Dec 11 2011

the politics of African fashion

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 1:43 PM

I had my own tailor for some years in Accra, Ghana. His bright-colored shop is located behind the main drag in the trendy Osu neighgborhood, on Kuku Hill, his front door facing onto the Independence Square and the ocean. Many a later afternoon, I talked fashion with him and enjoyed the sea breeze.

My tailor, like many tailors in Africa, fancied himself foremost as a designer, and a rather fine one. He did have a flair for integrating retro-hippe styles with the enduring colors and fabrics appreciated in the coastal belt running from Dakar to Lome. Often, he made outfits for me from scratch: top-and-down, drawstrings, from intricately-pattern waxed cotton or sometimes “political suits” made of plainer fabric and useful to wear to meetings with government officials or local businessmen. He also made unusual shirts and sleeveless tunics that could be worn to Labadi beach and came with matching drawstrings.

I can’t say that everything my tailor created worked, but I always appreciated his self-confidence. He knew his vision and he presented his clothing without fear or apology. That he made every single outfit in his shop with his own sewing machine and hands lent a certain gravitas to him.

He often talked about becoming a fashion designer, but he had no sense of scale. He didn’t have a single employee, and he often went to the market himself to buy fabrics. At my request, he’d usually accompany me on such trips, and I might treat him to lunch as compensation. But the notion of manufacturing clothes was beuond him. He made clothes from his mind’s eye – and for humans he knew, touched, heard.

Fashion in West Africa is a poor man’s glamour in which I eagerly participated because, even by the standards of local elites, I was poor. The cost of looking good, while not trivial, could well be afforded by anyone with the some sort of regular employment.

That’s still true, but with machine-made clothes flooding Africa now – mainly new garments from China and India but also used clothes from charities in America and Europe – the fidelity to local tailors is declining. Mine soldiers on, living off the legacy of a long reputation for quality and service. But many tailors have surrendered to market forces they neither understand nor approve of. Most of them, bereft of great design ideas, face a race with anonymous and distant machines – a race they’re losing.

There are exceptions, designers who because of education or priviledge or sheer determination, have risen to achieve international recognition – and this despite the existence of an African factory system that could produce small batches of high-quality clothing. In her original and much-needed new book, Helen Jennings, a fashion journalist, has documented and profiled leaders in “New African Fashion,” as she titles her book. The results are captivating — and amply demonstrate that African design, while not spawning yet a fashion industry of any scale or scope, is at least gaining a global audience of sophisticates.

African clothing designers remain vulnerable to the predations of European, American and even Asian designers who seize on exotic motifs in African fashion and present them, drained of meaning and often in fragmented ways, to their own distant tribes. But increasingly, the fruits of uniquely-talented African designers cannot be stolen wholesale. At least not without the risk of global approbation.

And that’s an improvement, a sign that in fashion, as in some much else, the normal and functional in African life is taking center stage.

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