On the catwalk: how African art styles have influenced fashion

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African art stylesAfrican art stylesAfrican art styles

On the catwalk: how African art styles have influenced fashion

Fashion changes from season to season, and designers are influenced by any number of things from nature to music to art. African art styles have long since been influencing the catwalk, from simple tribal patterns to more intricate representations of African culture and people. Past examples include the iconic Yves Saint Laurent 1967 ‘Africa’ collection and Louis Vuitton's use of the Kenyan Shuke in its 2012 Spring collection.

However, contemporary African art styles have changed drastically and this has changed how the fashion world sees and understands it.


Combining couture with societal issues

African prints have been a style staple, but Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu is changing how these prints are used by combining them with couture fabrics and silhouettes. Olowu finds it interesting to note the level of sophistication that African people use when combining European fabrics with indigenous culture.

Often the fashion projects of big-name designers that include African fabrics, textiles and designs have more to them than simply creating beautiful clothing. Designer Alber Elbaz of Lanvin created stunning feather and bead neck pieces for his 2010 show, while Diane von Furstenberg created a tribal-style wrap dress for her summer collection. Elbaz spoke with the UN about potential projects for the brand in sub-Saharan Africa and von Furstenberg hosted co-hosted the “Women in the World” summit in New York with women from Nigeria and Libya as guests.


Authentic African techniques meet high fashion

Many designers who have visited the African continent have been pleasantly surprised by the techniques used in creating fabrics or art using block printing or beading. Contemporary African art also embraces these techniques, and these traditional methods cannot be faked in the fashion world.

More and more brands are moving away from simply putting Maasai beads onto a t-shirt but are now incorporating authentic techniques into their clothing and designs. Doing so gives the garment integrity and authority, making it a positive representation of Africa and African art. Designers are choosing African art as inspiration for their designs as they feel that there “are crafts that have not been explored in terms of [Western] fashion”.


Traditional views are changed

African designers are embracing their roots and using African fabrics and textiles to subvert traditional Western views of what ‘African art’ and fashion really is. Designers such as Lisa Folawiyo, Millie Collines and Loza Maleombho all utilise traditional African fabrics and prints in their collections but focus on modern silhouettes.

Transforming African fabrics into high fashion allows the world to see African art and culture in a different light. The dual focus of many African fashion labels is to promote their brand while also bringing awareness of their culture to the Western world. This can be seen in contemporary African art styles too, as younger artists are trying to expose the world to African culture and viewpoints with their art.


Unique cultures are showcased

Before the boom of contemporary African art and design, fashion houses released ‘African-inspired’ lines that consisted mostly of animal print and tribal patterns. While it is encouraging to see Africa being embraced as part of the fashion world, these types of lines do more harm than good.

Designers who use the umbrella term ‘African-inspired’ forget that Africa is a continent and not a country. There are numerous countries in Africa that inspire design, such as Nigeria, Ghana, Mali and South Africa. Designers who use fabrics from these countries should make it clear whether they are using Yoruba aso oke fabrics, Kente cloth from the Ashanti people of Ghana or Ndeble patterns from the Xhosa in South Africa. By specifying what textiles and fabrics have been used, these cultures will receive more exposure and the world can learn about their unique traditions from fashion designers and artists.


Jobs are created

One of the biggest benefits of African art influencing fashion is that jobs are created in Africa for local textile creators. This is due to fashion labels wanting authentic and original fabrics for their lines, and needing people with the proper skills to create these.

It is a sad fact that some African countries are suffering from intense poverty and that many people are unemployed. Because authentic African techniques are now in high demand from fashion designers, jobs are created for those who are able to produce stunning authentic African fabrics. These fabrics are sent to foreign countries which also helps the economy of the country manufacturing the product.


Final words

African art has influenced fashion in numerous ways, from changing the style of high-end couture labels to creating more socially aware fashion designers. 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 as animal prints and beads, but the world is waking up to the fact that African fashion designers and artists have much more to say.

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