6 Chapters
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4 Conceptual Fashion: Evocations of Africa

Victoria L. Rovine Indiana University Press ePub

A runway in New York, 1998: Models wearing garments that range from sheath-like dresses made of loosely knitted yarn to denim jackets with large fake fur collars stride the runway to the strains of Jimi Hendrix, and then suddenly to no soundtrack at all. Loose threads dangle from the seams of some garments; others have labels sewn outside their collars.

A loading dock in Johannesburg, 2003: At an event planned by two fashion designers, attendees stand on concrete floors in an industrial building in a gritty downtown neighborhood. They watch as performers wearing large plastic bags dance and interact, pantomiming a story of trials and perseverance. The two designers work behind the scenes, holding the lanterns that illuminate the space and manipulating shadow puppets.

A workshop in Paris, 2007: Women from the Goutte d’Or, a neighborhood known for its large African population, participate in training programs led by a designer from the Comoros. They learn sewing techniques that will help them find employment. The designer and a group of participants create an exhibition at the Musée du Petit Palais that features the garments they have produced, which are made of recycled clothing, displayed on mannequins along with bales of used clothing.1

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1 Indigenous Fashion: Embroidery and Innovation in Mali

Victoria L. Rovine Indiana University Press ePub

You come from afar, you have brought lots of clothes, everyone sings your praises, the best clothes come from Accra, and the person who wears them is the best.

—Dogon song, documented by Isaie Dougnon

A tilbi is more than a boubou.

—Baba Djitteye, embroiderer, Timbuktu, 23 July 2008

In a single region in Mali, two styles of men’s dress embody diverse forms of social status, attitudes toward innovation and perpetuation of past practices, and sources of stylistic inspiration. These styles, known as “Ghana boy” and “tilbi,” have in common a reliance on embroidery as a means of embodying messages, histories, and identities. Yet, these embroidered garments represent quite distinct approaches to style change, the hallmark of fashion. Neither of these sartorial innovations participates in the global fashion system, which is rooted in Western styles and methods. Instead, they offer insights into different fashion worlds, with their own histories, economies, and precedents from which they draw inspiration. Furthermore, these styles contain traces of local as well as global networks of commodities and cultures, literally made legible in the embroidered patterns and figures that adorn the garments.

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3 Reinventing Local Forms: African Fashion, Indigenous Style

Victoria L. Rovine Indiana University Press ePub

I was drawn to everything that was African.

—Chris Seydou, Malian fashion designer, Bamako, 6 March 1993

The traditional and the contemporary with a touch of originality. These are the three elements of creativity.

—Salah Barka, Tunisian fashion designer, Paris, 19 June 2010

Sun Goddess harvests stories and images of South African traditions. These stories look back to our heritage and its relevance to the past, present and future.

—Vanya and Thando Mangaliso, South African fashion designers, Sun Goddess website, 1 February 2011

We need to preserve indigenous, traditional techniques by making them modern.

—Aboubakar Fofana, Malian artist and designer, Bamako, 25 June 2009

I want to take from the past and take it with me into the future.

—Laduma Ngxokolo, South African fashion designer, Port Elizabeth, 2 June 2012

In his autobiographical novel L’Enfant Noir (The Dark Child), Guinean writer Camara Laye used clothing to make a powerful statement about the shifting incarnations of tradition. Recalling the rituals by which life was ordered during his childhood, Laye described how people in his community continued to embrace practices that had been detached from the meanings that once inspired them. Now, these practices simply evoke the idea of tradition: “Sometimes only the spirit of a tradition survives; sometimes only its form. Its outer garments, as it were, remain.”1 Clothing here stands in for the residue of tradition, a remnant of practices no longer integral to people’s lives. It may also refer to vaguely remembered histories. Importantly, Laye does not express this shifting meaning as loss, but rather as a source of comfort in the certainty that these rituals (or the garments that are their residue) still have meaning. Writing of a harvest ritual whose origins are lost to memory, Laye notes: “Yet, like all our customs, this one had its significance.”2

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Conclusion: What Fashion Shows

Victoria L. Rovine Indiana University Press ePub

Fashion is cultural identity.

—Abdoulaye Tembely, writer, Coura magazine, Bamako, 30 July 2008

I look for materials that have a story, passion, a soul.

—Anna Getaneh, designer, organizer of African Mosaïque fashion shows, Johannesburg, 20 May 2008

Anyone looking for a few masks or leopard spots will be disappointed.

—Duro Olowu, Nigerian designer 1

African fashion offers abundant insights into cultures, both close to home and distant, real and imagined. Through garments, designers tell stories about history, heritage, and global networks of style, as well as the perpetuation or revival of local dress practices. Fashion also provides a medium for portraying or inventing other peoples’ cultures, offering a highly visible forum for projecting impressions and preconceptions. This concluding chapter reiterates and expands on these stories through two media that make African fashion, and fashion everywhere, widely visible far beyond the limited number of consumers who can afford to purchase designer clothing: fashion shows and fashion magazines. It also returns to cosmopolitanism—and the closely related concept of Afropolitanism—as frameworks for elucidating Africa’s fashion manifestations, exploring how dress practices both illustrate and complicate these notions.

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5 Fashion Design in South Africa: Histories and Industries

Victoria L. Rovine Indiana University Press ePub

South African fashion is totally different from the rest of Africa. It is certainly African—you must call it African because it is made here.

—Marianne Fassler, 2008

We wanted to try and find a way that would make history part of popular culture, so the individuals who buy those clothes become ambassadors.

—Nkhesani Manganyi Nkosi of Stoned Cherrie, Sunday Times, 28 April 2002

Woolworths and South Africa’s leading designers are working together to bring you the best in local design. Wear them proudly.

—Woolworths department store clothing label, Cape Town, 2008

South Africa’s large and diverse fashion industry includes numerous designers whose work bears analysis as conceptual; these designers create garments that evoke complex localities without directly borrowing from or depicting elements of local cultures. Continuing a leitmotif from the previous chapter, many of these designers employ various forms of recycling—from the reuse of clothing to the repurposing of images that allude to specific histories, both national and personal. In post-apartheid South Africa, barely a generation beyond the end of the nation’s long period of racial segregation and repression, references to the past and to the ongoing struggle to realize the promise of transformation are a prime subject for artistic explorations in all media. Fashion design provides a highly visible and widely accessible venue for these explorations. Before turning to case studies of designers, I briefly introduce three aspects of South Africa’s history that reverberate in the work of fashion designers, making the country’s design industry exceptional in Africa. These elements—ethnic diversity, a history of race-based oppression, and a highly developed industrial and commercial infrastructure—all contribute to the distinctiveness of the nation’s fashion industry.

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