“From a nation with nothing to wear other than what we had borrowed from afar or from history books, we now have rather a lot of wardrobe options. We have also shown that we have a truly unique contribution to make to the fashion planet,” - these are the contentious words of award-winning South African author and journalist, Adam Levin, who documents the remarkable revolution of the world of fashion in Africa. Further placing the spotlight on how deeply entrenched and complex the history of clothing go in Africa.
Artist Unrecorded. Asante (Ashanti). Ghana. Kente. Undated. Silk / Rayon. Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum) - Acquired 1997
The complexities of the relationship between fashion and identity has also shown the innovation of African artists and designers in the global stages.From being perceived as ‘primitive’ and ‘naïve’, it can be said that Africa has “progressed” in ways that have redefined the image of the continent in positive ways. Adam further writes that over the past few centuries, there has been little attention paid to African design and innovation and how it interacts with western expressive modes. While traditional garments are still worn in certain ceremonies in some locales such as the rural and peri -urban, African fashion has evolved to incorporate a mix of styles and influences.
But what we are witnessing in the contemporary world of fashion today, is a complete reinvention of historical styles in contemporary idioms that sought to portray an undeniably Contemporary Afro Urban aesthetic. In other words, todays designers and creatives continue to draw from past styles and influences as part of designs. Artists and designers such as Laduma Ngxokolo, draw from indigenous techniques and cultural practices such as beadwork and weaving for inspiration for his designs.
Ngxokolo often looks at the kinds of pieces in the current exhibition 40 Years of Collecting: A Celebration of the Standard Bank African Art Collection exhibition, as a source of reference that make his designs distinctly different. Ngxokolo also takes inspiration from his own cultural background by embracing his Xhosa roots and upbringing. It is, therefore, for this reason that Art and Fashion can be seen to share many commonalities. However, it is only in the past decade, that there has been a rise visionary designer who have been drawing on what has gone before and what surrounds us, and weaving those threads into contemporary clothing. Leaders in this space have included the likes of Stone Cherrie, Ginger Mary and Loxion Kulture.
Maxhosa by Laduma, Lagos Fashion Week 2018
Art, whether it is expressed through music, performance art and fine art, are but a few influences that continue to play a meaningful role in the creation of the fashion we see today. It is said by cultural scholars such as Comme des Garçons that the two worlds of art and fashion go a long way into history, almost as far as the Renaissance. Art in its own aspect has followed humanity through its times and so too has the world of fashion.
This can be for many reasons but mainly because fashion evolves from season to season, and designers are influenced by any number of things. African art styles have long since been influencing the runway, from simple African patterns to more intricate representations of African culture and people. But not much focus may have been given to them previously because of the prevailing western trends and ideology. But designers such as Ngxokolo have been able to transcend the perceptions towards African artistic expression and launch an international South African and African brand in the global arena.
Artist Unrecorded. Xhosa. Uvetiboyi (Chest/body piece). Undated. Beads, wire. Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum) - Acquired 1989According to Retail South Africa (2018) African art continues to be a place of reference and African designers are embracing their roots, using African fabrics and textiles to disrupt traditional Western views of what ‘African art’ and fashion really is. Authentic African techniques of creating textiles highlight the tradition and culture of the continent, showing the Western world of design that Africa is a veritable powerhouse when it comes to ingenuity and style. For years the ‘African’ style has been seen only as animal prints and beads, but the world is waking up to the fact that African fashion designers and artists have so much more to say.