Brighton Museum is boldly breaking down outdated ideas of Africa in one of the most exciting fashion exhibitions in recent memory. Focusing on cities from four corners of the continent; Johannesburg, Casablanca, Nairobi and Lagos, Fashion Cities Africa is the first major UK exhibition dedicated to contemporary African fashion.
Each city is presented with a little history, basic statistics and an introduction to attitudes towards fashion within each country. The first display is an electrifying introduction to the diverse culture of South Africa through Johannesburg: a city with an edge. The Casablanca display reflects a burgeoning luxury market which nods to Morocco’s heritage combined with European and Arabic influence. Nairobi’s display provides insight into Africa’s “Silicon Savannah”, where technology is booming in the city, and both street-style and popular culture reflect a negotiation of tradition and modernity. Finally, the Lagos display shows designs from one of the world’s newest fashion capitals, with internationally acclaimed designers showcased alongside the (potential) big names of tomorrow.
The garments, accessories and entire outfits were provided by a variety of sources. Designers, stylists, photographers, bloggers and musicians were all asked to contribute looks which represent their cities to them and as a result, the exhibition is a condensed but comprehensive spectrum of styles. You will find haute couture, conceptual design, vintage pieces and thrifted street-style around the space, all showing the many facets of fashion in African countries.
The exhibition was laid out to instigate a conversation about nationality and design. What constitutes African fashion? Even the displays themselves converse with one another, particularly a juxtaposition of designer collective The Sartists of Johannesburg with designer Said Mahrouf of Casablanca. An interesting pairing, as the former confront issues of race, colonialism and apartheid through design, using historic European styles to reclaim a black South African identity. The latter makes no concessions to the Moroccan market, as Mahrouf chooses to draw inspiration from international sources to sell to consumers globally, creating contemporary high fashion which does not convey assumptions of African aesthetics or articulate an African identity.
Nairobi’s display in particular showcased the cross-cultural trade of 2nd hand international clothing from countries in the West. Mitumba in Swahili translates to “second-hand”, and the exhibition drew parallels between mitumba and thrift fashion in the UK, both using a level of style curation by re-purposing old clothes. This international trade is further explored through West-African wax printed fabric. The brightly coloured textiles, popular across the continent and amongst African diaspora, contributes largely to the international idea of African fashion. A long standing debate around wax-print regards what the fabric actually represents, some consider that the Africa represented through wax-print fabrics is reductive, and disconnected from a huge, diverse continent. Traditionally produced in Europe, the fabric has more recently been undercut in price (and quality) by mass factory production in Asia, further complicating debates of authenticity and heritage.
The exhibition was an important addition to the conversation of global fashion networks. Textiles have crossed borders for centuries, and Fashion Cities Africa confronted the uncomfortable truths of authenticity, nationality, and international perceptions within design. Some designers involved discussed the many difficulties of the African fashion story always being told through the eyes of Europeans, picking apart aspects of traditional dress for inspiration. South African designer and photographer Maria McCloy discusses how anything “African and traditional is not seen as sexy and sophisticated”, as the western-centric fashion networks have condensed the entire continent to a series of tribal and “ethnic” tropes, resulting in a “cliché” idea of African fashion which has remained subordinate to Euro-American fashion.
Fashion Cities Africa was a phenomenally researched, well considered and hugely exciting opportunity to experience a rarely showcased reality of African fashion. An entire continent cannot possibly be reduced to a few bright textiles and tribal jewellery, and it is remarkable that this would be the first exhibition to disprove such assumptions. The four countries were dynamically displayed and discussed, and this may be the beginning of a continuing recognition of fashion emerging from the continent. Clearly evidencing a counter to the western-centric concepts of fashion, the final display prominently featured Lagos Fashion & Design Week. The designs showed a spectrum of high fashion, some articulating with, or consciously standing separate from, African design heritage. A fitting end to an evocative exhibition.
Written by Sarah-Mary Geissler
Fashion Cities Africa is on display at Brighton Museum, 30th April 2016 – 8th January 2017.