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Opinion | African Culture: A One-Sided Relationship With Luxury Fashion

Since the late 60s Africa, alongside the Safari trend, have been a recurring theme on both national and international runways

YSL African beaded dresses. Yves Saint Laurent retrospective 2002 (YSL Spring/Summer 1967)

Back in 1967, Yves Saint Lauren’s African & Safari collection caused quite "a stir" in the fashion world. The collection was heavily beaded and feathered and took it's inspiration from the fantasy and exoticism of traditional cultural African dress.

Jean-Paul Gaultier also centered his haute couture collection of Spring/ Summer 2005 around an African aesthetic, he even went as far to name it "Hommage à l’Afrique" (Tribute to Africa). The designer is best known for his satire approach to dress-making. The last look in the show, was unforgettable, for all the wrong reasons. A gown embossed with a three-dimensional African mask, hung from the body of a white model wearing cornrows.

La Mariee dress Jean Paul Gaultier Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2005

Following on from Gaultier's 2005 ode to Africa, numerous designers followed suit. Both Ralph Lauren and Hermes Spring Ready-To-Wear 2009 collections were drenched in colonialism. In this same season Marc Jacobs sent an army of dejected white models down the runway bearing "tribal" inspired shoes and accessories for the Spring 2009. Let's not forget, this was also the same season where John Galliano designed stilettos with African Fertility symbols for Dior. Paul Smith's Spring collection of 2010 channeled Congolese sapeurs.

The Valentino Ready-to-Wear collection of Spring 2016 takes the prize for being the most problematic

Every single look within the Valentino collection managed to explicitly and offensively appropriate and trivialise African culture and identity. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli may have had "good intentions" as the focus of their collection was supposed to be about the humanitarian crisis of Senegalese, Malian and Gambian refugees landing on the Italian coast. The initial vision lost its way. The Maisons described the collection as “primitive, tribal, spiritual – a journey to the beginning of time and the essential of primitive nature.”

The runway show was a tragedy. A horde of white models sashayed down the catwalk to the beat of bongo drums, cornrows and fake dreads, dresses embellished with Trade Beads, metal African masks, ivory feathered-bone necklaces and Kikuyu textiles made a debut. The underrepresentation of black models was shameful, 91% of the models were white, with only eight out of the show’s 87 looks given to black models. The editorial campaign was just as disheartening, as Ugandans were used as a mere backdrop in their own homeland.

Valentino Spring/Summer 2016 editorial campaign. Photography Steve McCurry

Another designer to successfully piss off the African diaspora was Junya Watanabe. His Spring/ Summer 2016 offering saw Batik and Kente fabrics draped over an army of all-white models, whose faces were decorated with traditional scarring of the Ugandan Karamojong tribe. The menswear counterpart was just as offensive, offering, yet again – an all white cast of models who donned Masaï beads, battle shields, spears and – yes, you guessed it – fake dreadlocks.

Louis Vuitton's Spring/Summer 2017 collection was yet another show flooded by African influences and very few models of colour. Needless to say, the show went on without a hitch, featuring a combination of animal and reptile leathers, Masaï-esque prints and a savannah colour palette.

Kenzo Folio, first edition. Photography - Ruth Ossai

Structural racism has been ingrained into the fibres of the fashion industry for decades, its struggle with diversity is something that has been well-documented over the years. There has been little progression with the representation of ethnicities, and there is still much work to do until an accurate reflection of the myriad of races in our society is achieved.

Ruth Ossai was commissioned to create a project for Kenzo Folio, which showcased pieces from the Kenzo Sprint/Summer 2017 collection. "Gidi Gidi Bu Ugwu Eze" (Unity is strength) was conceptualised for the first edition of Kenzo’s zine.

The most bewitching part of this visual exploration was that the garments were a secondary influence; and it was the exuberant celebration of Igbo people and Nigerian culture that was at the forefront. “For Nigerians, posing is so effortless— it’s a performance piece. They want to be photographed and represented in their own way.” Ossai tells Vogue. The most exciting thing about this editorial was that it emerged to represent actual Africans and was not an idea of what Africa is supposed to be, according to a non-African.

The current inclusion of black and brown bodies in recent editorial campaigns is indeed a nice touch from the likes of Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Kenzo and Nike. But we must not forget the fashion industry is not inclusive by nature. We can commend these designers for attempting to right their wrongs of inclusivity. However, there is still something about campaigns like these, which probe my scepticism.

How long will the fashion industry continue to romanticise over us, until it comes the time for them to feed into the culture of another group of indigenous people?

We can only hope - and send a few prayers towards the sky - that the dysfunctional relationship between luxury fashion, Africa, and Eurocentric beauty standards undergoes significant change.

Cultural appropriation is a frequent term that arises in the arts, it’s relentless. However, this term could only be dismissed once fashion houses begin to develop products in conjunction with local African artisans, printmakers and designers. Engaging and collaborating with creatives of the African diaspora to execute their visions with dignity, poise and a true affinity with the culture in question.

Edun has begun working with a collective of local African designers. According to Vogue, "it’s a move to refocus Edun’s identity and underline the label’s core mission: to support business in Africa and elevate the continent’s rich, artisanal crafts".

Hopefully, looking to Africa for all manner of inspiration won't just be the umpteenth colonialist and elitist trick of the fashion industry, resulting in further socio-economic tensions between Westernised countries and the African continent.

Photography: Kenzo Folio by Ruth Ossai. Edun Spring/Summer 2017 (Source: Vogue)

Words: Mag Ibiam

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