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The Curse of the African Print

June 28, 2015

I have always thought that this whole African fabric ”trend” will fade away. I mean, how far can imitation continue to be ”of the highest flattery”? It either is or it creates a creative block, which is now more evident than ever in some African designers. It may seem that anyone who has the ability to string together some African print is now a ”designer.” No disrespect: When the African print became a phenomenon, it was like ”manna from heaven” for the African fashion industry. What we did not anticipate was the flooding of the market with mass-produced prints, which have become more of a nuisance than a joy. The heightened interest in African prints as ‘trend-worthy’ has resulted in masses within the fashion industry jumping on the bandwagon of African print. The excitement for me has long gone, and I am left with a constant chill that denotes a fear of what is to come.

From the onset, there should have been some sort of branding structure that would form the basis of a guideline on how the print phenomenon would be controlled. This perhaps would not be practical, considering the controversy that surrounds the fabric itself. The notion that Africa has the biggest market for these fabrics does not qualify them to originate from Africa? NO! Are they manufactured in Africa? NO! The bulk of quality wax prints have always been manufactured in Holland by VLISCO, since centuries ago. Did they steal designs and fabric technology from Africa? Absolutely not!

History says the print originated in Bali, Indonesia. The Dutch were head over heels in love with the concept; so much that they did not want to use it themselves. But far beyond lay a market that would have an even higher demand for their pockets. Meanwhile, in Africa, we threw our own made-in-Africa textile out of the window and ‘conveniently’ named fabrics that originate in Indonesia, use Indonesian patterns and are made by the Dutch as African prints. #sigh

My stomach still churns when I see that print appear on the catwalk. In a recent experience at a fashion week, it turned out that three designers had the same fabric used for their collections. Even more irritating were the similarities in the collections. As a designer myself, I have to stand up and point out how ridiculous that situation was; if not for lack of creativity, there is some sort of twisted idea that a garment made by an African designer has to look like it was made in Africa. Details of the latter will probably constitute a lynching ceremony on my behalf, but when we start judging quality and ability based on where it is made, we are just opening up more room for misconceptions. Africa standing alone as a continent is always under scrutiny, with the rest of the world mouthing its inability to use its vast resources.

I do not necessarily think that this idea of ‘Africanness’ has to be stamped onto everything. The idea is to incorporate concepts that are ‘globally user friendly’ and can be sold anywhere in the world. There are designers such as the Italian-born Stella Jean, who uses the African print in a remarkable way and has been one of the major influences of the print in mainstream fashion. While I have to admire her design aesthetic, I cannot help but wonder where this places African designers who seem to have an ‘ownership’ chip on their shoulder. My take is while Western designers take a higher platform with the print, African designers are booted out of the race, making our creations somewhat irrelevant.

The debate regarding the exploitation of Africa by Western designers continues. I dare say we are all in that bandwagon of exploitation. It is just business, after all. Everyone here is trying to make money, and while we continue to advocate for ”African prints” to be recognized globally, it is with much shame that our own consumers on the continent do not have full appreciation of it. That, on its own, sends messages to the rest of the world. I guess where I’m going with this is that we should at least acknowledge that we’ve got to try harder not to be one-trick ponies. Africa is bursting with inspiration, and to be identified as the industry that refers to Indonesian Fabric as ”African Print’ is not short of being the real fraudsters.

Photo Courtesy of Tirivame


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