African Prints and Their Proliferation in the Fashion Industry- Why Now?Posted on Thursday, May 19th, 2011 at 12:10 PM
By Zainab Imichi Alhassan
African inspired fashion is the new rave in the fashion industry. This trend infiltrated the mainstream in 2010 and has received a significant presence in the runway at fashion shows all over the world. . While Western and other non-African Fashion designers have incorporated African elements in their designs, this trend is identified by the use of African print fabrics, such as Ankara, and the embodiment of African themes in designer creations.
Ankara used to be a fabric that had no glamour value or fashion importance. It was a regular fabric that would not warrant a second look. This was the perception until 2002 when Ovation magazine popularized the trend locally and every lifestyle magazine had a feature on Ankara and its versatility. But then it only appealed to an older audience and was only seen at weddings and other conformist celebrations. The designs were not as varied or as exotic as it is today. The challenge for the mass consumption of this trend was to balance its fashionable aesthetic to a sort of exclusivity. According to the former National President of the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FDAN), “fabrics sold to the Nigerian market are used mostly by the womenfolk to do wrapper and tops, and I think it is a little uncomplimentary if I make clothes for a guy and he adorns it to go to a party, only to see a woman selling groundnut (epa) along the road, tying it as a wrapper. I have done it before, so I opt to use fabrics that are not common in the local market”. When the balance was found, globalization and intense media exposure ensured that local and international observers absorbed the trend. African fashion designers became more popular, Ankara was more prominent in fashion; Vlisco, the African print manufacturing company, also gained ground in Nigeria.
One of the key actors in the proliferation of African prints in the fashion industry were the fashion designers. A few designers who began using African prints in their collections were, Uduak Umondak, Olujimi King, and Abba Folawiyo and they all had their own designer labels/fashion houses. Uduak Umondak’s label is called Colors and her designs are just as the name suggests and very vibrant and playful. She started using Ankara in 1997 and had a fashion show to showcase her Ankara collection. Olujimi King kick started the use of African prints for modern and western designs. The most unique thing about him is that he usually makes his own fabric. Abba Folawiyo owns the very prominent fashion house Labanella. She started the trend of combining African prints fabric with brocade. These designers paved the way for a bigger epiphenomenon. These designers although historically significant to the transformation of Ankara were unable to bridge the generation gap and surpass the local market, which the newer generation of African designers have been able to do. They have been responsible for the transition of this trend from the local and to the international fashion scene. They are designers like Lisa Folawiyo, Ituen Basi, Deola Sagoe, Christie Brown and Duro Olowu.
These designers transformed a local trend to the hottest trend worldwide in Spring 2011. Lisa Folawiyo, the designer behind the label Jewel by Lisa, reinvented Ankara and has made quite an impact in the fashion industry both home and abroad. Each Jewel by Lisa garment is handcrafted and unique. Her clients range from African fashionistas like Eku Edewor to international stars like Dawn Richards, Kelis and Solange.
Ituen Basi is what you would call innovative; her creativity is inspiring and it works. She brought back the iro and buba trend and also glamorized African prints in jewelry and accessories. She plays with colors and mixes different prints of fabrics for an outfit. Ghanaian designer Christie Brown, just like Ituen, has reinvented African accessories and jewelry by using African prints; her necklaces in particular are spectacular. Deola Sagoe is not a new comer in the fashion industry; she has experience and has made quite a reputation for herself. She works with different kinds of fabrics including African prints, and her designs are contemporary. International celebrities like Lydia Hearst and Anika Noni-Rose have worn Deola’s designs on the red carpet.Duro Olowu mixes African prints impeccably; his most recent accomplishment is dressing the first lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama.
These African designers have also inspired international designers and clothing lines. Duro Olowu has something to say about this: “For a long time, there was a sense that this was limited to Africa but now it has become global. Combined with an awareness of social responsibility, it makes for a powerful statement.” Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, Eley Kishimoto, Jean Paul Gaultier, Diane Von Furstenberg, Gwen Stefani, Dries van Noten, Kenzo and Paul Smith to mention a few have also caught the African prints fever. They have included them in their collections and have made clothes, accessories and jewelry out of the fabrics. Clothing lines such as Boxing Kitten and Suno are doing a great job promoting African print with their works. Fashion icons like Beyoncé, Fergie and Rihanna have both rocked designs from these lines.
This has ultimately changed the perception of the African fabric. According the article Fashion Reborn: Blends of African outfits from Ankara, by fibre2fashion “Destiny of the ‘once before’ cheap Ankara fabrics, have undergone a magical transformation. Elegant creativity of the designers has made it a preferred choice of the rich and celebrities.” The African print fabric has metamorphosed from cultural attire to a glamorous wardrobe must-have and right now the spotlight is on Africa.