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...:-)

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