With “Africa Fashion,” originally put out by V&A Publishing and released in North America courtesy of Abrams on Aug. 9, it is minds that will be captivated.
Equal parts inspiration-inducing images and historical context, courtesy (largely) of Dr. Christine Checinska, editor and curator of African and African Diaspora Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the book’s accompanying exhibit opened in early July (and runs through April 16, 2023), “Africa Fashion” is designed for exploration and education.
Lesson number one? Africa — and its fashion — is about abundance, not lack.
“The contemporary African fashion scene is so influential, so innovative, so impactful, I really see the continent as a center of global fashion,” Checinska told WWD. “I want visitors and readers and people that engage, to have a glimpse of what I think is the magnificence of African people. I want people to get a glimpse of the many, many histories and cultures. I want people to come away hungry for more and I want to resist that confounding narrowing of Africa.”
Told with a nod to the continent’s oral traditions, with prose that strays from academic to poetic, the book tells stories from across Africa of designers that emerged during the cultural renaissance that followed African countries’ liberation from colonial rule, like Ghanaian designer Kofi Ansah. It folds in the politics that can’t be separated from fashion, addressing once-enforced European dress codes countered broadly in moments such as when Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, delivered his speech at the country’s independence ceremony wearing traditional West African agbada, where before, he’d been pictured in Savile Row-style suits. Along the way, it weaves in the glamour of textiles and adornments with snapshots pulled from throughout the 20th century through to contemporary times.
“Ultimately, ‘Africa Fashion’ tells a story of the richness of the African continent, its people, cultures and histories, through the lens of fashion. It is a story of unbounded creativity, abundance and modernity told from multiple Global Africa perspectives,” Checinska writes in the book’s intro. And as she tells WWD, it’s “almost a moment of colonizing in reverse.”
The title comes sans the “n,” as in Africa, not African, by design: “The title is ‘Africa’ rather than African because we want to keep that open-endedness. African fashion can look like many, many things. There are many ways to be African or many ways to be fashionable and so to keep that slight ambiguousness in the title, somehow there’s space for all the tension, the contradiction, the beauty, the struggle, the hope.
“It’s hard to put down. [Africa Fashion is] everything from the rhythm of color to the kente cloth to the tilt of the hat or to the signet ring or to that gesture. It’s all of those things…that spirit within that understands the power of dress,” Checinska added. “When we put ourselves together in the morning, we do this consciously. There’s a kind of a putting ourselves back to together, there’s a reminding that goes on. We remember who we actually are rather than who society tells us we are.”
Though defining Africa Fashion could be akin to oversimplifying what it means to be fly (“you know it when you see it,” Checinska said), Africa Fashion, as American-British playwright and novelist Bonnie Greer endeavors to lyrically articulate it in the book’s prologue, can be put into some words.
“Africa Fashion is always a kind of futurism. It takes you forward,” she writes. “…The boldness of Africa Fashion is the complete act of will of it and the drive to creation. The insistence on this. This insistence is the release of Imagination from when it, too, was condemned to be fettered like the body. It is agency at its highest because it creates a future in which African people are not defined by anyone except ourselves. By. Ourselves. The power of reordering the world, of remaking history, can give the maker of fashion another way of seeing Africa. Now.”
As with the exhibit, the book’s aim is to remake history, if remaking is adding truths to narratives omitted from fashion’s canon — like of the richness of the continent’s contribution to and influence on cloth and textiles.
Indigo, for one, is most often associated with places like Japan and India, but Africa also has a long history of creating indigo-dyed cloth or Àdìrẹ, which has been made by the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria since at least the 19th century, according to a chapter in the book written by Roslyn A. Walker, an American museum curator and expert in Nigerian art. The cloth, so named from the Yoruban word adi, which means ‘to tie,’ and re meaning dye, was once made exclusively by women using leaves of wild indigo plants.
“With the book and the exhibit, it is this idea of broadening people’s understanding of the history of African textiles, the breadth, the depth, the width of it, the richness of it…beyond Dutch wax prints,” Checinska said.
Bringing things forward to the contemporary, “Africa Fashion,” in a mid-section of the book marked by brightly colored yellow pages, lets 22 leading designers on the continent — the same ones featured in the V&A exhibit, among them Imane Ayissi, Sarah Diouf, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Awa Meité and Sindiso Khumalo — tell their stories.
Awa Meité, a Malian designer who works with local artisans to weave high-fashion creations out of organic cotton and sustain jobs for the country’s cotton industry (which is among the biggest in Africa), is on a mission to articulate Africa’s “rich imagination.”
“Creativity and fashion allow us to write our own narratives. They are spaces for people who have a vision for the continent and who want to show its strength and its immense humanity, its beauty, and its material and non-material resources. This gives full meaning to the emergence of African and Black creatives, inspiring present and future generations,” she writes.
Cape Town, South Africa-based designer Sindiso Khumalo, a 2020 LVMH Prize finalist who also won the Green Carpet Fashion Awards’ “Best Independent Designer” that year, is focused on honoring women, from their talents and contributions to their safety and livelihoods.
“Inspired by the lineage of enduring and powerful Black women in history, our collections celebrate historical female figures such as South African activist Charlotte Maxeke, Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Yoruban princess and god-daughter of Queen Victoria) and American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. I hope to amplify their voices through the storytelling in our collections,” writes Khumalo, who employs young Black women who have previously been trafficked and exploited to learn things like the hand-embroidering and quilting the brand uses for its designs.
For too long, the global fashion industry has overlooked Africa’s contribution, and that’s a wrong Checinska hopes the book will help right. And the cultural tide already seems to be rolling in that direction.
“There is an acceleration of interest and we can’t ignore the impact of digital platforms and the digital world,” she said. “I also think that we can’t underestimate the fact that we do have people of African heritage at the helm of magazines like Vogue, [with] Edward Enninful and his impact. You’ve got Kenya Hunt [editor in chief] at Elle [UK] and her impact. We had Virgil Abloh, we have Ib Kamara [editor in chief of Dazed magazine].”
Before some of these changemakers emerged on the scene, what fashion had missed — and continues to miss — according to Checinska, is that what’s coming out of Africa is haute, too.
“Some types of sophistication and the luxury element of African fashions is missing and I think the pan-African nature of the scene is missing. All too often it’s maybe two or three countries that are focused upon, whereas there are exciting, creative, innovative designers across the board,” she said. “African fashions can be and are, luxury.”
What’s more, Checinska added of Africa and the diaspora, the products of the people, the exhibition and the book, is this singular and poignant point, a nod to something British artist and curator Lubaina Himid once said:
“We are us, not other.”