“The runway is set, the models are clothed in animal print and bright colors with their faces painted with bold streaks. The world was ready to receive this Italian designer’s “Africa Collection”. He believed he had successfully brought African culture to life. The world wouldn’t know what hit it when those models got on that runway…”
For a long time, people outside the continent have limited their view of what fashion is like in Africa. They usually use words like ethnic and tribal to describe what they think is fashion from Africa. I sometimes just cringe when people use these words because they limit the reality of our fashion and style. First of all, there isn’t one African culture or style (There are 54 countries with different cultures, sub-cultures and as many as 2000 languages for crying out loud!). Secondly, a lot of the things that they describe with these words ARE NOT EVEN AFRICAN.
I always knew that there was a certain perception about Africa or what our “attempt at fashion” was like, but this truth hit me so hard when I arrived in the States. Honestly, most people just think of masks and animal print and/or very bright Ankara fabric when they hear “African fashion”. Let’s not even mention the people that think we are so poor and untalented that we cannot make our own clothes (yes someone, a supposedly very educated man might I add, actually asked me if I knew what I was saying when I said that fashion from Africa does well on the international market. He said that on TV he never even sees us wear our clothes. We just wear hand-me-down Laker’s jerseys from 5 years ago. *Sigh* Some people try my life on the daily over here, help me Jesus! 😑).
So back to what I was saying. In general, most people outside the continent limit their thoughts to the very traditional things like this:
Don’t get me wrong, I love traditional wear. Being the full blooded Ghanaian that I am, I absolutely love all the traditional prints and designs, and I am sure other Africans love theirs too. But my problem is this: That is not all we have to offer.
I may not be able to speak for all African countries, but I can say that in Ghana, a couple of decades ago, people thought of small-scale seamstresses and tailors when they heard the term fashion design. But now the industry is so much bigger than that.
It consists of design that is a mix of several different cultures and sewing techniques from all over the world. And come to think of it, I don’t think there were fashion stylists back then that could actually make a decent living. But now there are several!
The whole fashion industry is rapidly growing and evolving and I think it’s time other parts of the world understand and recognize this. Oh and when I say its growing, I really mean it. According to the Euromonitor report, the apparel and textile industry in Sub-Saharan Africa is already $31 billion. It definitely was not worth this much a few decades ago!
The fashion landscape in Africa is changing and I applaud those that are taking it by the horns and running with it to the rest of the world. However, let’s not forget to make sure that we are actually telling our own style story instead of letting others interpret and tell it for us.
See this picture below? It’s by artist Michael Tompsett and I absolutely love it…I don’t know what it means to you, but to me I see the diversity on the continent and the fact that we each have different parts to play in telling our African story. The future is ours for the taking if we choose to believe it, but most importantly, if we show the world that fashion from Africa can’t be placed in a box and just labelled as “ethnic”. Style is just style. And we certainly do have that on the continent.