Africa to Fashion World: Respect is Due to Your Muse

October 13, 2011  |  

By Danielle Kwateng

In the abundance of the beatnik monochromatic tones of the 60’s, Yves Saint Laurent was inspired to take another route in his spring/summer collection of 1967. After being fired from Dior and creating his own private label five years before, he felt that his mark on fashion had to go in a distinct and artful direction—that direction led him to Africa. Sticking to the same formula of streamlined, androgynous silhouettes — popularized by models like Twiggy at the time — Congolese wood beads, sea shells and animal-teeth-shaped beads rarely used for Haute Couture were now in his collection.

But this was not the first time African cultural aesthetics had been the inspiration behind European work. For centuries designers, painters, musicians and even culinary enthusiasts had and have taken elements from the continent and used them for their benefit.

The debate of fashion exploiting Africa has always been an interesting topic to me. In a recent post on Racialicious, writer, Rafael Flores discusses this anomaly and the ways the fashion community can embrace African culture without being exploitive. Flores notes that designers like Thakoon donate a portion of their collections’ proceeds to specific causes in the region they take inspiration from.

My perception of African culture has always been that it is—in all forms—so unique and one-of-a-kind that any attempt to mimic it is an obvious reflection on its untouchable authenticity. But the masses and numbers seem to disagree with great press garnered by Louis Vuitton and John Galiano of Dior for their inspired work. The New York Times recently said of Donna Karan’s Spring-Summer 2012 line,”Africa is calling for those designers who want to offset streamlined modernity with something more earthy and tribal. Donna Karan has always had an instinct for crossculture, it was not surprising to see her describing neckpieces mixing wood and Lucite as part of a ‘tribal-tech’ drama.”

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