Africa Redux

Every few years, people in the fashion industry rediscover Africa. Like mini-skirts and ripped jeans, African textiles reappear on the runways of New York and Europe and their revival is duly noted. Fashion is cyclical like that and I have no problems with the media taking note. That's what I do for a living after all; musing about trends is what keeps the kibble in my doggie's dish. But what distresses me about stories, such as the one that recently turned up in the New York Times, is the way that African aesthetics are consistenly viewed through the dual lenses of race and politics. It always has to mean something when people—black or white or brown or yellow—decide to incorporate African textiles into their wardrobe, for instance. Today those decisions now serve as evidence of how far we have come in our race relations or how everyone feels connected to Africa or how Africa is romantic or non-commercial or some such.

I long for the day when the explanation for embracing African aesthetics is simple and wholly mundane: They're pretty.


It will be a fine day when the decision to mix Nigerian fabrics with gray flannel is no longer treated like fashion's equivalent of a United Nations treaty.

That kind of nonchalant reaction won't lesson the rich history of African style and it won't diminish its beauty. But it will mean that at long last African aesthetics won't be treated as a curious "other" whose emergence in the mainstream not only has to be acknowledged but dissected. The implication of that parsing? There has to be some complicated reason why African textiles are popular; it can't be merely because they are attractive, because that would mean our definition of beauty has been limited, misguided or just plain wrong.


The best designers who are inspired by Africa take advantage of the continent's textiles with the same ease other designers have with Swiss lace, Irish wool or Chinese silk. Africa's beauty can be embraced by anyone. And that shouldn't come as a surprise.


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