A vocal advocate for Black designers in the Italian fashion industry, Stella Jean has promoted inclusivity and diversity through her creations since the launch of her brand in 2011.
Yet in her quest to exalt her Haitian roots, she admits falling prey to cultural stereotypes.
In the following essay, she sheds lights on the real story behind “African wax” prints:
In today’s world, we can no longer think of having a “safari”-like gaze fixated on the Southern Hemisphere or, even worse, romantic musings of “Out of Africa.” The best and greatest example in this direction can be given by a fabric we all know and that for centuries has deceived nearly everyone — including me. I am an example.
The history of wax prints — or as Professor Tunde Akinwumi perfectly defined it, The “African Print” Hoax — is one of the world’s most emblematic and incredibly unknown tales of commercial domination and colonial abuse. It dates back to the middle of the 19th century and has persisted for almost two centuries, until now.
Many fashion brands have used it, but none of these luxury giants bothered to consult with an African anthropologist or sociologist to understand its underlying tragic and paradoxical racial component. They continued believing the story as told by the winners…to the winners. I am the first to have sinned in the area of superficiality, but once I understood the deception, I decided to not feed the giants who, in their quest to create a total monopoly, become billionaire empires in impoverished Africa.
“African print” is an erroneous label that was coined by its producers for the sole purpose of deceiving and misleading customers by pretending to sell authentic African designs. The deception has continued right up to current, contemporary times. What is known for certain is that Dutch wax prints started out as cheap, mass imitations and counterfeit copies of Indonesian batik, which is locally produced in Java. Colonial powers were in favor of the development of the so-called “African print fabric,” which is the “result of a long historical process of imitation and mimicry,” as Yinka Shonibare noticed. This unacceptable history teaches us how oftentimes behind a fabric identified as the flag of a continent, no less, there’s a commercial and cultural tale of domination and abuse that has existed for centuries. This was an illusion and a cultural imposition created by a colonial force that openly violated the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The thousands of African prints being kept in Dutch vaults should be immediately considered African cultural heritage and returned to the nations these ravenous colonizers exploited. The dispossessed people shall have the right to lawful recovery of their property, as well as the right to adequate economic compensation. Cloth transactions throughout West Africa have been monopolized for years without any design content negotiation with Africans. In other words, the product was developed and renamed “African prints” with little or no African participation.
I can speak about my experience and my point of view, specifically on a subject I’m familiar with because I’ve studied it thoroughly. At the beginning of my career, I was also duped by cultural stereotypes. For quite some time I was convinced of the authenticity of one of the largest scams in the history of textile fabrics, and I was personally convinced that I was promoting my Black roots with fabrics that instead represent the complete opposite notion. Now I think the cognitive and economic regeneration of authentic African cloth is indispensable. Locally designed and handcrafted textile traditions are at risk of extinction as a result of an ongoing colonialist and neo-colonialist monopoly, which has been responsible for almost two centuries of textile evangelization of nearly half a continent. It’s important to promote and encourage the production and sourcing of genuine African, hand-crafted, indigenous textile traditions manufactured by companies like Korhogo Cloth from Ivory Coast; Adire from Nigeria; Bogolanfini, which is “mud cloth” from Mali; Kente from Ghana, and Dogon Cloth from Mali and Burkina Faso.
We need to remember that as frivolous as fashion is, it is a cultural expression and as such it should be the result of research and study, aside from just an aesthetic observation. In today’s world, it is of crucial importance that these stories are not carried out and documented exclusively by the winners.
We’d like to think that the advertising campaigns having Black imagery as central topic, highlighting diversity and mastery on the topic of cultural appropriation, can be contrasted with an effective and concrete working collaboration. A whole continent cannot be considered only as a passive fountain of inspiration. For years, Black culture has been sampled yet rarely ever cited, without true promotion or reciprocity. The consistent and intensive exploitation without permitting the continent to reap any type of real advantage means supporting the act of neo-colonization. It is necessary to establish a new type of relationship with Black natives and cultures, so that the existing dynamic of exploitation is transformed into cooperative collaboration, which allows bilateral development and gain that is not univocal.
The way to overcome a problem that is repeated on a regular basis is to simply require the application of the respect due a priori to anyone using common sense. The end goal is to achieve bilateral and fair growth, which is based on assimilating and not being assimilated while avoiding failing one more time to stop and render aid to threatened minorities.
Western fashion companies must no longer create collections simply inspired by Africa or Central and South America, etc., as a source of passive inspiration. Instead, collections that are conscientiously and collaboratively created with Indigenous communities are needed. We advocate for institutional support toward the development of tools, resources and networks that would facilitate this kind of intentional and meaningful engagement.
This cooperation has to be carried out also as an exchange of skills and training sessions of each other’s competencies. In this way, those who inspire us continue preserving their own traditions while simultaneously gaining access to the global market.”