New African Fashion (Prestel)

New African Fashion by Helen Jennings (Prestel: 2011)

“The fashion world is increasingly having its ‘African moment’ in this new millennium” observes Iké Udé in his introduction to this informative book. We are familiar with the likes of the late Yves Saint Laurent, who many may misremember as French but was in fact born in Algeria; other familiar names may now include Xuly Bët, who has successfully incorporated an aesthetic of collage and recycling into collections since the early 1990s; or the celebrated Savile Row tailor Ozwald Boateng admired for his injection of colour alongside the requisite skill into an otherwise staid establishment. In mapping these contributions to the world of fashion, journalist and editor of the magazine ARISE, Helen Jennings, provides us with a necessary reminder that the contributors to fashion today are emerging from far beyond the familiar quadrumvirate of London, Milan, New York and Paris.

There is, of course, a potential danger in grouping “African fashion” under a regional descriptor for the same reasons categories such as “women’s literature” can promote an unintended sense of separation. At the same time, Africa is a vast continent, not a cohesive nation, a fact often overlooked in conversations about poverty and political unrest that tend to fuel our clichés of the region. These clichés are successfully overturned here with content focused on independent designers living in Africa, or connected to African culture. Forty-one entries are included under fashion, plus a further twelve on models and three examples of art. The latter, when scanning the table of contents, strikes the eye as an odd conclusion to an otherwise cohesive structure and feels like the starting point of a new project, rather than the end of the current one. Image content does not look as though they have been reshot for the book, and as a result captures the diversity of campaign styles adopted. Some make overt reference to culture; others stick to the anonymity of the studio setting.

It is difficult to ignore the reality that this current croup of designers is predominantly the product of European and American educations and/or childhoods. In fact the lack of fashion education within Africa is cited in the closing paragraphs of the introduction as a challenge facing the current creative landscape. That said, opportunities are now emerging: Lagos hosted Africa ARISE Fashion Week in March of this year, an event first launched in Cape Town in 2009. Jennings goes so far as to claim the current moment in African fashion as the “most exciting and original chapter in fashion’s discourse since Japan emerged as a major player in the 1980s”. The largess of this statement belies the cultural diversity that underpins the fashion emerging from, and inspired by, Africa today. It is this very diversity that makes it an awkward to the conceptual aesthetic of Japanese influence. But this book also makes insightful observations that will help all readers situate the contribution the African continent is making to contemporary design. Jennings’ observation that, “It’s those designers who collaborate with African artisans in order to harness authentic materials and techniques, and bridge the gap between African-born and African-inspired by basing socially responsible production on the continent, who create meaningful results” is certainly a lesson we all can learn from.

Crafts (May/June 2012: 58-59)