Saturday, October 27, 2012

Of the Art of Hand Painting

Michele Lamy (Jak & Jil)

I stumbled upon those mysterious and intriguing fingers over a year ago on Jak & Jil  to discover that the belong to Rick Owens' muse and spouse, Michele Lamy and then my memory of them slowly faded until recently while browsing through my impressive collection of inspiration pictures.
Back in 2011, when the pictures were taken, Michele's hands started a mini-trend on the runways, designers like Mara Hoffman and Juan Carlo Obango painting the fingers of their models to create a raw, shadowy and exotic look.

Backstage Mara Hoffman F/W 2011 (Source)

Juan Carlos Obando's Golden Fingers (Source)

I always wondering what was the meaning behind those darkened fingers...Where did Michele find her inspiration? Why has she painted her fingers so?
So the wanna-be anthropologist in me did a little research on the subject and I came up with this...

1. Mehndi


When it comes to the concept of hand painting, Mehndi is the first thing that pops into my mind. Mehndi is the millenial art of  henna painting practiced from India to Northern Africa passing by the Middle East. Henna plants are believe to bring love, good fortune and protection from evil. That's why they are used traditionally for important rites of passage such as weddings or pregnancies.

Henna paste is made from the leaves of the plant. It was also used to dye wool, silk, animals and hair. We can trace back usage of henna down to the Ancient Egyptian era on the nails and hair of mommies!

The beautiful shapes created with the paste of the plants' leaves are not randomly chosen. Each pattern has a meaning and the body part on which it is painted brings an extra dimension to its symbolism.

Palms = opening and offering
Back of hand = protection
Left hand = receptive
Feet = Point of contact with the divine.
Peacock = beauty
Paisley = fertility; good luck.

You can find a throughout list of the different meanings of the designs here.

2. Bong Seon Hwa


In Korea, every Spring women stain their fingers with Garden Balsam leaves after the rain season. The plant leaves a beautiful orange color on their nails that lasts few weeks. It is an ancient tradition which was originally done to ward off evil spirits in addition to its aesthetic use.
It is said that if the color remains until the first snow fall, you'll marry your true love...As a currently single woman, I'd like to put that to the test!

To achieve this look, you have to crush the leaves and the flowers of  a Garden Balsam plant and then apply the paste on your fingers that you'll wrap subsequently for the night. For a darker hue, the process can be repeated the next night. Initially the stain will be on the skin and the nails, but as time goes by it will  fade off the skin to leave only the nails stained hopefully until winter...

3. Election ink


This form  of finger inking is more of a political act and than fashionable statement although there is something quite stylish about it. In countries where a digital identity reconnaissance system is not securely installed, voters' fingers are inked to make sure they only voted once.

"Electoral stain typically contains a pigment for instant recognition, and silver nitrate which stains the skin on exposure to ultraviolet light, leaving a mark that is impossible to wash off and is only removed as external skin cells are replaced. Industry standard electoral inks contain 10%, 14% or 18% silver nitrate solution, depending on the length of time the mark is required to be visible. Although normally water-based, electoral stains occasionally contain a solvent such as alcohol to allow for faster drying, especially when used with dipping bottles, which may also contain a biocide to ensure bacteria aren't transferred from voter to voter."
 - Election Ink, Wikipedia.

The ink can last up to a month to make sure that it stays on until the elections are completed.

While travelling in Honduras, during the last elections, I could feel a sense of pride from the people displaying their  inked fingers. In countries where democracy is often baffled, voting becomes an united effort of the people to try to make a change for the better egardless of their political views, an effort that often has been recently highly paid in the History of some of these countries. It was beautiful to see people display their blue fingers with so much hope in their smiles and joy in their eyes that I actually wished I could join them...

I haven't been able to find a origin of Michele's black fingers inspiration, but I sense it is probably for good fortune or protection from evil. I remember reading somewhere that in a tribe of the Amazonian forest women do paint their fingers black for a reason I cannot recall right now...

Nevertheless, I find the idea so appealing that I am considering giving it a try eventually!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Of Personalizing Bags

My new place is taking all my time since I moved! As I was opening boxes, I fell upon my Saddleback Leather Company bag and it reminded me of the lovely video Garance Dore made in Japan for Dior, personalizing her Lady throughout her travels. I think this is a great idea - her bag wasn't just another Lady anymore by the end of the trip, it became hers - recognizable among billions and, that, gives it more value.

Jane Birkin gave an interview to Vogue concerning the coveted Hermes bag that bears her name and her similar treatment towards them. Unlike many celebrities who collect barely touched Hermes bags, she has only owned four Birkin in her life since they came out in the early 80s. 

Her bags are not only accessories that complement her looks, they actually serve beyond their initial purpose as cat beds and umbrellas! She also puts stickers and lucky charms on them. Through that rough but loving treatment the bags become a part of herself by shaping her lifestyle, imprinting familiar smells and materializing sweet memories...Owning less made her truly appreciative of the value of the bags she possessed. 

I like that  philosophy and I am intending to apply it to my bags too...What is the goal of owning several designer bags if each of them is scarcely used? Aren't they firstly sought after for their long standing quality. Such a quality should be tested with daily usage...

So, this Saddleback Leather Company satchel would serve as my first canvas. I bought it last Fall for my travel aboard. Since I tend to wonder out of the beaten roads, I wanted a tough bag that will be to able to follow for years. According to the company, they are guaranteed 100 years and my grandkids will fight over it at my death. I have no problem believing that: the leather and the craftsmanship are of premium quality!

 I haven't used it much yet since I haven't left the country since I bought it, but I can't wait to give it tougher love and to leave marks of interesting places I'll go on it.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Of the Roaring Twenties

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris
Since I saw Midnight in Paris, I have been obsessed with the Roaring Twenties. Women were acquiring the right to vote around the globe. A growing number of women were working and becoming able to support their family by themselves. It was the beginning of a female revolution and it materialized itself in the garments and the changing customs of the days. The flapper was born.

Being a flapper was about becoming someone and starting a fresh new life different from the one of your predecessors. To celebrate that philosophy I chose to wear a 20s inspired dress for my graduation in few days. I bought this lovely Alice & Olivia  fringe dress during Boxing Day sales for almost nothing. It was on my wish list since last summer and I cannot wait to wear it next weekend!

Alice & Olivia dress and Miss Sixty shoes.

The term flapper originates from Great Britain where it became fashionable among young women to wear rubber galoshes left open to flap when they walked. The nickname stayed and became the synonym of  young liberated women who were sexy, bold and confident, defying the rules of the time concerning how a woman should carry herself. They were smoking, wearing their hair short, putting makeup in public, going out unchaperoned. They were dancing on jazz music, showing off their legs and having sex before marriage!


Coco Chanel helped popularized the look with her "garçonne" look through  simple garments that took over the fashion industry putting the emphasis on practicality adapting the garment to the female body instead of the opposite. Actresses and public figures like Clara Bow and Josephine Baker epitomized the style and the philosophy of the flapper through their carefree lifestyle and fashion sense. Middle class young women started walking into their footsteps.

High fashion until the 1920s has been a privilege of the rich. The dresses of the era were easier to make at home. So less fortunate people were able to reproduce these fashionable dresses unlike the more complex ones made in the previous eras - blurring the fashion lines between the upper class and the middle class.

Clara Bow. The 1920s It-girl.
Josephine Baker. Another prominent figure of the 1920s.

The typical flapper dress was boxy and it hung straight from the shoulders to the knee without a waistline leaving women free to move as they wished unlike the corset that the more conservative women were still wearing. Unlike most of us might think, that typical dress wasn't really in fashion until 1926. However, the media was so drenched with its images they it became the image of an whole decade. There were several other models but that will be the object of another post...

Flappers wear the reflection of an era of change, but they were only that - an image. They weren't challenging the traditional model of womanhood in the society. For most of them, getting married and having kids was their main goal in life like it was of their older counterparts, reproducing the conservative ultimate values and behavior. Behind the liberating images many women were imposing themselves diets and wearing restraining bras to have that lean hipless and breastless figure, which is not exactly my interpretation of a liberating lifestyle. Despite its superficiality, that new trend was threatened for many. Although harmless in facts, it was still challenging the social role of women. Thus, many states in the United States banned hemlines that wear shorter than 3 inches above the ankle and companies wear firing women who were wearing bobbed hair, which is a sufficient reason to sport the style according to me - as a form of protestation against the minified role of women in the society.

Unfortunately, the Roaring Twenties drastically ended with the depression of 1929. These were short lived but intense years.

There have been a recurred revival of the 1920s since. The 1970s were a form of revival themselves. Weren't women liberating themselves again, burning their bras and wearing boxy short dresses again? Plus the twiggy -  the sister silhouette of the flapper -  was in style.  Another revival started in 2007  in the fashion industry which extended to the film industry with popular series like Boardwalk Empire and the upcoming release of the remake of the Great Gatsby by the end of the year.  

Alberta Ferretti, Etro, Roberto Cavalli, Gucci (Source)


Being a fan of Coco Chanel, I think the 1920s form an era that will always have an important place in my closet. I have to find the perfect lipstick and hairstyle to complement my look for next Saturday though...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Of African Fabrics & Fashion : Part 3

I have discussed about the origins of dutch wax prints in a previous post, but many different fabrics shape the face of African textile. Here is a brief presentation of the most notable ones.

Mud cloth

Wilsdom African Design

Mud cloth, also called Bogolan and Bogolanfini, is a typical Malian textile mainly produces by the Bambara people. It is traditionally dyed with fermented mud and is considered a symbol of Malian culture. It was once worn by warriors.

A Wikipedia article on mud cloth describes well the dyeing process:

"The dyeing [...] begins with a step invisible in the finished product: The cloth is soaked in a dye bath made from mashed and boiled, or soaked, leaves of the n'gallama tree. Now yellow, the cloth is sun-dried and then painted with designs using a piece of metal or wood. The paint, carefully and repeatedly applied to outline the intricate motifs, is a special mud, collected from riverbeds and fermented for up to a year in a clay jar. Thanks to a chemical reaction between the mud and the dyed cloth, the brown color remains after the mud is washed off. Finally, the yellow n'gallama dye is removed from the unpainted parts of the cloth by applying soap or bleach rendering them white" - Wikipedia.

Mud cloth prints are well established in the various levels of the fashion industry as a recurrent pattern for summer collections and are often simply referred as "tribal".  I think they have been beautifully represented by Sass & Bide or MaxMara collections below. 

Sass & Bide FW 2011
I really like the pairing of the top above with the black and red statement necklace.

MarMara SS 2010
I can definitely picture myself wearing such a scarf with a mud cloth pattern (picture below) next winter. It is simple, but raw and it would work perfectly with my dark winter wardrobe. I wish I could travel to Mali to get an authentic one...


Kente cloth
A Kente patchwork. ( Source)

Kente cloth is made of interwoven silk and cotton cloth strips. It takes its origin among the Ashanti people living in today's Ghana and was developed mostly in the 17th century. It was only reserved for royals and only used for limited social and religious functions. Up to this day, it is given as a present for important celebrations such as birth or marriages, but it is also widely worn by the general population on a daily basis. African Americans are wearing garments made from this fabric in their Kwanzaa celebrations.

"Kente is used not only for its beauty but also for its symbolic significance. Each cloth has a name and a meaning; and each of the numerous patterns and motifs has a name and a meaning. Names and meanings are derived from historical events, individual achievements, proverbs, philosophical concepts, oral literature, moral values, social code of conduct of conduct, human behavior and certain attributes of plant and animal life." (Source)

A Kente jacket. Unknown source.

I am not personally a fan of the fabric despite its noble origins. That heavy mix of different types of stripes is very confusing to me and I don't think that blue, green and orange, colors often present in the  same kente pattern, complement each other very well. However if used with moderation, the pattern can add a kick to an outfit. 

An effective used of kente. Proprpostur.

 Kuba cloth

Senegal Soul

Kuba cloth comes from the Kuba people living in the current Democratic Republic of Congo. Its production is appointed to both men and women. Men are responsible for growing, tending, harvesting and weaving the cloth which is made from raffia tree and women are responsible for preparing it for decoration, for treating it with plant dyes and for making the cut pile embroidered panels. Some of the decorative techniques added by both men and women over centuries are applique and reverse applique, dyeing, tie-dyeing and resisted-dyeing, certain types of embroidery as well as patchwork. The Kuba’s first contemporary use of the cloth is at funerals, especially for wealthy elders. The traditional techniques used to create the cloth have survived because of these funerals, giving us the possibility to continue to enjoy the astonishing creative of the Kuba.

"There are several different sub groups of the Kuba people. Each group has different and unique ways to make the fabric. Some make it thicker, longer, shorter, or with different patches. Each patch is symbolic and many times a piece has many different meanings. When Kuba cloth originated there were probably no patches used, but as the cloth is brittle it is quite likely that the patches were used to repair the frequent tears. Later each patch developed a meaning, many patterns are uniquely arranged to tell a story." (Source)

The Kasai velvet, a particular type of Kuba cloth, is created by a combination of embroidery and a cut pile technique. The fibers are held together by the tightness of the weave of the base cloth without being tied. The weaving is made without planning thus creating often a change of pattern on a single clothe, which adds uniqueness to each piece created. It can take up to two years to create a piece like those seen below.
Kasai velvet close up view. (Source)

The Kuba cloth has made its way into modern mainstream interior design. Cut pile clothes are very sturdy and versatile and can be used as decorative pillow cases, rugs or tapestry.

Kuba cloth pillows. (Source)

Kuba cloth pillows integrated in living room decoration (Source)

This post closes my excursion into African textiles. Several books are available for detailed explanations on the origins, the making and the use of these fabrics. A friend recommended me John Gillow's African Textile saying that it is definitely a reference on the subject for those wanting to have an in dept view of it. It is available on

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Of African Fabrics & Fashion : Part 2

The Fashion Industry summer collections have been bewitched by the so-called “African” or “tribal” prints during the last seasons, Burberry being one of the last luxury brands to jump in the wagon with its SS 2012 collection.
Burberry Prorsum SS 2012.

I must say that I am not really impressed by the collection. The pattern used are rather boring and the design, common. I grew up surrounded by women wearing these traditional prints and the ones picked by Burberry remind me of what my aunts were calling “cleaning dresses”: dresses of poor quality and with dull prints worn only at home. This choice surprises me considering the vast array of more vibrant prints available today...
Many people of African descent, mainly those living in Western countries, have long considered these printed fabrics as second class compared to the so-called European ones, keeping them for cultural gatherings and in-house usage, but I think that the fact that Junya Watanabe and Burberry have brought them to the level of luxury goods will change their perception not only in the Western world in general, but also among people of African descent. 
Junya Watanabe SS 09
I am specifying “people of African descent”, because within Africa, at least in the countries I have visited, these “traditional” prints are worn by people from all social classes and are more than only traditional garments. They are part of the modern everyday wardrobe as jeans are part of our wardrobe here. I have only observed that degrading view among people of African descent living in Western countries. Is this attitude a consequence of the colonialist era? Is it because the categorization of these garments as "ethnic" in the Western world is compelling immigrants and their kids to avoid them so that they could feel better integrated? I don't know the answer but, few years ago, I wouldn’t have considered wearing such dresses out of "ethnic" celebrations, but my way of viewing things has evolved.

Like most subjects concerning the Dark Continent, there is a lot of generalization concerning “African” prints. This sole appellation overshadows the fact that Africa is a vast continent, not a country, with several different ethnic groups having their own distinct culture and their own distinct historical fabrics. 
Presenting all these different fabrics and their history would necessitate a book and I have no intention of producing such a work. I will discuss in another post of the main type of fabrics found on the continent, but my current post focuses on the origins and the current usage of the wax print, the one used by Watanabe, Burberry, Gwen Stefani and co.

Lamb SS 2011

Although identified as African, these prints are not of African origin and are a good  example of globalization and cultural appropriation. They were first imported within the continent by Dutch  merchants in the 19th century. The Dutch were inspired by Javanese batik prints. Indonesians were using a traditional wax resist dyeing technique.The wax was used to stop the dye from reaching the whole fabric to create patterns. 

Javanese Batik in Making
Javanese Batik. Wikipedia.

The Dutch copy them and tried to reproduce printed cheaper versions to take over the Indonesian market. However, the patterns they created were breaking up easily compared to the local ones. Their industry hasn't flourished in Asia consequently.

There is no certainty concerning the way the Dutch wax patterns made their way into the African continent. Some think that Dutch merchants having the printed fabrics in their boats and stopping along African ports slowly created a local market. Others think that African soldiers sent to Indonesia at the beginning of the 19th century brought them back home. Nevertheless, they became rapidly popular and spread from West Africa to the whole continent.

They were mainly produced by Europeans until the independence wave of the 1950s-1960s. Local production has been promoted since, many African companies creating good quality fabrics, but the Dutch brands (and the European ones in general) are still considered as the reference on the market. Vlisco, a Dutch company founded at the beginning of the expansion of the wax print on the continent in the 1800s, is probably the best known company producing these wax prints. They are the only remaining European-owned wax print company. Vlisco prints are the incarnation of luxury wax prints and most wealthy people wear garments made with their fabrics. 

Recently, thanks to globalization, Chinese started production wax print fabrics too, cheaper than their African and European counterparts. Unlike the Europeans ones, they are only printed on one side. They are gaining popularity among the poorer layers of society. 

Dresses made with Vlisco luxury line of wax prints. Aren't these prints more interesting than Burberry's? I think so personally...

These fabrics fulfill both a cultural and practical role in today’s society deeply ingrained as a cultural aspect of most African cultures.They are given as presents in weddings often being part of the dowry. They are used unaltered as a wrap skirt called "pagne" in the ex-French colonies. They are often the expression of a person's religious or political affiliation with printed scriptures or pictures of political figures on them. 

The mixed origins of the wax print and the reductionist view of the West on these prints bring up many questions. 

Some question their authenticity as a part of African culture at large since they are of Asian origin and European importation. I personally do consider them as fully African regardless of their origin because they have been fully incorporated in the way of life of Today's Africans. People have been influencing each others and exchanging since the beginning of Humanity. Nothing is purely of a single origin. We are the results  of centuries of mixing. A blending that has been accentuated in the recent years because of the improvements of technology.  Tomatoes are incorporated in most traditional cuisines today, but they are of American origin. Australian consider surf has one of their national sports but it is of Polynesian origin. Most peoples consider bicycles as a part of their lifestyle, but they are of German origin! Whatever the origin of an invention, when it is included and adapted to a culture, it becomes its own also, according to me.

However, I do not agree with these fabrics being referred as "tribal". There is something very static about that term as if they were part of a past that is not evolving. Do you think that the dress worn by the Vlisco models above look tribal? I don't think so...The art of wax printing has changed since its introduction on the continent and it is very much modern. The stereotypical staging of these African inspired designer collections helps reinforced that "tribal" vision with silly haystack on the model  and rhythmic music. 

Many African designers are actually using these wax prints as a basic material for their collections pairing them with other fabrics such as leather, wool or silk. They are not well-known in the Western world yet, but they are slowly gaining recognition. I personally think that their collections don't have anything to envy to Burberry and that they don't look tribal at all although 100% African.

My favourite ones are Asibelua and Jewel by Lisa who both presented their SS 2012 collection at New York Fashion Week.

Asibelua SS 2012
 Asibelua was founded by Nigerian-born designer Fati Asibelua. Her collection is only available in a Greece and the UK for the moment... The British boutique receiving her collection, Mooi London, will be opening an online shop soon. Hopefully, that last dress on the right will still be available by then. I am totally fascinated by it!
Jewel by Lisa SS 2012
Jewel by Lisa SS 2012

Jewel by Lisa is another designer brand founded by a Nigerian, Lisa Folawiyo. She is probably one of the best known African designers. Her brand has been worn by a few celebrities like Solange Knowles.

I hope this little excursion in the world of wax print has lightened up your interest for African designers. It made me want to own one or two pieces. A dress and a colorful blazer would be nice...:-)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Of African Fabrics and Fashion: Part 1

I know that the temperatures are hitting the 30s on the 49th parallel. However seeing Louis Vuitton Menswear SS 2012 scarves made me long for Fall. They constitute the perfect wrap over a black leather jacket to brighten up the fading lights of Autumn.

Jak & Jil
These scarves have been inspired by the traditional wear of the Maasai, a semi-nomadic people living in the plains of Kenya and Tanzania. They preserved their millenarian life habits despite the effort of governments to convert them to a sedentary life.Their livelihood, their wealth as well as their culture revolved around their cattle. However, the Maasai were forced to adopt a sedentary lifestyle by past governments which limited the grazing of their cattle. It was believed that their lifestyle was jeopardizing the wildlife of the Serengeti Park where they mainly lived. These actions has led to the loss of a great portion of their cattle. They adapted themselves over time, now cultivating some cereals, such as maize, which have become a big part of their livelihood. Park boundaries and land privatization are continuing to limit grazing area and have forced them to change considerably, many being chased from their lands. Their existence is compromised up to this day.  Many had to abandon their traditional lifestyle, although willing to go back to their roots from time to time when possible. However, over the years, many projects have begun to help Maasai tribal leaders find ways to preserve their traditions while  providing education to their children for the modern world.

The traditional clothing worn by Maasai is called  "shuka". It used to be made of animal skin, but the latter has been replaced by cotton. It is a large piece of fabric worn by both men and women differently depending on the occasion and the personal style of each person. They are usual red being a form of camouflage for the rusted sandy area in which the Maasai live, but they come in many colors and patterns. The pattern used by Louis Vuitton is the most recognizable one.

The shuka also inspired Thakoon Fall 2011 collection.

Thakoon 2011 Masai Coat

Thakoon Panichgul reaffirmed his love and support of that region of Africa, by creating a $250 Masai scarf whose total proceeds were to be given to an international children's relief organization in the Horn of Africa. Considering the struggle of the people from which his collection was inspired, giving them support for that inspiration is very noble.