Fashion Discussion: Interpretations of African Style in Fashion

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


Claire Sulmers is the publisher and founder of Fashion Bomb Daily, the #43 most influential style magazine in the world.

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