A recent video on Facebook posted by a young lady of herself raised a very big debate that concluded in this video having 1000+ likes, 6500 shares and 500+ comments. Photos (shown below) accompanied this video and they were of the SS18 collection by designer Stella McCartney which uses wax print synonymous with Africa often called “African print” or “African fabric”.
The young lady and her commenters expressed their anger, annoyance and shock surrounding the pricing of this collection which was being sold in Harrods and the photos showed the price of a long wax print dress for over 1000GBP.
This wax print and “Africanness” debate was also discussed a year ago in an article on Business of Fashion magazine written by Sunny Dolat of Nest Collective and lead us to do a Facebook live session (Fashion in Five Facebook Live watch here) and write this short article on the discussion.
Disclaimer: this article is in no way an attack on the work of Stella McCartney but brings to light the debates surrounding her SS18 collection and the comments from the general public including the African and African Diaspora community pertaining to this collection and it’s relationship to what is perceived as ‘African print’, leading to the general wax-print debate and African-ness.
Three points came from the video posted by the lady on Facebook being.
This is a major problem in general when it comes to Africa’s fashion industry and Africa as a whole. In the business of Fashion article by Sunny Dolat, Kenya Designer Katungulu Mwendwa is quoted to say “Some people would even say [to me], ‘Is that African? But there’s no print!’ I realised some people have a very narrow definition of Africa and it rarely ventures out of heavy, bold print and colour.”
In compliment to this another Nairobi-based fashion designer Anyango Mpinga highlights that “There’s a shift that’s happening with the new generation of African designers, because we’re creating products that have global appeal. Someone in New York, Seoul, Sydney or Paris could look at my dress and ask, ‘where’s that from?’ It shouldn’t be obvious that a piece is from Africa just because it’s made from wax print [of African motifs]…”
This highlights that even on the continent that there is a diversity within opinion of wax-print. Where in many West African countries this is key to identity and history in East Africa the designers have a different idea. Their identity is not so much wrapped up in print but other cultural signifiers, symbols and motifs.
In the case of Stella McCartney as a designer, she stands for what she is about in particular, regarding to ethical and sustainable fashion in which she is a pioneers for. She associates herself with the Circular Fashion movement, the Cradle to Cradle concept and now with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. She stands firm on this but most importantly regarding Harrods and her SS18 she has already positioned her brand on the high end level and so she CAN command the prices she does.
Those who tend to buy cheaper (ie from the high street stores) we must question if they actually are buying from Harrods? Like the lady in the video and her commenters it can be suggested that the answer is no. And this comes down to perception. They will see Harrods as expensive and out of their price bracket of the average shopper. Equally, those who buy from Harrods we must question, would they know, or be familiar with the history, the story and the origin of those prints…likely no. They may perceive these prints as being in relation to Africa but may just see it as a grand thing Stella is doing and a creative spin…all speculation. But what IS fact is that Stella has tees shirts on her website for over 300pounds. She has built a business that commands that price – therefore the price of her wax print dresses shouldn’t really be a major issue but if its a debate about the design of these dresses then that is a matter of taste.
The message we preach is a reminder that Africa is a huge continent with 54countries differing in dialects languages culture traditions and histories. Clothing is key to history we know that and today there is an obvious shift in what the designers are bringing to the landscape. Africa IS NOT wax print and wax print is NOT Africa. Yes the relationship is strong and a great introduction for those new to the industry but what we love about some of the designers today on the continent is how they are fusing their traditions and textile techniques with contemporary styles. It’s ingenius! Follow Laduma Ngxokolo of Maxhosa, Tunde Owolabi of Ethnik, Maki Oh, @nkwonwuka of Nkwo, GENET KEBEDE, Mahlet of MafiMafi and Orange Culture to name a few.
In regards to Stella McCartney’s SS18 collection, the ideology of Cultural Appropriation lends itself to this collection from the comments that was made. Cultural Appropriation issues are raised where one is using the designs and ideas from other culture for their own gain. With Stella, because there is no reference to Africa and why she used it, OR any relation to the story of its history this has lead it to receive judgements pertaining to Cultural Appropriation. Last year as this collection landed on the catwalk, Stella was called out on sites including the Huffington Post about diversity issues as she also had mainly white models modelling a collection that spoke of and whispered toward the African continent.
Questions relating to why she choose wax print that is related to Africa; With Stella being a sustainable fashion designer interested in her sourcing, therefore was her SS18 collection authentic African made? And/Or was the wax print sourced in Africa? Does it need to be?
The typical wax prints was used in a collaboration with wax-print giant, Vlisco. This Dutch print house also has print houses in West Africa so she may be indirectly supporting African locally printed fabric. But this is the point that the Cultural Appropriation issue is raised because there is no reference to Africa why she used it or a relation to the story of its history and that I can understand why that FB post received a lot of shares and comments.
The continent is THE place for inspiration today. Trend site WGSN with a new Cape Town office, have now jumped on the bandwagon having produced Africa reports, the majority written by Cultural Futurist, Fashion Designer & Content Creator Annegret Affolderbach (previous owner of Choolips a label made in Ghana and India).
It’s time for Africa NOW, today and sales from Vlisco shows how important print related to Africa is. This global brand with a $400+ million turnover in 2017 with 90% of its sales coming from Africa itself and a history of 160years solidifies its’ importance in Africa, TO Africa and for those who buy what they perceiveas ‘African print’.
This print has become a pan-African symbol and a signifier for Africanness as Dolat so rightly put it. As he goes on to say in the BoF article “To combat sticky colonial legacies despite these challenges, a desire for more conscious expressions of blackness began taking root in a new generation on the continent, with people beginning to demand certain levels of Africanness from their clothes to link more strongly with their cultural origins and heritage. With this came the culture and politics of wearing so-called African fabrics, the most ubiquitous of which is ankara”.
This fabric with its origins in Indonesia, which was rejected due to a failure of being able to mass produce this handmade print was soon mechanised by the Dutch tradesmen and subsequently in the 19th century found a new customer in Africa. This market literally adopted the bright colours, cracked prints and symbols and motifs which soon shifted towards more local Africa images. This print which has its history founded in the Netherlands and seen as luxury item, raises points of origin, identity, and an imbalance of power.
“The fabric clearly does not pass basic global standards for rules of origin, to rightfully earn the label ‘African’, based on the location of the last substantial transformation before it arrived on our shores for our use. However, does calling it African for centuries actually make it so? Does being its majority users and manipulating it in increasingly innovative ways make it irretrievably ours? Is it odd that fabrics that have been made by others and travelled so far have a belonging to our sense of self that supersedes that of textiles actually woven or fabricated on our shores?” (Business of Fashion)
The fabric also known as the “pagne”, is worn in multiple ways and tailored into multiple styles and is given names depending on the print which adds to it’s appeal. So appealing that the designer Cultural Appropriation story is a much smaller issue in light of the Asian competitors who are now counterfeiting the textiles and importing “fake textiles” to the African market.
“They almost exclusively reach the African continent through fraud — contraband and tax evasion — and much of the material is forgery using our designs.”Jean-Louis Menudier, who heads Uniwax, the Ivorian subsidiary of Dutch group Vlisco (see News24)
In light of this there are much deeper issues relating to wax-print textiles and what lead this article to be written Africa is NOT wax-print and Wax-print is NOT Africa! Either way, some consumers of wax-print cloth just choose to have fun with it regardless of its origins and just own it as theirs, whereas for some its supply chain journey is of to key importance that it can’t be overlooked or bought unless it is truly African made.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The September Standard.
Originally published on Africa Fashion Guide.