The New York Times reports that the fashion world is slapping its collective foreheads and “embrac[ing] pan-African influences” again. This is welcome news for those of us looking to dust off our dashikis.
Like the American work wear and handmade jewelry that have also been popular of late, African-inspired designs offer an antidote to what Max Osterweis, the filmmaker turned fashion designer behind the Suno label, calls “a luxury market filled with brands that lately have become machines for mass-produced, logo-covered status symbols.”
But the irony, of course, for those of us living in Africa is that while Western designers are incorporating African patterns and colors into their collections, it’s the Western style icons – the Guccis and Louis Vuittons, often in some watered-down, Chinese-knock-off variation – that are still the status symbols in, well, Africa itself. A visit to any night club in Nairobi, Lagos, or Jo’burg will confirm as much. You get the feeling they’d deck out the sofas in interlocked LV upholstery if they could just find the factory in Shenzhen to make it.
(Taking this fetishization to an illogical extreme, one arrives at Congo’s famous Sapeurs, a sort of African dandy movement chronicled by Daniele Tamagni in his book Gentlemen of Bacongo. A good snapshot of the Sapeur sub-culture can be found here. Some extraordinary images from Mr. Tamagni below:
Philosophically, the Sapeur seems to be a synthesis of Gucci and Gandhi.
A Sapeur, by definition is a non-violent person, despite the 3 civil wars that have taken place since the independence. They stand for an exquisite morality, but as they say “There can only be Sape when there is peace”. They represent an illusion that has been supported by the government itself, trying to normalize a post-war situation. The SAPE interrupted its activities when the civil war started in 1997, and did not reinitiate its activities until 2002. Their motto became “Let’s drop the weapons, let us work and dress elegantly.”
Michela Wrong, whose book In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz offers a brilliant portrait of Congo’s unraveling in the waning days of Joseph Mobutu, recalls a memorable encounter with an aspiring young Sapeur – a raggedy street urchin who, when asked of his favorite designers, is quick to insist (I paraphrase here), “Ferragamo for shoes, Gaultier for pants.”)
The African style revival in the West, though, is a happy reversal, I think, of the more dominant trend: the flooding of African markets with second-, third-, and fourth-hand clothes that have more or less wiped out local textile industries. (In Mozambique in the early-’80s, the term roupa Reagan became shorthand for the used clothes that began overtaking the marketplace during that president’s reign.) This has been widely reported on – for example, here, here, here, and here.
The Economist recently suggested that the emergence of the much-hyped East African Community common market could help turn this region into a manufacturing base that might someday rival China. Good luck with that. So long as the infrastructure – physical, institutional – across Africa remains stuck in the Stone Age, and a baroque system of tariffs and subsidies weighs down African economies, you’re not likely to see many “Made in Mali” t-shirts on the racks at Macy’s anytime soon.