December 8th, 2011
Black Designers, Blacks in Fashion, Fashion Discussion, Fashion News
Fashion Discussion: Interpretations of African Style in Fashion
By Claire

A look from Michael Kors Spring 2012

New York Times writer Simone S. Oliver recently penned an article titled, Designers Take a Fresh Look at Africa,” where she discusses Arise magazine editor Helen Jennings’s new book New African Fashion.

The book takes a look at the diverse interpretations and manifestations of ‘African’ design, and also counters the stereotype that African fashion is solely comprised of traditional prints, cowrie shells, and beads. Oliver writes, “While there is no single way to describe African style, the fashion industry tends to favor characterizations that too many people say smack of condescension.” She goes on to interview Jennings, who says, “Fashion is full of meaningless terms like ‘tribal’ and ‘urban,’ Like the word ‘exotic’ — it makes me cringe.” The piece underscores the myriad of ways ‘Africa’ can be represented in fashion–outside of the box many mainstream designers seem comfortable inhabiting.

A look from Burberry Prorsum Spring 2012

Oliver mentions two recent collections–Burberry and Michael Kors Spring 2012–that were seemingly inspired by African culture. While Michael Kors took us on an ‘Afro-luxe’ safari with leopard prints, tie dye, and rustic colors, Burberry amped up the volume with beads, bright colors, and a flurry of patterns.

Michael Kors Spring 2012
Burberry Prorsum Spring 2012

In some ways it seems harmless. Designers always pull inspiration from various countries and cultures, and parade their interpretations down the runway. Karl Lagerfeld’s pre-fall collection for Chanel was clearly inspired by India, even though he’s never been there before. He told Women’s Wear Daily, “It’s the Paris version of the idea of India…It’s not a trip for documentation. I’m against reality. My life is already a reality show.


Chanel Pre-Fall 2012

Even so, I can’t deny it feels a little strange when brands like L.A.M.B offer African inspired wares with exorbitant price tags to match.

L.A.M.B Spring 2011

Perhaps its the history of European and African colonization that makes every African inspired runway collection (from a luxury brand) feel like theft. And it makes me wonder why more African designers in general don’t get to offer their personal interpretation of their own culture on international runways. Lastly, are collections like Michael Kors respectful homages to African culture?
What do you think?
Read the full article here.
Photos via and

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33 Responses to “Fashion Discussion: Interpretations of African Style in Fashion”

  1. Caribbelle says:

    This I like! I’ll be bookmarking and printing for my wall of “Inspiration and Truths”

  2. autumnbreeze says:

    I would NEVER purchase African inspired fashion from non-African’s. Africa as a whole has been taken advantage of from slavery to having their natural resources taken from them as well. The least WE as Blacks and Africans can do is to purchase fashion from AFRICANS. There are sooooo many talented and gifted fashion designers from Africa who don’t get the recognition that they deserve. They need our support more than L.A.M.B. or any of those other people need it…ALSO support some African movies. NIgeria has Nollywood and they produce some great films. And one of my favorites from Ghana is called “the perfect picture”. Check it out.

  3. Kay says:

    Being a Nigerian, I feel American designers have tried to implement the African fashion, but not quite execute it. Africa is a BIG , BEAUTIFUL country with so much art and history. There are many designers in Africa, let alone in Nigeria that display the beauty and art through their designs. Just because you watch African movies, or stay a week in Africa doesn’t mean you have the African fashion down to the tee.

  4. zimbabwechic says:

    The perfect picture I love that movie and I’m also enjoying Adam’s Apples, Nollywod and Gollywood rock! Honestly before I purchase Chanel or LV or Gucci I’ll be checking out Bunmi Koko, Stoned Cherrie, Jewel by Lisa, Kluk etc. I’m not the demographic they cater to anyway. It’s so annoying how people are going crazy over Chanel’s India collection, have any of you seen Ritu Kumar’s work or the beadwork that’s in a Manish Maholtra lengha, they put Uncle Karl in the shade. And if you asked any of these designer where Nigeria or Ghana was they probably wouldn’t know. I’m over it all

  5. Crystal says:

    This I agree with “In some ways it seems harmless. Designers always pull inspiration from various countries and cultures, and parade their interpretations down the runway”.

  6. Kahalia says:

    What an interesting discussion to have. Makes you think…

  7. Terry says:

    I spent 2 weeks as part of a NJ Trade Delegation to West Africa and South Africa meeting with top fashion designers in an effort to create trade between Africa and New Jersey. I was impressed with the talent and the personalities. They have a lot to offer, but very little access to the distribution system in the USA. We held seminars there with Citibank and big 3 accounting firms to identify the obstacles and tackle them.

    Instead of the fashion houses knocking off African inspired fashion, they need to partner with African fashion houses to give them access to their distribution system.

  8. main says:

    maybe i’m being stupid.

    but it’s funny that black models arent booked that much.(even though the pics suggest otherwise)

    but they take inspiration from the thing that they object.

    kind of twisted. but itsnt that how the world works. *shrugs*

  9. zimbabwechic says:

    Yes they pull inspiration but why do we always run to these designers instead of looking at those who actually come from those cultures, their interpretations are actually pretty amazing considering that a lot of them don’t have 40 people to bead one gown or the budgets these fashion houses have. What on earth can Karl or Marc of John tell me about Africa beyond this print looks amazing or I picture a safari or a desert picnic or some such nonsense. I mean Marc Jacobs took the bags that women and menuse when traveling long distance in South Africa and Zimbabwe on buses a few seasons ago and didn’t interpret it or reinterpret it in anyway he just lifted this $2 plastic bag, design and all and sold it for over $1000 a pop.

  10. Indigo says:

    @Zimbabwechic, the reason why, we are taught when you have on these designer labels, you are better than who doesn’t. Our worth don’t mean anything in America,so how else do you look important,,,buy what’s in,and make sure you spend… The first thing they ask on the red carpet, “Who are you wearing?” And it better be someone “important” smh It’s a sad truth..

  11. Sticky-n-Sweet says:

    Zimbabwechic and autumnbreeze have said pretty much everything I was thinking, thank you ladies for the insight. I like to look different and be avant garde anyway, so I will most def be checking out SEEN Global as soon as I get home to a computer that has Flash Player (come on now Army…)

  12. Grace Anne says:

    I have mixed feelings. There are African influences in just about every aspect of commerce and life – so how could these designers not include it into their collections? Africa has influenced our cuisines, literature, arts and design, so fashion seems fitting…

    There are so many great African designers. By other European/western designers tapping into the fashions found in Africa, it brings more exposure to some of the African designers that are not as well known. The comments in this post alone made me want to find the designs of African designers mentioned – Designers who are truly immersed in the culture and who can give a more authentic representation.

    It is positive in some aspects, because now these African inspired looks are more likely to be modeled by people of African descent. So in my mind more African influence, means more Africans on the runways and editorials.

    The Africans who make and design a lot of these fabrics will benefit as well. I have a good friend (Nigerian) who signed a multi-million dollar deal to provide the textile to a major retailer’s fashion line.
    Claire, I couldn’t agree with you more with my disdain by how they label Africa influence as tribal. Ughhh.

  13. Dobe says:

    Great post, and great points made above.

  14. Brandi says:

    if they are going to use African prints why don’t they get African models? LAME

  15. Savage says:

    Same story..they take what’s not theirs and get so much credit for putting it on the mainstage. If you want to pay homage then do a collaboration.

  16. Vonmiwi says:

    All I can say is that Africa taught them very well. This has been going on forever and I doubt that it will change until we learn to see the value in what we produce.

  17. Vonmiwi says:

    I’d hate to see CHANEL take over the Indian designers market of the beautiful sari’s that they produce. Everyone knows that China and India are now the top consumers of luxury products.

  18. Chichi says:

    What a great post! I’m so glad that someone has finally addressed this issue! I have been saying this for years. I’m West African and when I was in design school I always got critisized for being inspired by my culture now all of these Western designers are doing the same thing! I only support like Ashro, Chima+Rose, and Mataano because they are all owned and operated by African designers.

  19. Chi says:

    Here is a 20yr old African Designer that’s on the rise that gives a genuine twist to African print/culture from a 1st hand perspective:
    As for Burberry and L.A.M.B I think it’s nice that they are aware of our fabrics richness however, I somewhat think it’s exploitation.

  20. B. says:

    One thing I do often consider when seeing collections such as these which incorporate what the West sees as “traditional” African style, is that these textiles use techniques which are wholly unique from anything in European or English culture and which are truly beautiful and require genuine craftsmanship, and are therefore appealing. However, designers have a responsibility to the public and I would like to see them specifically state what cultural groups or communities they have taken their inspiration from, in the same way I would like to see designers take responsibility for the proliferation of unhealthily thin images of women, and unrealistically chiseled images of men. I think the issue here is not just the exploitation of cultural groups, but exploitation in general and the way that it is so embedded in the fashion industry.

  21. cre says:

    @ kay, as a Nigerian you should atleast know…Africa is a CONTINENT not a country….

    Im with autumbreeze i would never buy an “African inspired” clothing from non-Africans. Thats all!

  22. kat says:

    Ahn, ahn Kay! Africa no be big, beautiful country, o!

    Lol, I know it was probably a typo :-D

    But yeah, I purchase my African clothes from Africans and will continue to do so.

  23. se says:

    AMEN, Cre! You caught that. I think thats the problem right now. MANY people do not know that Africa is a continent. When we start with that, then we can talk about what gives inspiration to the fashion industry and who it should include.

  24. Toure says:

    OK where do I start ? I agree with a few of the comments above. Let’s be honest before these big designers started using the prints when was the last time you wore the print to go anywhere? or maybe you have. My point is whether we like it or not the west would do whatever they want with their fashion and we will follow. There are quite a few websites out there solely dedicated to African fashion and designers but New York Times never mentioned any of them in their article. All of a sudden they care about these designers because a white woman who probably never lived in Africa tell us something we knew already. I bought the book and its a good book and a good exposure for the featured designers but this is a cycle they take things that we already know about and tell us its good and sell it back to us and make profit. I am broke but even if I was rich as an proud African girl I would not buy these items from these designers. There is so much I can say but if you want to support African fashion and African designers just Google African fashion and you will come up with wonderful Blogs and Magazines about it.

  25. lola j says:

    as Nigerians, my mom and i have talked about this before. what most people refer to as “tribal” print, Nigerians know as Ankara fabric. everytime we these prints on TVs, magazines, and runways, my mom always points it out. and when she sees the outrageous prices from lines such as Boxing Kitten, or any of the designers listed above, she tells me that they’re much cheaper in Nigeria and that i should get my own garments made. i plan on sending my measurements to an aunt “back home” soon.

  26. missj says:

    I’m from Ghana ( west african), and I’m happy that the ankara prints are being exposed in the western world. However, for someone to pay 300, 400 or more to me is just crazy. When you can get it so much cheaper. And what i found crazy is some of those styles above aint that unique. So I agree with some of the comments above, I hope it makes some people seek local african designers, that have made this their craft.

  27. Hana says:

    Most of these “African” designs are West African, with the exception of the first orange dress, which is sort of like the ordinary dresses women might wear in East Africa and the skirt-like garment the male model wears. I can see the appeal of West African clothing, they’re irresistable! But the fashion world here is missing out big time by foregoing the traditional hats of Nigeria! Now that’s creativity and fashion at its best!

  28. Kay says:

    @Cre@Kat Big typo mi dey mek! I dey look di website, when I dey work lol. Yes ooooo Africa is a continent, and I love my COUNTRY Nigeria ;)

  29. kat says:

    Lol@ Kay! :-D

  30. ThatGirlN says:

    Hello there ! Even tho I agree with most of what’s been said, I have to give you props for building up such good points. I’m African, living in Europe, and at first I was kinda proud to see Gwen Stefani channel wax printed clothes; after all it’s not like she’s used to be seen wearing classical clothing you know, so I’m not mad at her. As for big brands like Burberry or Michael Kors, I think they’re attempting to eat the largest piece of the cake, after seeing how much interest African fashion is getting. Look at the growing number of fashion weeks on the African continent, the fabulous designers and their labels that are out there. And they know those designers don’t have the funds (yet) to reach and develop loyalty to a certain clientele (to reply to your question about why they don’t get to offer their personal interpretation of their own culture on international runways). By the way props to the NYFW staff, among others, for the Arise Made In Africa event of this year. Anyway I could talk about this during hours.
    I encourage everybody to discover the great designers that are emerging from Africa, Burberry or Chanel ain’t got nothing on them (Bunmi Koko, Thula Sindi, Gloria Wavamunno, Jewel by Lisa, Koketso Chiepe, ET CAETERA ! lol).


  32. Michelle Spice says:

    Style came from Afrika period! There is nothing to discuss…

    Afrika is the cradle of all civilization…

    Many efforts have been made to kill ‘Mama Afrika’ but have failed miserably… Even the culture of syle is a stolen legacy and now Europeans are trying to make our fashion culture a re-brand in their fasionable in existence! How presumsious! Come to the table and play fair and be truthful about your engagement…

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