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.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Of Being a Simplicista

My Dooney & Bourke All Weather Bag : a simplicista's score. Bought under $100 on sale, daily usage for the last 4 years, complements most of my looks, excellent quality.

I was a fashionista pilling up trends without considering if they truly reflected my inner self. Since everybody was wearing a certain trend, I had to follow it, to be trendy, to fit in.  Consequently, I was wearing only 30% of my wardrobe on a daily basis, leaving now-untrendy stuff behind and hesitating to wear things that didn’t fit my lifestyle well. My closet was overflowing with clothes. The economic conjuncture of the preceding years turned me into a recessionista: a girl with an urge for fashion in search of good bargains to continue feeding her shopping desires.  I said desires and not needs, because most of us, fashion-obsessed people, do not actually need more clothes...Being a recessionista made me a smarter shopper. I start asking myself questions before buying anything new. “Will this fit my current wardrobe? Will I wear this piece more than once? How would this item complement my closet?”

This shopping attrition became voluntary even though my wallet was loosening up its belt. I didn’t want to serve consumerism anymore. I was happy to spend less on clothes and more on activities, travels and my house and a sense of freedom came with decluttering my closet and having less but better coordinated clothes.  I became what I would call a “simplicista”. 

I prefer that term to minimalist because I am far from being one. Minimalists are people who intentionally possess very little. They apply this philosophy not only to their closet, but to all the aspects of their life. Their whole closet would fit in a suitcase, which is obviously not my case. I think in the fashion world the term minimalist has been denaturalized often meaning wearing simple outfits à la Jil Sander. However, is someone who wears simple outfits but possesses 200 pairs of shoes truly a minimalist? I doubt it, but the ambiguity of this term is not the topic of this post. 

A simplicista locates herself at the middle of the spectrum of fashionology between the fashionista and the true minimalist. She possesses less, but not at the extent of the later. Her purchases are well-thought out; quality, uniqueness and necessity being her main criteria.  Mainly made of basics, her wardrobe is rather simple, but she might spice it up with statement pieces, that might be trendy but always true to her style and her inner self. She has a very good idea who she is and she wants her wardrobe to emulate that despite what is “in” and “out”. Her simplicity is the reflection of her sophistication.

I think I enjoy more fashion this way because it forces me to see the lower layers of it. Materials, construction, place of production, scarcity, the origin and the history of the trends and the brands became more important. However, I must admit that it is not always easy resisting trends, especially when blogs and the media are constantly sending you subliminal messages through repetitive exposures to the same item worn by celebrities and bloggers and seen on the streets.  You end up saying that Isabel Marant’s Willows are “not that bad”, although you hated them when you first saw them and you know that you won't wear them a lot if you bought them, but you still secretly desire them...

Being a simplicista is not always easy: attrition, voluntary or not, is always a war.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Of High Heels

YSL Tribute Heels. 5.5 inches high.

I am quite short and I used to be embarrassed by my little stature. So, I wore high heels throughout college, almost everyday, despite the pain. I was telling myself that with time it won't hurt anymore, but you never totally get used to the pain despite the thick callus that grows under your feet...University arrived with a boost of self-confidence and I accepted that super high heels weren't made for me. They make me self-conscious and uneasy. I do believe that if you are not comfortable in your shoes or in your clothes, they are not worth wearing.
Before buying new shoes I now ask myself if I can run after bus in them. If not, I forget them.
I mostly wear at the highest 2.5-inch heels or platforms beside my collection of flat shoes. Thanks to Celine SS 2011 collection, these are back in fashion and budding everywhere!
Finding 2.5-inch heeled boots is relatively easy. The problem occurs with evening shoes. They are not only rare, but they often look unattractive if the heels are not made perfectly, but I would discuss about this issue in another post...

For those willing to quit wearing sky-high heels, but who don't have the courage yet, here are 5 reasons to avoid wearing high heels.

1. If you don't look poised and sexy in them, avoid them. A woman who cannot walk properly in heels is quite unattractive...

2. You won't be as conscious of your feet anymore and you'll enjoy your surroundings a bit more while walking. 

3. You'll spare your ankles from a painful fall and you'll avoid the embarrassment that comes with it...

4. Over time, wearing high heels will cause permanent damage to your feet (bunions), your ankles, your knees and your back. High heels push the center of your poise forward. Consequently, your legs are misaligned and your weight badly distributed on them. You'll end up wearing orthopedic shoes at 50...

5.  Why wasting your money on items you won't wear often? 

Not being able to wear high heels might feel like a blow to your female ego, but there are great feminine alternatives.
1. Flatforms, platforms and wedges:  have the height without the pain.
The Celine wedges, responsible of their huge popularity this summer.

Rumi rocking the Isabel Marant Zora wedges.

2. Kitten heels : elevated with demeanor.
Those Valentino heels stand tall beside their steep counterpart.

Ashley Oslen is quite feminine in her

What is your experience with high heels? Do you  have other good reasons to avoid wearing high heels?