African-Inspired Fashions: Empowering or Imperialistic?

© Ethical Ocean

The following is a guest post by Brenna Donahue, president of marketing of Ethical Ocean.

African-inspired fashions have dominated the runway this spring. Many are celebrating the trend, lauding it for showcasing a positive and empowering image of a continent that is too often associated with only poverty, conflict and despair. Others have been quick to dismiss it as yet another form of cultural appropriation.

On the one hand I can see the latter’s point of view. It isn’t dissimilar from the recent controversy over Urban Outfitters’ use of the Navajo trademark on panties and flasks last winter. The items were quickly removed from shelves after the Navajo Nation issued a cease-and-desist letter and called the use of the trademark “derogatory and scandalous.”

Sure we’re not talking flasks and underwear, but Burberry’s and Michael Kors’ use of African prints in their spring collections isn’t really all that different, is it?

That said I’m not ready to dismiss the trend all together. Frankly all designs take inspiration from somewhere, and being inspired by the vibrant and unique prints the African continent is known for is not surprising. Moreover, taking cues from Africa can be done in a respectful way.

But to me that involves more than just mimicking and integrating prints. It means learning from the craftsman who produce the fabrics and garbs, and more importantly, going a step further to invest in development on the continent that inspires.

Some mainstream designers have started to adopt this attitude, at least in part. Tommy Hilfiger has just launched the Promise Collection, a line of African-inspired clothes. 100% of proceeds from the line support Delaware-based Millennium Promise, an organization that contributes to the millennium villages in Africa.

I guess that is a start. But while this can help mainstream the traditional African aesthetic for a global audience while donating funds, the failure to take that extra step and bring production to the continent is a wasted opportunity. The skills, creativity and craftsmanship are alive and well on the diverse continent, which can add a lot of value to a brand, and investing in local businesses and creating jobs is likely to do far more than donating to charity.

It’s why I’m more excited by those designers who not only bring African inspiration to their pieces, but who work with designers and manufacturers locally. That’s why Marissa Saints started Dsenyo, a company that makes handbags in Malawi. Each bag is made from traditional prints and is beautifully handcrafted. According to Marissa, these bags have real impact: “The producers receive a living wage and are able to start working their way out of poverty.”

Modahnik is another great example. Founded by Kahindo Mateene, a native of Democratic Republic of Congo and now based out of Chicago, Modahnik’s dresses are made in Kenya. Plus these head turners are sure to provide anyone passionate about growth in Africa the perfect opportunity to talk to people about the impact of their dress.

To me this isn’t imperialistic, it is a chance to start redefining how we perceive Africa – not as hopeless but as a hub of creativity and talent, as a destination for investment not handouts.

Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Green Fashion