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Women and Migration

 | 
Deborah Willis
, 
Ellyn Toscano
, 
Kalia Brooks Nelson

Part four. Reclaiming our time

19. Women & Migrations: African Fashion’s Global Takeover

Allana Finley

Texte intégral

1Fashion, as a global enterprise, has the magical ability to weave people together and to whisk them on a journey, migrating across cultures, lifestyles and ideas. Our journeys shape our identity and, very often, this manifests in our personal style — even if we don’t realize it.

2Style has always played an important part in my own development. The women in my family have unfailingly used their appearances to communicate strength and resilience, independence and femininity as they shifted through different spheres of life.

3I am myself a product of migration. From a young girl born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I’ve always had a stirring in my spirit. I was not one to just sit around. My mother and grandmother instilled that drive in me from early on as the child of a single parent.

4I got my working papers at thirteen, and by the age of fifteen I was tossing burgers in McDonald’s while folding jeans at The Gap. Not long after graduating from the University of Virginia I moved to New York, where I continued my early fashion career working as a showroom assistant at DKNY, before moving on to Eileen Fisher’s first flagship store on 53rd & Madison.

5Moving again, this time to Los Angeles, I worked my way up the fashion ladder from Rodeo Drive for Tiffany & Co and Gucci America to be hired as a wardrobe supervisor for Jessica Simpson and 98 Degrees’ first US/Canadian tour. I then went on to become Head of Costume during Oxygen Media’s inaugural year.

6In 2000, I decided to move to Johannesburg, South Africa where, while raising my two sons, I discovered my life’s mission: African fashion.

7There is no clear-cut way to define African fashion — its offerings are as varied as the multitude of cultures that inhabit the continent from which it is born.

8Often, when many outside the continent think of African fashion, their minds might conjure up images of women wrapped in animal skins or wax print fabrics, draped in what have now become curious accessories found in airport gift shops.

9Today, in this moment, there are international fashion houses pinning those very images on their inspiration boards, while magazine publications have appropriated that aesthetic for financial gain.

10However, the African aesthetic that is popping up on runways and in international luxury retail stores is fast becoming harder to appropriate without giving credit to the origin of the inspiration.

11This phenomenon has been in existence for years, since before Yves Saint Laurent showed his iconic 1967 ‘African’ collection. But now the world is asking, ‘are global brands appropriating to the benefit or detriment of the African design industry?’ The global industry treats the design spirit of the continent as a trend, reducing it to the whimsy of a fad and deeming that African fashion amounts simply to traditional techniques and fabrics.

  • 1 Osman Ahmed, ‘Why Fashion Needs Cultural Appropriation’, Business of Fashion, 1 June 2017, https:/ (...)

12Furthermore, there is the realisation that African creativity is itself excluded from the conversation and commercial exchange. An op-ed in The Business of Fashion, one of the global fashion industry’s most influential publications, addresses the benefits of cultural appropriation, stating that: ‘without the freedom to embrace fantasy, curiosity and interpretation, borders remain closed and the codes of stereotypes remain intact.’1

  • 2 My emphasis. Darío Calmese, ‘Business of Fashion: Fashion Does Not Need Cultural Appropriation’, 2 (...)

13A rebuttal, published shortly after, argued back: ‘calling out cultural appropriation does not kill creative license; it simply holds those in power accountable to cite their sources. The world is vast and information is free, but appropriation without citation by those in powererases the culture being referenced.’2

  • 3 Jenni Avins, ‘In Fashion, Cultural Appropriation is Either Very Wrong or Very Right’, Quartz, 19 O (...)

14In 2015, Jenni Avins wrote in an article entitled ‘Something borrowed’, ‘We must stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s naïve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work.’3

15My own views on the matter have migrated somewhat since the conference Black Portraiture III on 18 November 2016, when I moderated a panel called ‘Preservation of African Fashion from Global Mis-appropriation’ at the Turbine Hall in Johannesburg. My view now is that the industry must continue to be more collaborative, less competitive and focus on how their diversity is complimentary. This is Africa’s time, Africa’s century, and I feel moved to make it my mission to ensure that as an industry, fashion in Africa catches the wave.

16Returning to my own personal journey, when I got to South Africa after an extended period without work, I knew I had to find something to throw myself into. I was completely taken by the nascent yet bubbling industry, where designers like Stoned Cherrie and Marianne Fassler were not just dictating trends, but helping the public navigate their own identities.

17I attended Fashion Weeks in South Africa and asked myself why there wasn’t more media coverage, and where the international buyers were. So that became my role. As Global Brand and Marketing Manager for African Fashion International, the owner of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Weeks on the continent, it was my job to foster relationships and ensure that the conversation kept growing.

18During this time, I had the privilege of discovering and working with some of the most incredibly talented designers. My role was to support them in reaping commercial benefits from the international fashion companies that come like thieves in the night and migrate the African aesthetic off to high street shops.

19Mozambican designer Taibo Bacar, who was taught his craft by his seamstress mother, is working to build a global brand that stretches from Maputo to Lisbon

  • 4 ‘Spot the Difference: Zara Accused of Stealing Local Brand MaXhosa’s Design’, Sunday Times, 24 Apr (...)

20South African Laduma Ngxokolo was also taught by his mother, and his brand MaXhosa has taken the international scene by storm. His knitwear label answers the appropriation debate with its own authenticity and pride in its uniquely personal cultural roots. His brand has grown from apparel to interiors that inhabit homes around the world and recently the design of his popular range of socks was appropriated by Zara. ‘We appreciate that Africa’s rich culture is now “en vogue” but not at all costs. But our protected intellectual property rights should be respected as much as we respect that of other global brands’, stated Thebe Ikalafeng of Brand Leadership.4

21The globally relevant nature of these and other brands’ stories are documented visually in an incredible coffee table book celebrated by the New York Times, called African Catwalk. In the book, photographer Pers-Anders Pettersson documents the continent’s growth in fashion and shows a new side of African design. I was very humbled to write a foreword for the book, along with Alessia Glavino, Photo Editor of Vogue Italia, and Stella Jean, a Haitian-Italian designer who has long since taken the world by storm with her designs.

22For me, what this really emphasizes is fashion’s ability to connect the dots; to create these migratory links between generations, between geographical places; between cultures. Edward Enninful, Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, has a similar story of being inspired by an African mother. His well-documented break, as a model scouted on the tube, hides the true story of what inspired his love for fashion: his Ghanaian mother, who would whip up dresses for all her friends. Many in the industry now call him ‘the most powerful man in fashion’. It is clear from his body of work that Enninful has a passion for inclusivity and diversity — his attitude and the fact that he holds a powerful seat in the global industry is an exciting prospect for ‘Africa Rising’.

  • 5 Marjon Carlos, ‘Meet the Online Retailer Bringing the Best of African Fashion to the Rest of the W (...)

23Since moving on from Fashion Week, I have consulted for various brands and retailers both on and off the continent. OXOSI, for example, was started by two young Nigerians and has been called ‘the African Moda Operandi’ by Vogue.5 Brands like OXOSI and Chulaap, whose creator interprets the African aesthetic in his unique Thai way, are a route to the market platform based in North America.

24As a shareholder in KISUA, a contemporary brand inspired by the continent, which retails globally and has been worn by the likes of Beyoncé. KISUA has done collaborative capsule collections with Italian e-tailor giant, YOOX, which exposed it to a whole new market. Europe now contributes to 40% of its online sales.

25If I think about where I am migrating to next, I’ve developed a keen interest in sustainable textile recycling, and can see a huge opportunity for it on the continent.

26Did you know that cotton fiber that is farmed in Mali and Burkina Faso is sent abroad to be processed in Asia, ending up in the T-shirts, skirts and jackets that hang in our high-street shops and then eventually in African second-hand clothing markets?

27Across the world, landfills end up overflowing with megatons of discarded clothes. Waste from high consumption on the continent is set to increase, with the arrival of fast fashion retailers like Zara and H&M to African metropoles.

28There are brands that have done some groundwork here. Shaldon Kopman, founder of the brand Naked Ape, has created one of the biggest African menswear brands inspired by the Basotho culture of wrapping, using bamboo cotton and other sustainable textiles. Moreover, Africa’s first eco-luxe sustainable clothing label, Fundudzi, through its mantra ‘clothing with a conscience’ introduces a uniquely African voice to the green conversation — arguing that Africa has since the beginning of time been built on organic principles. The label weaves storytelling into the fabric of its designs, reflected through its name, which is inspired by Lake Fundudzi, a sacred site for the vhaVenda tribe who believe you can hear the ancestors drumming beneath its waters at night.

29Having graduated as a founder of the first ever MBA programme with a focus on doing business in Africa at the African Leadership University School of Business, my final Capstone project made a business case for the commercial viability of the textile and textile recycling industries being revived in Africa through sustainable innovations. In so doing, Africa can ally its wealth of inspiration with a sustainable means of production.

30I built a case to show that the continent is open for business and fighting for its place at the table. I believe Africa should no longer be defensive about appropriation, or about the origins of inspiration — that this only puts us on the back foot.

31With so much interest in African design codes and energy, it is up to the continent’s design leaders, artisans, entrepreneurs and consumers to take a proud and proactive approach. Our offering to the global discourse shouldn’t be calling out appropriation or being overly protective but rather to add our own voice.

32A shining example of this is the South African contingent that annually attends Pitti Uomo, the most important international event for menswear and men’s accessories.

33Trevor Stuurman, for instance, began as a street style photographer and is now a recognised authority on preserving the African aesthetic for the modern age. Stuurman — along with Laduma of the MaXhosa knitwear brand, Siya Beyile, a menswear blogger and Kwena Baloyi, a stylist — proudly peacock among the rest of the fashionistas. What sets them apart is their authentic celebration of Pan-African culture through their style.

34The international community laps it up and they fill the sought-after feature pages of top global fashion magazines all the way up to Vogue.

  • 6 For more information, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esther_Mahlangu

35So where does this leave us? The appropriation of African fashion must be treated like any other cultural exchange or creative collaboration — give credit, and consider royalties, as is currently happening with Ma Esther Mahlangu and the commercialization of the Ndebele artistic aesthetic.6

36This for me is the new approach, where African fashion proudly and publicly owns its identity, and doesn’t leave any space for the rest of the world to ‘steal’, interpret, or appropriate Africa’s conversation, African identity, innovation and inspiration and the conversation becomes more one of equals.

Notes

1 Osman Ahmed, ‘Why Fashion Needs Cultural Appropriation’, Business of Fashion, 1 June 2017, https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/why-fashion-needs-cultural-appropriation

2 My emphasis. Darío Calmese, ‘Business of Fashion: Fashion Does Not Need Cultural Appropriation’, 28 June 2017, dario. the storyteller blog, http://www.dariocalmese.com/writing/2017/6/28/fashion-does-not-need-cultural-appropriation

3 Jenni Avins, ‘In Fashion, Cultural Appropriation is Either Very Wrong or Very Right’, Quartz, 19 October 2015, https://qz.com/520363/borrowing-from-other-cultures-is-not-inherently-racist/

4 ‘Spot the Difference: Zara Accused of Stealing Local Brand MaXhosa’s Design’, Sunday Times, 24 April 2018, https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/lifestyle/fashion-and-beauty/2018-04-24-spot-the-difference-zara-accused-of-stealing-local-local-brand-maxhosas-design/

5 Marjon Carlos, ‘Meet the Online Retailer Bringing the Best of African Fashion to the Rest of the World’, Vogue, 18 November 2016, https://www.vogue.com/article/oxosi-african-online-retailer

6 For more information, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esther_Mahlangu

Auteur

Allana Finley hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Before moving to Johannesburg in 2001 from Los Angeles/New York, she worked in fashion for such brands as Eileen Fisher, Tiffany & Co and Gucci America. While living in Los Angeles, she honed her skills as a fashion stylist, focusing on product placement and the marketing of fashion brands through celebrity client relationships. She served as Head of Wardrobe in Oxygen Media’s inaugural year of operation, and dressed the likes of Candice Bergen and Tasha Smith during that time. Over the past fifteen years, her focus has been on business development and strategic marketing for leading event and designer development platform African Fashion International; a malaria elimination initiative founded by Robert Brozin, Goodbye Malaria; founding board member of the first ever South African Menswear Week; leading African designers Stoned Cherrie, CHULAAP, Rich Mnisi and online platforms oxosi.com and KISUA.com. She is a contributor to the book African Catwalk by Per Anders Pettersson (2016) which showcases an unexpected side of the African continent as it examines the fast growing fashion industry in Africa. This book is the first time the emerging African fashion industry has been documented in exclusive behind-the-scenes photographs.

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