Yup, you read that right, “tribal,” because that seems to be the archaic term the fashion industry clings to. Over the years many designers have turned to the African continent as a source of inspiration. From textile patterns to masks and figures, arts from the Continent has often influenced full collections.
“The inspiration for Louis Vuitton's Spring-Summer 2017 [Menswear] collection, Africa, is evoked through rich, intricate textile treatments, exotic skins and a menagerie of animal prints.”
“Named for Eshu, the Yoruba spirit, the [Alexander McQueen Fall 2000] show paired African influences with Victoriana to dramatic effect” state Vogue.
While designers should be inspired by African cultures, problems arise when we try to uncover how they were inspired. For their Spring 2016 show, Valentino state that the “primitive…spiritual, yet regal” collection was inspired by “wild, tribal Africa”, and that it was a “journey to the beginning of time and the essential of primitive nature."
“Tribal”, “primitive”, “wild”, the reductive language used often ignore the true sources of inspiration — the cultures and artists that created the works that shape their creations. “"Tribe" promotes a myth of primitive African timelessness… In the West, "tribal" often implies "savage,” according to scholar Chris Lowe.
A further challenge is the reduction of the entire Continent to a single term, ‘Africa’. Nigeria alone is made up of more than 370 ethnic groups that speak over 500 languages.
With Paris Fashion Week taking place this week, it got us thinking, what are the different ways designers have ‘borrowed’ from African art. To coincide with Fashion Week, we highlight nine runway looks and jewellery designs inspired by African art over the years, some of them problematic.
From the first Yves Saint Laurent Spring-Summer 1967 ‘African Collection’ to today, have we learned anything? Appropriation or appreciation, you decide.
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