it’s super easy to see how possible it is for (creative) inspiration to come from taking something else and using it to form a ‘new’ idea or concept, design or collection. And as far as ideation goes it’s generally accepted that no idea is a totally new idea. The way I see it, where appropriation in fashion becomes heated is at the intersection of commerce and culture. It simply comes down to this. Who makes money off of what? Let’s take two recent examples mentioned earlier. Why should the Louis Vuitton Mens Spring Summer 2017 Collection presented earlier this year in Paris in a showcase positioned as largely ‘African’ themed and inspired use Masaai checks and ‘tribal’ beading along with safari sandals and some patterns that have a resemblance to designs well known in Southern Africa?
And then with commercial finesse, neatly encase it with a stamp of Parisian haute refinement linked to none other than the brands intrinsic travel essence.
And for which Kim Jones the designer celebrating his 5th year at the famed Fashion house was lauded in media circles with ‘his finest quarter-hour’ and ‘one of the best of the SS17 shows. ’
Similarly, why does Valentino at Paris fashion week Spring Summer 16 in a show that was widely said to be heavily influenced by Africa amongst other things get to cornrow hair that has never been in cornrows and doesn’t need to be cornrowed on the runway? Because to fully appreciate cornrows you will know that it’s not just a hairstyle. (And for a fuller explanation I can direct you to an eloquent explanation by Amandla Stenberg (Video “Don’t cashcrop on my cornrows).So, when you take from someone or another culture typically without permission for your own use…read commercial commodification, there’s a thin line that is drawn…
A battle line.
Here’s why. It’s a clash of values. And systems.
The value proposition (and intention) in the creation process of traditional custodians or cultivators of culture and the external creative comes from entirely two different places.
I would venture to say that perhaps designing the future starts with appreciation.
One comes in the expressive art form for the purpose of culture, whilst the other happens creatively for commerce. When an initiation blanket, or Basotho blanket, feather, color, pattern, paint mark, copper accessory, traditional textile etc. is created and used it has purpose, significance, power and value that has nothing to do with money or luxury. That’s why trying to popularize, mass-produce or pass off as fashionable the Bindi, Boubou, Basotho blanket or Keffiyeh for example will always cause an uproar.
Whilst we cannot police culture nor stop the fluidity and evolvement of culture, we can show and should show a heightened sense of sensitivity, some serious appreciation and respect towards what is not ours, or is different to us especially in regard to creative expression within a commercialized context.
Realize that Culture. Is. An. Inheritance, as Laduma Ngxokolo has aptly captured in this hashtag #myheritagemyinheritance
That being said, in reality we need to navigate a world that is rapidly transforming, hurtling at once towards each other and away from each other. In the process the exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is pushing the multiple effect.
A multicultural, multi-‘everything’ world where if it is to thrive and survive we must learn to share for the mutual benefit of all. I would venture to say that perhaps designing the future starts with appreciation.
What if, for example, Kim Jones had sent an all African (do not read black, because Africa is multi-racial) model cast down the runway instead? A small gesture, maybe not significant enough? Yes, for sure…
Just a flippant thought, if only to illustrate how a small gesture for an African themed and inspired show could perhaps be an appropriate and practical starting point to pay homage to the source.
And one last point to ponder, as we continue to craft our fashion voices in a globalized context.
“Would you still want to travel to that country if you could not take a camera with you, – a question of appropriation.” –Nayyirah Waheed, salt. (sic)
Photography of the accessory bags in top photo: A.A.K.S www.aaksonline.com