African-inspired. Afropolitan. Cross-bred styles. Hybrid tastes.
They are terms that we know to well, and which seem to constitute the vocabulary of many a fashion entrepreneur, designer and executive that traces roots to Africa. Why does design have to be African inspired? Why do our fashion tastes have to be hybrids between African and something else? An African label, one that is still contentious despite its seeming simplicity, could not be enough?
While I am yet to make piece with the terms, I do understand their origin. In a world with central dominant narratives that overwhelm and silence peripheral ones where Africa’s are located, in a world that has a history of exocitizing identities and stories that differ from the central ones, it is admissibly hard for anyone whose stories occupy the periphery to articulate these influentially without referencing and implying links to the dominant discourse.
Livelihoods Exist And Thrive Within Fashion Enterprises Founded On “African Inspired” Narratives
Though a reluctant observer of these term’s usage, therefore, I am not necessarily an opponent. Moreover, while I might challenge their standing,
I recognize the many African livelihoods that are connected to the creation and commoditization of these narratives, livelihoods that must not be jeopardized to challenge the underpinnings of these narratives unless there exists some real concern such as unsafe working conditions and insufficient wages.
I, however, propose a future in which we can create enough institutions and produce enough knowledge, that will be based on a dynamic cultural and intellectual growth and innovation of the African and the African experience. Such institutions and knowledge will be geared towards original solutions for Africa’s progress, instead of merely reacting to and trying to create a fitting articulation within a superseding external narrative. Such institutions and knowledge centers will have enough private and public sector backing as to infuse African business and culture players with authority sufficient enough to not need extra grounding in the form of claims to hybridization.
A Potential Solution Lies in Institutions That Produce Original Knowledge
Herein, I argue, lies a solution for the fashion world. Players of African descent in the fashion world have to play up to a world that is yet to appreciate them fully, because that is where fashion schools, style innovators, markets, and consumers are. Artisans whose training is Western, and consumers whose trendsetters are Western regardless of their geographical locations – because, well, Western broadcasting is ubiquitous – have to struggle to articulate their Africanness within a style consumerism that is anything but African.
Hopefully these struggles reap benefits sufficient enough to reinvest in a continent that is waiting for institutions and knowledge that shall redefine the existence of Africa, not as a peripheral entity that is trying to fit in, but as an autonomous entity that can set it’s own trends.
At Ysttyle, we love Vanessa Gounden’s fashion label, not because we can vouch for its Africanness (I mean, it’s first brick-and-motor store is in London), but because its confident in its self perception of Africanness, both in its heritage and in its collections. We need so much more confidence in African made and originated products and brands, and if a London based store has to lead that movement, so be it.