African Women’s Fashion Design as Rhetoric and Inspiration

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The bangles, the earrings, the intricate patterns, the textile expertise, the brilliant pops of color as THE accessory, the bold color all over and all around, the depth of brown skin tones spanning all shades, the beads encased on long necks, the necklaces draped over the shoulder or all the way down to the stomach, and then, for a grand finale, an African female designer in a self-designed African print dress takes a bow… I love all of it. I am talking here about African women designers of contemporary African fashions.

It is NOT my intent here to showcase new clothes to buy. The slideshow that opens this post (featuring some of my favorite designers) is not a shopping list. Many of these designers do sell their fashions at their websites and can be commissioned to create something for you from one of their collections. Their prices are much more reasonable, respectful, and human— in terms of human labor, skill, and textile design— than what you will see during any visit to a NYC Bloomingdale’s or Saks, neither of which are places where I ever shop.  I am interested in much more than fashion for purchase, however, when I follow contemporary African women designers.  Their work and presence are much bigger than that.  As of now, they are not so fully commodified as to represent the kind of fashion cartel like what we get with Prada and the likes.  When DBU showcased her amazing jewelry at 2011 Africa Fashion Week, the impact was not represented by exotic gems stolen from Africa (since colonialism, the utterance conflict-free diamonds, for instance, is simply an oxymoron… there can be NO such thing as a CONFLICT-FREE natural resource if it is taken from Africa.)  For DBU, it was the color, craftmanship, originality, ingenuity, and stunning impact of her jewelry that carried the day.  I would wear each item, exactly as she has them layered and paired, wearing all black clothing just so you can see the jewelry better just as she has it here:

We live in a world of colors and patterns that communicate their own histories, desires, and visions and these women designers give me a world that I like to look at and be part of.  When I watch the bodies adorned in sequin patterns in the designs of someone like Eredappa (shown below), I am as drawn to what she is communicating as I am to the graphic techniques of Mickalene Thomas with her works’ rhinestones and intricate patterns. That Eredappa attempts to mesh beadwork alongside local, Nigerian fabrics to make multidimensional design seems well aligned with how Thomas also constructs her visual world.

I especially like to follow youtube-channelers who create their own movies of the African designers that move them.  In close second to that preference are the runway shows that the designers themselves plan and execute, brilliantly showcased in the United States with Africa Fashion Week.  In both of these visual contexts, what you see are multimedia-writers telling us a story… designing us a story.  At the 2011 Africa Fashion week, Korto Momolu (fondly remembered for her time on Project Runway) especially captured design-as-its-own-story with her 2011 collection that tells the story of women’s survival during war using her home country of Liberia as muse:

Each piece in Momolu’s runway exhibit tells its own story and each piece works in specific relation to the previous and following outfits: it is the most visually rich kind of chapter-building that I can imagine.

I like to follow these designers and look at what they are up to.  They inspire me to create anew, to be bold and imaginative, to not tone myself down in a suffocating world of beige, and to rely on my own local languages and cultural expressions for contemporary structures.  This is how I plan to inspire and charge my summer.