I didn’t realize what a deep and wonderful rabbit hole I was headed down when I decided to visit the African Print Fashion Now exhibit, currently at the Brooks Museum in Memphis until August 12, 2018. This exhibit then travels to the Mint Museum in Charlotte, where it will be on display later in 2018 and into 2019. Although it’s been a couple of weeks, I’m only now just climbing out of that rabbit hole, posting now to document some of what I found and learned. The three garments shown above are what you see first when you enter the African Print Fashion Now exhibit.
Almost immediately, I realized that the African Print Fashion Now exhibit, which originated at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, is not only a carefully curated and researched fashion exhibit, but one that is a visual marvel. The gorgeous evening gown to the right is by Nigerian designer Lanre Da Silva Ajayi, whose popular brand is commonly known as LDA. Ajayi designed this glamorous gown using Vlisco’s “Splendour” fabric collection. Watch the Fowler Museum’s video of the exhibit’s co-curator Suzanne Gott discussing these dresses here:
These lovely garments are only some of many in the African-Print Fashion Now exhibit that highlight the multitude of unique and marvelous wax print fabrics produced.
To appreciate the African print garments, it helps to first look closer at the fabrics themselves. This exhibit helps explore the intriguing history and blending of cultures in both the design and manufacturing of African prints, which are considered a distinct category of cotton textiles. As stated in a post at Slate, “The fabrics are not really authentically African the way people think…they prove to have a crossbred cultural background quite of their own.” Shown here are some of the Dutch company Vlisco’s 350,000 archived wax print cloth samples, most of which are produced for discerning markets in West Africa and Central Africa.
African print wax print cloth originated with hand-crafted wax-resisted batiks in Asia, which were traded with East Africa as early as the 11th century. Later, in the 1800s, after the imperialization of the East Indies by the Dutch (which is now Indonesia) British and Dutch manufacturers began mechanizing the East Indies’ more tedious hand methods with roller-print and resin-resist industrialized technology, with the idea of marketing the print fabrics in the East Indies and other parts of Asia. But the Asian market rejected the machine-made prints with their “imperfections” and “crackling,” that were not part of the Asians’ traditional hand-made versions. That’s when the Dutch and British print cloth producers quickly found a ready market in West Africa where trade with Asia already existed, and where the Africans already had a liking for the East Indies’ batik designs. What the Asian market rejected, the West African market readily embraced; the Africans were delighted that no two bolts of cloth were identical.
European manufacturers, to take advantage of this huge and ever-growing African market, took note of the preferences and demands of the local West African traders and distributors, most of whom were women, as to fabric pattern, design, and color.
The fabrics often were–and still are–designed with patterns to reflect political heroes, social commentaries, local proverbs, and cultural and financial status. The African Print Fashion Now exhibit features lively examples of wax print cloth, some with smaller repeating designs, and others with larger designs that cover the entire width of the bolt.
“Six Bougies” shown above was originally designed in the 1940s for Vlisco, represents six spark plugs, a way to show that the wearer of the fabric owned a six-cylinder car, a sign of wealth. The center image is of a wealthy woman, perhaps a cloth trader. The notes in the museum state that today there is also an “Eight Bougies” version of the cloth, with a man in the middle smoking a cigar surrounded by eight spark plugs.
The “Six Bobines” (sewing bobbins) is a clever riff on the “Six Bougies” shown above.
“Six Bobines” and the cloth with scissors above are print themes that reflect the prominence of tailoring and sewing in West Africa. A note in the African Print Fashion Now exhibit states that an African woman’s cloth collection is of great value to her, and even today is a measure of her taste and status. “A woman may own over 150 costly imported wax prints, which is the most prestigious type of African print cloth—admired for its superior durability of color and weave.”
Based on the exhibit’s notes, the Dutch company Vlisco “is the world’s premier producer of authentic wax print and ‘fancy print’ cloths…Visco-brand prints have long been the textile of choice for consumers, tailors and seamstresses in much of West and Central Africa.”
Check out Vlisco’s website and this video of Vlisco’s fashion show from 2016 celebrating Vlisco’s 170th anniversary and featuring four fashion designers, including Lanre Da Silva Ajayi mentioned above. The notes in the African Print Fashion Now exhibit state that over ninety percent of Vlisco’s production is for the African market.
The designer of these dresses, Gilles Toure, is one of the Ivory Coast’s most celebrated and respected fashion designers. Even on a mannequin, it’s obvious that the cut and draping of these designs will flatter a woman’s feminine figure. The exhibit’s notes read about Gilles Toure, “His playful mixing of vibrant African prints with materials such as crepe, satin, organza, tulle, lace, ribbons, and embroidery often characterize his dramatic evening gowns…” Both outfits shown are from Toure’s 2014 “Feeries Collection.”
The Handkerchief Hem Dress (shown in middle) was designed in 2013 by Titi Ademola for KIKI Clothing based in Ghana.
This stunning dress pictured above and designed in 2016 by Lisa Folawiyo from Nigeria, is a wax print fabric, made even more fun and interesting with the sparkle of sequins.
These cheery dresses with hats shown above were designed by Ken Traoré in 2016. See the dress shown right on a model at the Mint Museum’s site, where the exhibit will be showing later this year and into 2019.
Although not many, there are a few vintage black and white studio and street portraits taken by local African photographers of the time. These photos reveal what we can assume were some the subjects’ finest garb and outfits. Shown is “Portrait of Two Women” taken by Jacques Toussele in the 1970s in Mbouda, Camaroon. The exhibit’s notes state, “Touselle created images in which the women wearing African-print ensembles exude dignity. But several of these images also hint at a kick-up-your-heels sense of fun; he enjoyed the game of arranging poses, finding props, and using clothing to change appearances.” I am so digging that boom box…
Shown are gorgeous dresses by Patricia Waota from Cote D’Ivoire. Waota founded the K-Yele brand in 2014, inspired by her grandfather who was a tailor, her mother who owns a clothing studio, and fellow countryman and designer Gilles Toure. The exhibit notes that Waota’s dresses and gowns are distinguished by “sleek feminine lines and bold geometric cuts.”
Prom Dress, shown above, was designed by teen Kyemah McEntyre in 2015, from New Jersey, and is an example of how today’s younger people are adopting and reinventing the “Angelina” Vlisco pattern created in 1963.
Pictured above is another dress made with the “Angelina” print pattern.
Only a few pairs of shoes were included in the African Print Fashion Now exhibit, which is understandable, considering that the exhibit’s emphasis is on wax print fabric and its widespread use in garments. Shown are Italian-made shoes designed by Afua Dabanka who is German-born to Ghanaian parents. Designed for her Mo Saique luxury label.
This man’s suit by Alixis Temomanin might be the most impressive and memorable garment for me in the African Print Fashion Now exhibit. Wax print cloth is by Vlisco.
Watch the Fowler Museum’s video of Temomanin discussing the origin of his suit here:
Temomanin when explaining the origin of the suit’s fabric design: “My work is all story-telling. And the story through this print started when I was 14, 16. I was trying to figure out…sexuality, my culture, my identity and…I felt I was trapped in a spider web.” Pointing to the center of the web design on the suit, he says, “This is where I started…how am I going to get out from here?…Everything was so frightening in my life, that I had to express that, I had to show that.” Temomanin goes on to explain, “The only toy that I could have was a piece of fabric, which was everywhere…the only way as a child I could play with that in my mind and…escape from poverty and the tough life. My view on the print could be very negative, but I really want people to see in my work is the beauty that comes from the darkness…I want everyone to look at the print like a blank canvas and tell their own story. Wear it, and own it…that would be the call.”
Nigerian-born Wale Oyejide designed this vivid and African-print cloth man’s sport coat in 2014, entitled The Kehinde II, from the “Untold Renaissance Series” Modeled with silk scarf from “After Migration Series” and entitled The Nobleman I.
The African Print Fashion Now exhibit features only a few necklaces and earrings. Shown are mixed media earrings and a necklace featuring African wax print cloth. Jewelry designed in 2016 and collected in London, UK.
This lovely red Ngozi dress is from the “Independence Collection” designed in 2010 by Ituen Bassey from Nigeria, and made of African-print cloth. The dress is even more stunning when worn in person, as shown on the Mint Museum’s site.
Perhaps Western culture should take a cue from African print fashion and its customers. For instance, what if women in the U.S., most of whom are drowning in “fast fashion,” took a page from the African fashion market, and became more deliberate in what they wore, from choosing beautiful fabric on a bolt, to discussing with her seamstress the design and tailoring of her garment, to then wearing the finished garment with pride and affection, for years to come? That’s a pipe-dream, I suppose, but perhaps the subject for a later post.
In the meantime, I’ll always hold on to my fond memories of seeing the African Print Fashion Now exhibit. The brilliant colors, the enchanting bold cloth patterns, and the attention to details when incorporating the patterns into garment designs, whether they are dresses or men’s suits, were eye-opening, inspiring and often breathtaking. This exhibit is truly a joy to view, and I urge you to attend it, if you have the chance. Again, this exhibit is on display at the Brooks Museum in Memphis until August 12, 2018, and then will be at the Mint Museum in Charlotte later in 2018 and into 2019. There also is a companion book to the exhibit, African-Print Fashion Now!: A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style, that you can find at Amazon.
*Kudos and credit to the co-curators and other scholars who put together this marvelous African Print Fashion Now exhibit, to the Fowler Museum at UCLA where this exhibit originated, and to the wonderful Brooks Museum, where my photos (taken with my SLR camera, no flash) in this post were taken. After visiting the African Print Fashion Now exhibit, and reviewing my photos, I decided that I wanted to share some of what I saw with my readers, to encourage them to possibly visit the exhibit itself, or at the very least, to enlighten them some about African print fabric and fashion, which I now find so fascinating. I received no financial incentive from researching or publishing this post, or for mentioning any museum, school, author, curator, designer, label, manufacturer, manuscript, or other individual, garment, or entity. My time invested was for my pleasure and enlightenment alone. I have given credit to the printed notes on display at the African Print Fashion Now exhibit whenever I have quoted those notes word for word.