Historically, African clothing has been framed by people in the west as a rural phenomenon, and predominantly associated with ethnic identity. Now cities like Johannesburg and Lagos are on the international fashion map. Are today’s local designers influencing international trends more meaningfully than with stale afro-chique clichés?
Some designers are influencing the old clichés, certainly. If you go to cities in places like Ghana and Nigeria you see people dressing in African prints every day. To work, to church—it’s part of day-to-day life there. The cultural identity of African prints influences my own contemporary style, too. I find it defines a kind of modern femininity, both in terms of individual strength and in attitude.
Some African designers have expressed reluctance to incorporate traditional fabrics or decorative elements in their work, hoping to avoid narrow stereotypes of what fashion from this continent ought to look like. What are your thoughts on this?
As African designers we should never forget our roots. We should never forget where we come from. Designing using African fabrics is what makes us African, and we should be proud of who we are. Traditional fabrics are part of our cultural heritage. Regarding stereotypes, every designer has their own unique way of putting pieces together, and of telling their own stories, so there shouldn’t be a problem with that.
As designers let’s not design to please other people, let’s design to please ourselves.
Must fashion ‘look African’ to be considered African?
Not really, but I think a certain African look is still important. It’s beautiful when people can embrace cultures outside their own, for example through adopting African lifestyles and fashion. Africa is a beautiful continent full of beautiful people, so why not make the African fashion scene known around the world as a source of inspiration? Just think of the impact leaders like Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere have had. The more we dress African, the more our clothing can be properly regarded as fashion.
Let’s talk vintage. By wearing old western clothing, are fashionistas like yourself imitating colonial trends or asserting a new kind of African identity?
Ha ha! No, I am certainly asserting a new kind of African identity. The clothes are Western, sure, but I wear them ensuring that that all eyes are on Africa as a fresh source of creativity. In the same vein I am referencing the history of African dandy men, such as the sapeurs of the Congo.
When did your own fascination with vintage clothing begin? Are there particular eras or styles that you’re particularly inspired by?
It started properly three years ago, although I grew up wearing suits. My parents always dressed my brothers and me in suits. Later I fell in love with vintage pieces, especially from the 1960s.
Most of the 3-piece suits I wear today belonged to my late father. I remain inspired by him, as well as by my late grandfather. These gentlemen always dressed in suits and shiny shoes, and encouraged me to grow up looking dandy every day.
I normally alter my suits to fit better and modernise them in my own way. I also wear a hat with every outfit, as well as vintage club ties—I think they are stylish and respectful.
You’ve been collaborating with a design collective in South Africa for a few years. Who are Khumbula and what is your relationship with them? Do you think links like these help to strengthen the local scene?
Khumbula is a Zulu word meaning ‘remember’. It’s a group of stylists and designers from Johannesburg. When I work with them or collaborate we call ourselves Love Is African. I see us as a family, a group of stylists and designers inspiring fashionistas around the continent to work together. We are all passionate vintage lovers that pay tribute to the legendary vintage clothing era.
Cities like Johannesburg have begun investing in the creative industries, providing support for young artists and designers. Has this started happening in Namibia yet, or are you working unassisted?
Not that I know of. Those living in Jozi are lucky. I am currently working unassisted, which is one of the challenging factors we face as designers in Namibia. We end up not having fashion shows because of the costs involved. It is my wish that the Namibian corporate companies reading this story come on board and assist us, because I believe that as African-inspired designers we can create an unprecedented level of awareness and buzz about how creative people on this continent can be.
As a designer I communicate with the public through my arts and creativity. This is how I interact with people.
Lagos fashion designer Buki Akib uses her work to tell stories. “Africans should tell stories of Africa—past, present and future,” she has explained. What stories do your outfits tell? Can vintage clothing tell stories about the future?
I fully agree. Yes, my designs tell stories. Most of my designs are in African print; these prints have bright colours, and these colours represent unity. They tell a story through unity, that as individuals living in the African continent, although we may have different cultures—for example Zulus, Vendas, Xhosas in South Africa, Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Damaras in Namibia—we remain one. Most of my designs are made of more then one type of fabric, with different colours, this is the unity I am talking about.
Vintage clothing tells a story too, through recalling the legendary era of our ancestors.
Finally, a provocative question. White people wearing Afro-centric clothing or accessories: is this a problem or not?
Never. It’s good. At the end of the day we all remain the same in the image of God. I feel humbled to see white people catwalking my African print and designs. Once again, it symbolises unity.
Photos: Harness Hamese and Lukas Amakali