Haute Culture?

May 12, 2010 — 2 Comments

This is an issue that has been on my mind for a while now.

African/ethnic/exotic prints in high fashion: Are we moving toward a more equalized field at the intersection of culture and fashion? Maybe. But sometimes, dangit, there is something about seeing a $350 kente print dress at Anthropologie that makes me feel a little uneasy, and I am not sure why. If you all would be so kind as to let me use this space to parse out some of my thoughts on seeing African motifs in high fashion.

On one end, perhaps its all a good thing. Freedom of expression, right? Choosing from African textures, fabrics, and color schemes adds to diversify one’s fashion palette. Everyone needs different points of view. In a world where many people wish to stand out from the crowd and be different from everyone else, why not throw in a little bit of Heart-of-Darkness-Couture to your closet? Last I checked, no laws against any of that.

So then why does it bother me sometimes? What is it about that $350 dollar kente print dress hanging at Anthropologie that makes my soul itch ever so slightly? Besides the fact that it falls way outside of my price range? Maybe I’m being sensitive. It is not as if there are copyright laws on various African prints. I surely don’t own the rights to all things African.

Vogue, November 2009

DVF African Sugar Print Bag, $1400 at Neiman Marcus

Diane Von Furstenberg African Sugar Print Dress, Spring 2010

I can appreciate the efforts of some clothing houses who use African designers to convey an authentic aesthetic .  Check out the cool partnership between Puma and graphic artist Kehinde Wiley in designing “Africa-meets-mod hipster-meets-athlete” themed apparel in preparation for the World Cup in South Africa next month. This I can get behind.

But this?

Vogue, November 2009

Or this?

Vogue, November 2009

(*Biizzing!!* My memory fairy just zingpoofed into my mind to remind me of something: Was it not just a couple of posts ago that I was daydreaming about the possibilities of a Vogue Africa? And these are the kinds of images that are already in Vogue? Things that make me go “hmmm” and reach for some cortisone to deal with my soul itch intensifying at some of the implications behind these photos. But that’s just me. )

Maybe its a framing and naming issue. French or Italian couture is not considered “ethnic”? Why an African print worn by a career woman in Abuja tribal while wearing Scottish or Celtic tartan plaid patterns is never called tribal or clannish? Perhaps it rubs me the wrong way because I yearn to see African designers, photographers, or stylists come into the mainstream, to tell the African point of view behind the print. There are other non-white major designers. Where is the African Anna Sui, Phillip Lim, Jimmy Choo, Vera Wang, or Naeem Khan? Maybe I feel some indignation at the sense that one could spend so much money on African print things, and yet be ignorant of what goes on in Africa, or look down upon people of color in general. Or maybe its the fact that the subsidies U.S. cotton farmers get to produce the fabric that make some of these items is extremely harmful to African cotton industries.

I suppose it can be argued that mainstream high fashion does not have an obligation to educate, but rather to entreat us to entertain the escapist visions of its mainly white, Western designers.  But how does it feel to know that a Western designer can temporarily appropriate a cultural fashion to sell at nosebleed high prices, while African designers work in anonymity to Western mainstream fashion? How does it feel to know that a white model wearing African prints or “tribal” paint in a magazine is thought to sell that look better than an African or African American model?

In the West, Black/African model in African clothes? Travel postcard. White model in African clothes/print? High fashion.

What do y’all think? Am I alone in feeling this way? Leave the comments! If you are an African designer, and would like to be linked to or featured on my blog, also let me know!

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2 responses to Haute Culture?

  1. 
    aconerlycoleman May 12, 2010 at 11:18 PM

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    How true is this?! I’ve been blogging about the appropriation of First Nations’ traditional costumes and dance by those who occupy a relatively privileged position in the US. It seems that “ethnic” is in vogue.

    But really, “high fashion” gets it wrong. I’ve been seeing documentaries about the struggles of Black models in the industry, and the struggles of non-white designers, etc etc etc. It’s virulently racist down to the colonial motifs and tokenism. It’s like Vogue Mag- “hey, let’s put together a Black issue and everyone will be off our back.”

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