“The story of African fashion is finally coming to the UK – this is why it matters”

Written by Kerry Law

As the blockbuster Africa Fashion exhibition is set to open at the Victoria & Albert Museum later this summer, Kedean Smith looks at why this celebration of the continent’s fashions is so long overdue.  

“Tell em’ Africa we don tire, so here comes the African giant.” These Nigerian pidgin English words are the lyrics to Burna Boy’s African Giant, and they aptly sum up Africa’s position on the world stage. No longer willing to accept being put in last place or ignored, the continent is proving just how far-reaching its influence is. Simply put: Africa is on the rise. It is in the midst of a cultural renaissance that has gripped the world’s attention through music, art and fashion, and people are finally paying attention to a continent once viewed only through the veil of poverty and political unrest.  

London’s Victoria & Albert museum is finally recognising this and is playing an instrumental role in bringing Black stories to life with the launch of its upcoming Africa Fashion exhibition, which opens at the start of July and runs until next spring. The exhibition is the largest of its kind and will highlight the works of 45 designers from over 20 countries across the continent through African fashion.  

One of the looks from Thebe Magugu’s autumn/winter 2021 collection.

Africa Fashion focuses on the African fashion scene, an arena that is as dynamic and eclectic as its people. African fashion has existed forever; it’s not new. What is new are the eyes that are finally seeing the beauty that designers and creatives from the continent can create. “African fashion is the future. African fashion is now,” says Omoyemi Akerele, founder and director of Lagos Fashion Week and Style House Files. “It’s not just designers, there’s a whole ecosystem of models, make-up artists, photographers, illustrators – imagine bringing everybody’s work to life season in and season out.” The works of contemporary designers such as Thebe Magugu, IAMISIGO and Imane Ayissi will be on display, as well as those of 20th century designers Shade Thomas-Fahm, Chris Seydou and Kofi Ansah, whose work will be exhibited for the first time in a London museum.

The world doesn’t move without the influence of Black art, but it will move without recognising or understanding it – and that’s what makes the Africa Fashion exhibit so important. We have grown so accustomed to engaging with Africa’s influence on fashion without actually realising it because Western designers have appropriated pieces and stories from the culture without explaining what it means to a public that generally doesn’t want to question the origins of what they’re being shown. 

In 2017, Balenciaga debuted Ghana Must Go bags and faced backlash from the African community as a whole. The bags represented Nigeria in the 1980s, a time when thousands of undocumented immigrants (many of whom were Ghanaian) were asked to leave the country at short notice. They used these bags to quickly pack their belongings, which quickly gained the moniker Ghana Must Go bags. Balenciaga was accused of cultural appropriation, and rightfully so.  

Alphadi’s spring/summer 1992 collection.

“When you fail to educate your audience about where something originates from it feels a little like robbery,” says Aisha Ayensu founder of luxury fashion brand Christie Brown. The effect of a brand simply taking the time to acknowledge where they are taking something from creates economic demand in that area and is the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. That’s precisely the point and power of Africa Fashion: to celebrate the African fashion scenes’ irresistible creativity, ingenuity and the unstoppable global impact through story-telling.  

“The joy of life and the joy of colour is completely different and very particular to the continent. It’s a language of heritage; it’s a language of DNA; it’s a language of memories,” says Artsi, founder of Moroccan brand Maison ArtC. 

A truer statement has never been said; the relationship between Africans and colourful garments really is special. It is the melding together of centuries-old traditions, artistic methods and tribal influences. Have you ever witnessed an “African aunty” making her way down a busy high street in full cultural finery or the brightly ornate colour coordination known as aso ebi commonly worn in Yoruba culture to identify one’s connection to a celebrant at events? These breathtakingly beautiful everyday elements of African life are what exhibit curator Dr Christine Checinska hopes to showcase to the public.  

Shade Thomas Fahm in the late 1960s pictured in Lagos.

Africa Fashion will celebrate the vitality and innovation of a selection of fashion creatives, exploring the work of the vanguard in the twentieth century and the creatives at the heart of this eclectic and cosmopolitan scene today,” she says. “We hope this exhibition will spark a renegotiation of the geography of fashion and become a game-changer for the field.”

To understand Africa’s current vibrant scene in cities like Lagos and Johannesburg, you need to first understand the stories and culture behind it. “There are so many facets of where we’ve been through as a continent that people don’t actually understand, so often that our story has been told by other people,” says South African designer Thebe Magugu. Backed with over a decade of existing work and research, this is exactly what Checinska and her team set out to do – own the narrative in a space that has in the past ignored African talent. 

Checinska believes that African fashion creatives are leading the way forward and changing the way people interact with fashion from the continent. When she began drafting the concepts for the exhibit, she knew that the story that she wanted to tell was one of abundance and unbounded creativity rather than one that focuses solely on what Africa lacks. The narrowing of African stories when told by outside sources is a concept Checinska wanted to avoid entirely. The guiding mantra for the team over the past year is “fashion allows us to show the continent in the way that we know it”. This reminder helped them metaphorically plant themselves on the continent to ensure that the entire exhibit is centred around Africa.

“It’s really important that this be African-centred and because of this we chose not to include many designers who have been inspired by the continent”, says Checinska. Fashion takes inspiration from anything and everything in the pursuit of the next trend or viral moment and sometimes meaning is emptied out. This is true of the many non-African designers who have found themselves at the centre of media firestorms due to claims of appropriation. The exhibition is about being Black, African pride and the creativity found on the continent, the inclusion of anything besides that would be a distraction.

For Africans, fashion is an everyday art form in the way that a painting or sculpture is; the dressing of the body is art, and Africa Fashion is a sample of this. The exhibition is a part of the V&A’s commitment to building on the museum’s collection of work by African designers. This celebration of Blackness through the African fashion scene says a lot about how narrative is being shifted as it pertains to African creativity.

“It’s only right that our creativity is celebrated and gracing the pages of magazines,” says Checinska. “This change is happening because there are more Black people at the helm of fashion houses and magazines telling layered stories about the richness and diversity of African creativity, culture and history.”

Images: courtesy of V&A

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