Second Look | When a Trend Hits Too Close to Home

By posted on

Second Look | When a Trend Hits Too Close to Home

Like a snowball down a mountain or a Taylor Swift song, the influx of African print patterns into menswear is getting hard to avoid. And this writer is not a fan.

Before you head to the comments section to angrily type ‘you iz racist n a hater’ hear me out. I have lots of African friends, so it’s ok. I’m also of Nigerian descent myself, which means my hate of this trend comes from a personal place. There’s a number of issues with this trend that, at best, can be irksome and, at worst, fall into one of the many tone deaf ways that fashion deals with co-opting items that have cultural meaning.

Fashion magazines aren’t great with context or nuance, with the ‘that’s amazing!’ side of things overshadowing the smaller things. So it’s almost forgivable that the phrase ‘African inspired’ appears so readily in print. Almost, but a writer saying a collection that was inspired by, say, a remote French village was ‘European inspired’ wouldn’t be acceptable. And neither should the vague ‘African’ inspired term either. I’ve seen phrases like ‘totally ethnic’ used by designers to describe a collection, which sounds like a Godfrey Bloom quote. But it’s not all bad. Trine Lindegaard’s Spring/Summer 2013 collection involved work with traditional Ghanaian fabric weavers that avoided lazy descriptions didn’t diminish the importance of that influence in the collection. Also, it would be unfair to make out like this is the first time fashion has co-opted something and either totally ignored or stripped away any semblance of context and social importance.

While I understand people wanting to subvert and make new ideas from old ones, stripping of context is another issue entirely. It cannot be removed from the bigger issue of ethnocentricity and how it affects our daily lives. Going back to Lindegaard, one quote stuck out to me. In an interview with Style Salvage she said this:

“The collection is rooted in these African fabrics. I wanted to take them away from their traditional use, the wraparound dresses and headpieces, and their links to social status. I wanted to make them more accessible but still keep the traditional influences.”

And here’s where context becomes important. Subversion is, has and always will be an important part of culture. It’s why people are interested in groups like Morrissey’s Latin American fans or inner city Ralph Lauren devotees (an article that tends to get recycled every three years or so). But subversion without context, which most people don’t have when it comes to any sort of African fabric, becomes appropriation.

Not only is it appropriation, but subversion of this kind is a near impossible task that’s only achieved by the wearer themselves. So if I wear anything Kente inspired, very few people will think I’m subverting anything. They’ll just assume I’m wearing traditional garb. Which isn’t to say they’re wrong or they’re racist, it merely points out the futility of empty subversion. Context is key, otherwise actions become meaningless.

Putting all this talk of subversion and cultural appropriation to one side, the main reason I don’t like this trend is a personal one: There was once a time when a non-African person wearing African print patterns meant they’d married into a family. There was a respect there. They’d met the aunties, they’d met the uncles. They’d sat down at a dinner and ate Egosi soup laced with enough scotch bonnet peppers to make you dive into the Thames. They’d been through some things. Now it means nothing.

While I understand you seeing an aunty on Kingsland road one day and wanting to subvert her attire, there was a time when me wearing these patterns meant nothing but the worst. Let me take on a trip down memory lane (you can play the Nas song of the same name now if you want).

When this writer was around ten, being African wasn’t really the thing to be. Being Caribbean was cool, people had positive associations when they thought of the Islands. People instantly thought you were cool if you were Caribbean. Being African carried no such associations. It was mainly, thanks to Live Aid, associated with flies, mud huts, famine, war and Bono. Wearing any sort of traditional African attire was a dicey proposition at best. You could walk down the street in regular clothes and pass under the Caribbean banner that most people automatically put you under without any trouble. But if your African connections got out, prepare for a whole host of “African booty scratcher” taunts, ‘Did you have a mud hut out there?’ questions and other types of assorted nonsense.

I could always pass for Caribbean pretty easily. I even had some people speaking to me in Patois, which always left me doing the Homer Simpson blank stare. I’d grown accustomed to people saying “I know where you’re from… Barbados!” and “You’re Nigerian?! But you don’t look African” (which is, was and always has been offensive). I was safe in my assumed identity. But one day my mum decided that we’d be going to a wedding and that I’d have to wear (insert horror movie dun dun dun sound effect here please) traditional Nigerian attire. Hat and all.

I wasn’t happy as my cover would’ve been blown. I didn’t know how to voice that at the time, being ten and not as linguistically dexterous as I’m attempting to look right now by using the phrase linguistically dexterous. I tried to kick up a fuss and refuse, which didn’t work. I went to a shop and got my attire and went to the wedding wearing every last inch of that outfit, including the hat. As it wasn’t the 1970s, I didn’t get bananas thrown at me, but still, I’d rather not have worn it at the time. It meant something that I wasn’t prepared to take on at the time; a deep cultural significance that I had unknowingly been trying to shake off. The outfit didn’t even cost that much, which brings me to another reason to skip this trend.

Imagine seeing your parents. Now imagine seeing them wearing an expensive re-appropriation of something you used to kick up a fuss about wearing. You’d never live down the shame, would you? While the “traditionally made in collaboration with local artisans” shtick works when selling a collection, it doesn’t go down so well with family members. I’d be the laughing stock of the household turning up to a family event in a £250 Missoni ‘West African inspired’ shirt. Especially when aunty Obi could’ve personally tailored one for me for a quarter of the cost.

So, add up the the awkward ways this trend is covered, the appropriation conversation, the price and, most importantly, the deep seated memories and you’ve got a trend I’ll give a miss. Don’t take this as a ‘holier than thou’ article though. I’d wear a Kimono quicker than you could say ‘Visvimcoststoomuch’.

Jason Dike is a london based writer who’s contributed to the likes of Esquire UK and Men’s Health amongst other publications. He has a highly entertaining (his own words), but sporadically updated (our words) website at jasondike.co.uk and you can follow him on twitter at @jasondike.

Related Posts
Comments
  • Come on…

    Jason – I was totally on-board with your point until literally the last sentence where you basically say, “P.S. This only applies to African culture/patterns” and that you’re going to commit the same offense on other cultures, in this case Japanese. Seriously…?

    • Jerome

      Pretty sure that was a Joke…

  • stcml

    Being black American, we have used these types of fabrics for a few generations to show solidarity with the black peoples of Africa even if we didn’t know exactly what all of the patterns and colors symbolized. Same with poets throughout the Diaspora repurposing Swahili and other African languages.

    For us, they represented pride, camaraderie and a mythocultural sense of “being in harmony with one’s blackness” even if we didn’t exactly know WHERE our homes were in the Motherland… for us, these were ALL our homes. It was especially popular in the U.S. Late ’80s/Early ’90s during the time Pan-Africanism was in cultural vogue: Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” on MTV, X-CLAN, Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” and almost every rapper exhibiting “consciousness” at one point, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X films, Historical Black College merchandise, even The Cosby Show and A Different World showcased these prints on mainstream American TV. Black American high school kids wore these patterns on bookbags, lined on jackets, adorning jeans, etc. For us, the prints were a celebration/awareness of our heritage, even if we switched a lot of its context.

    To this day, during commencement time in the U.S. it’s VERY common for black American students to wear these draped across their necks as a sign of honor and privilege. We have reappropriated it into a different kind of honor.

    Now the hipsterfication of these prints is problematic mostly because it trivializes them outside of a cultural context and strips them of any real discernible meaning (just like the Indian Head dress was made into hipster nonsense from the likes of Ke$ha to Kelis). While I don’t think it’s entirely wrong to repurpose these fabrics in a consumer space for other cultures to use — and maybe celebrate — (like the examples I mentioned above) I respect your views.

  • WOR RICK

    Well put and stoked to see the subject matter brought up. Hard to remove the politics from appropriating the influence. I figure for a designer to not consider it, is to be naive, lazy, or ya just don’t give a fuck. But I do love me some bold and brash prints.

  • Kirk

    Dear Selectism, I follow you for the latest menswear news, not socio-political commentary. Please try to stay focused.

    • teddyruxpin

      Dear Kirk, fashion and politics have a symbiotic relationship. Please go back to Stormfront.

  • A reader

    Jason,

    I agree with some of your points, but I query your general thesis about appropriation being a bad or irksome thing. Think of music (rock’n'roll did not start with Elvis), art (Picasso was inspired by African art to develop his method) or in this case fashion. The originators rarely get the credit. Think also of museums, where art is segregated according to general designations like (African art, Asian Art, etc.) while European art is often treated just as art in of itself. Plaid, cotton, tartan and other materials are just fabrics while African print fabrics are “tribal” as they have not gone mainstream yet. This is a function of who controls the medium (Should Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantion have directed Django or is it all about who could get the budget?) All of these migrations are fraught with concerns like yours, but in the end, isn’t it better for humankind of our differences to be much less noticeable?

    African print fabrics (and there are different kinds) are just fabrics too, and the exoticization of these fabrics without proper attribution is part of the problem. However, attitudes like yours, generally held by African members of the diaspora, are also part of the problem. Because you are familiar with the fabric due to your heritage, you do not promote its beauty or even its sentimental value. You refuse to pay the cost for a garment that uses the fabric though you would quickly buy something that is not as familiar to you like Visvim because it is not your normal. This means that rather than support a movement that is being brought in to the mainstream in much the same way that VitaCoco (who doesn’t drink coconut water from the guy shelling coconuts on the beach in a developing country) or Havaianas (because who doesn’t wear slippers like that in a developing country), you sit back sulking and make claims about heritage.

    Jason Dike, rather than rail against those who are appropriating the fabric, why not support businesses that showcase the fabric in context? Your piece is just an empty polemic. Put your money where your mouth is. If you would see African print fabric get the proper credit for its origins it deserves (origins that span in some cases from Indonesia, to Holland and then to Africa) support independent African labels and designers. In the years I’ve followed Selectism, I have only seen one feature on Selectism for such a label (Laurenceairline out of Cote d’Ivoire/Paris). No, wait, was that Highsnobiety?

    Through a feature on them in The FADER, I just discovered a fledgling label – President For Life (presidentforlife.com) – that you could call the Ghanaian version of Sunspel. Based in Brooklyn, New York, and Accra, Ghana, their hand made boxer shorts are made out of authentic Dutch Wax fabric and all their manufacturing is done in Ghana with Ghanaian textiles. They have a really interesting origin story that taps in to some of the concerns you describe and they are actually doing something about it. Their branding is all about authenticity. Instead of speechifying, you ought to buy a pair of their shorts or at least shoot them an email at info[at]presidentforlife[dot]com to do an interview. I ordered 4 pairs of President For Life boxers myself and they are beautiful, super comfortable and expertly made.

    Peace,

    A reader

    • Marwood

      missoni has been making those patterns for donkeys

    • Cyprian De Coteau

      Hello,your argument I find CONVOLUTED at best. HATING far too much!Are you aware that as you so correctly stated “Dutch Wax” fabric is not INDIGENOUSLY African. It was another means of TERMINATING weavers from different tribes making their own Fabrics. The Dutch decided we’ll print it! Don’t weave it! Kente,as displayed in the story was the last Fabric that used to be woven but is now also printed! It was for this reason Mahatma Ghandi adopted the cotton woven by the Nationals of India as the British wanted to maintain DEPENDENCY on cotton from the Mills of Bradford in the North of England!
      It continues to highlight the CHASM of knowledge of what it means to be AFRICAN!

      • E

        So what is your point exactly? Where is the convolution you are referring to? You’ve made some assertions here, but what is the relevance of these assertions to the larger point about appropriation? If everyone has appropriated the fabric who has the right to claim ownership of it or does that even matter? Isn’t the issue a question of recognizing it’s origins and supporting a narrative that shows the fabric in its best light rather than ranting and raving about how people use it? Where is the hate in a statement that says get over your ownership issues and support the story you want to be told with your dollars? Money talks whether you type in all caps or not.

  • jayohachen@gmail.com

    Now it’s your turn to see your traditional garb on trust fund kids acting like like a fool. This is old new for everyone else, what makes you so special?

  • Eurotrash

    I’m from Europe and see European influence being used a lot in the US you just have to look closer you’ll get a laugh out of it.

  • http://flyingadolescent.wordpress.com/ flyingadolescent

    Mr. Dike

    I totally agree with your point of the ignorance of many fashion designers, as Alber Elbaz said, who Google ‘African Fabric’ but don’t actually go to an African country to experience it’s culture and manufacture. Caribbeans, of which I am one, have yet to see the sort of interest designers have sought in your culture; though when it comes it will probably all be ‘Jamaican’… Caribbean looking=Jamaican…Like, just ask first.

    Anyway, I understand your annoyance at a once uncool/unknown culture becoming trendy because it is close to you and your heritage, but it seems that you are more upset at fashion. Since time immemorial, have trends been based on the subversion of long-held beliefs. The suit cut too short or too tight, for example by Thom Browne. It seems you are more angry that there are no African designers subverting their own culture, but Western designers. But seeing both interpretations, they are kind of onto the same idea by cutting the fabric into more modern and recognisably-European shapes. If I saw my parents wearing that, I’d think they wanted to fit in more within the country they live while still acknowledging their roots.

    Now styles from the African continent are getting cool, what’s bad about that? You want everyone interested in those cultures to visit their respective countries? The clothes are here to give a taste while not seeming to foreign. Fashion is a business and traditional African wares would not sell well in London. But Dalston is now awash with woven, bright sleeves on colour-blocked shirts and printed trousers.

    So what’s the real deal?

    Are you pissed off at fashion?

    Pissed off at people calling you Caribbean, because wearing LaurenceAirline will certainly solve your problem?

    Pissed off that Nigerian/Ghanian/South African fashion is not under the radar, enough?

    Pissed off at appropriation? Because then you are again pissed off at fashion.

    I’m sorry, this piece lacks direction and a clear judgement. (But, “I have lots of African friends, so it’s ok.” OK, that made me chuckle)
    If anything, it is true that it is much easier to dislike your doorstep.

    • Do more

      Hear! Hear! Jason should put his money where his mouth is and support the fashion that he views so dearly. Where are the features in Selectism or Highsnobiety — global tastemaker websites — about African fashion labels, brands and styles? There are many to choose from. Jason has the bully pulpit and wastes it kvetching.