The new book ‘African Fashion’ does much more than decorate the coffee table

There are trendy coffee table books, and then there are books that may land on coffee tables, but certainly offer much more than compelling images of a designer’s collections.

With “Africa Fashion”, originally published by V&A Publishing and released in North America courtesy of Abrams on August 9, it is minds that will be wowed.

Equal parts inspiring imagery and historical context, courtesy (in large part) of Dr. Christine Checinska, editor and curator of African and African Diaspora Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the book’s companion exhibit opened earlier this year. July (and will be open until April 16, 2023), “African Fashion” is designed for exploration and education.

Lesson number one? Africa, and its fashion, is about abundance, not scarcity.

“The contemporary African fashion scene is so influential, so innovative, so impactful that I really see the continent as a hub for global fashion,” Checinska told WWD. “I want visitors, readers and people who interact to have a glimpse of what I think is the magnificence of Africans. I want people to get a sense of the many, many histories and cultures. I want people to go away hungry for more and I want to resist this disconcerting narrowing of Africa.”

Cover of the book 'African Fashion', edited by Christine Checinska

Cover of “Africa Fashion”, edited by Christine Checinska, published by V&A Publishing.

Victoria and Albert Museum

Told with a nod to the oral traditions of the continent, with prose that veers from the academic to the poetic, the book tells stories of designers from across Africa who emerged during the cultural renaissance that followed the liberation of African countries from domination. colonial, like the Ghanaian designer Kofi Ansah. It folds into politics that can’t be separated from fashion, addressing once-enforced European dress codes that were largely countered at times like when Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, delivered his speech at the ceremony. independence of the country wearing the traditional West African agbada, where before, he had been photographed in Savile Row-style suits. Along the way, he weaves the glamor of textiles and embellishments with snapshots taken from throughout the 20th century to contemporary times.

“Ultimately, ‘Africa Fashion’ tells a story of the richness of the African continent, its people, cultures and histories, through the lens of fashion. It is a story of boundless creativity, abundance and modernity told from multiple perspectives of Global Africa,” Checinska writes in the book’s introduction. And as she tells WWD, it’s “almost a colonization moment in reverse.”

The title comes without the “n”, as in Africa, not African, by design: “The title is ‘Africa’ instead of African because we want to keep that opening. African fashion can look like many, many things. There are many ways to be African or many ways to be fashionable, and to keep that slight ambiguity in the title, there is somehow room for all the tension, the contradiction, the beauty, the struggle, the hope.

An African woman in local traditional clothing, Esther Suwaola, in Akure, Ondo, Nigeria, 1960

An image in the book shows Esther Suwaola, in Akure, Ondo, Nigeria, 1960.

© Victoria and Albert Museum

“It’s hard to quit. [Africa Fashion is] everything from the rhythm of the color to the kente cloth, the tilt of the hat or the signet ring or that gesture. It’s all those things… that inner spirit that understands the power of the dress,” added Checinska. “When we organize ourselves in the morning, we do it consciously. There is a kind of putting us back together, there is a reminder that continues. We remember who we really are instead of who society tells us we are.”

Although defining Africa Fashion might be akin to oversimplifying what it means to be a fly (“you know it when you see it,” Checinska said), Africa Fashion, as the American-British playwright and novelist Bonnie Greer struggles to articulate lyrically in the book prologue, you can put in a few words.

“Africa Fashion is always a kind of futurism. It takes you forward,” she writes. “…Africa Fashion’s audacity is the complete act of its will and drive towards creation. The insistence on this. This insistence is the release of the Imagination from when it too was doomed to be chained like the body. It is agency at its finest because it creates a future in which Africans are not defined by anyone except ourselves. By. Ourselves. The power to reorder the world, to remake history, can give the fashion maker another way of looking at Africa. Now.”

As with the exhibition, the aim of the book is to remake history, if remaking is to add truths to narratives omitted from the fashion canon, such as the richness of the continent’s contribution and influence on cloth and textiles.

Clothes: Kofi Ansah 'Indigo' Couture.  Accessories: Katie Torda Dagadu in 'Suntrade'.  Models: Emmanuel Narh 'Taller' Gaduga and Linda Tsirakasu Location: The Trade Fair, Accra - Ghana.  Assistant: Naana Orleans-Amissah.  Photographer: Eric Don-Arthur.

Garments: Kofi Ansah “Indigo” Couture. / Complements: Katie Torda Dagadu in ‘Suntrade’. / Models: Emmanuel Narh ‘Taller’ Gaduga & Linda Tsirakasu / Location: The Trade Fair, Accra – Ghana. / Assistant: Naana Orleans-Amissah.

Photographer: Eric Don-Arthur

Indigo, for example, is most often associated with places like Japan and India, but Africa also has a long history of creating indigo-dyed cloth, or Àdìrẹ, which has been made by the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria since at least XIX century. according to a book chapter written by Roslyn A. Walker, an American museum curator and expert on Nigerian art. The cloth, named for the Yoruba word adi, meaning ‘to tie’ and meaning to dye, was once made exclusively by women using leaves from wild indigo plants.

“With the book and the exhibit, it’s this idea of ​​broadening people’s understanding of the history of African textiles, the breadth, the depth, the breadth, the richness of it…beyond wax prints.” Dutch,” Checinska said.

Taking things contemporary, “African Fashion”, in a middle section of the book marked with brightly colored yellow pages, allows 22 of the continent’s leading designers, the same ones featured in the V&A exhibition, including Imane Ayissi , Sarah Diouf, Lukhanyo Mdingi, Awa Meité and Sindiso Khumalo: they tell their stories.

Awa Meité, a Malian designer who works with local artisans to weave haute couture creations from organic cotton and sustain jobs for the country’s cotton industry (which is among the largest in Africa), is on a mission to articulate the “ rich imagination” of Africa. ”

“Creativity and fashion allow us to write our own narratives. They are spaces for people who have a vision of the continent and who want to show its strength and its immense humanity, its beauty and its material and immaterial resources. This gives full meaning to the rise of African and Black creatives, inspiring present and future generations,” she writes.

Cape Town, South Africa-based designer Sindiso Khumalo, a 2020 LVMH Award finalist who also won the Green Carpet Fashion Awards “Best Independent Designer” that year, focuses on honoring women, from their talents and contributions to their safety and livelihood.

“Inspired by the lineage of enduring and powerful black women in history, our collections celebrate historical female figures such as South African activist Charlotte Maxeke, Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Yoruba princess and goddaughter of Queen Victoria), and American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. I hope to amplify their voices through storytelling in our collections,” writes Khumalo, who employs young Black women who have previously been trafficked and exploited to learn things like hand embroidery and quilting that the brand uses for its designs. .

For too long, the global fashion industry has overlooked Africa’s contribution, and that’s wrong. Checinska hopes the book will help correct that. And the cultural tide already seems to be rolling in that direction.

“There is an acceleration of interest and we cannot ignore the impact of digital platforms and the digital world,” he said. “I also think we can’t underestimate the fact that we have people of African descent at the front of magazines like Vogue, [with] Edward Enninful and his impact. You got Kenya Hunt [editor in chief] in her [UK] and its impact. We had Virgil Abloh, we have Ib Kamara [editor in chief of Dazed magazine].”

Before some of these change-makers came onto the scene, what fashion had missed, and continues to miss, according to Checinska, is that what comes out of Africa is also high.

“Some kinds of sophistication and the element of luxury are missing from African fashion and I think the pan-African nature of the scene is missing. Too often they maybe focus on two or three countries, while there are exciting, creative and innovative designers across the board,” she said. “African fashion can be and is luxury.”

What’s more, Checinska added about Africa and the diaspora, the products of the people, the exhibition and the book, is this unique and moving point, a nod to something once said by the British artist and curator Lubaina Himid:

“It is us, not others.”

A sample of contemporary African label pieces.  From left to right: Maxhosa Africa, IAMISIGO, Imane Ayissi.

A sample of contemporary African label pieces. From left to right: Maxhosa Africa, IAMISIGO, Imane Ayissi.

© Victoria and Albert Museum