I was at Washington Dulles Airport, when an older white woman walked past me. She was wearing a fabulous blue linen suit, her hair swept into a clean silver bun. Had it not been for the handbag she was carrying, I might not have even noticed her among the crowd of other well-dressed white women milling around the shops and restaurant, making their way to their departure gates.
But there was something about that handbag. It was stunning. The handle was made with a string of slick, cherry-sized beads and brass pieces wrapped with various open braids of copper wire. I was sure I'd never actually seen it before yet, somehow, I recognized it, had a hunch that I knew who'd designed it.
To be clear: I am not a fashionista. In fact, I can barely tell the difference between a Fendi and a Diane von Furstenberg. Nevertheless, I found myself running after this woman, yelling, "Excuse me, ma'am. Excuse me." I finally caught up with her and asked, "Where did you get that purse?" She seemed unsurprised by my question, as if it was something she got all the time. "This? I bought it in Africa, in Ghana." My hunch was right. The handbag was an Oheneba original.
In Twi, one of the languages spoken in Ghana, oheneba means "child of a king." It's no wonder, then, that artist/designer Pamela Boateng chose that as the name of her line of unique accessories. "We have to always keep an eye to the future," Boateng insisted during a recent interview. "But we also have to let our past shape that vision. We can't deny or ignore who we are and where we come from."
This has become something of a guiding principle for Boateng, who utilizes everything from raffia palm to polished rocks when handcrafting her one-of-a-kind items.
In Ghana, there are at least a half dozen other designers like Pamela Boateng who are making a name not simply for themselves, but for this new mode of fashion which, in some instances, is nothing more than a contemporary twist on the tried-and-true.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the challenges facing the local textile industry, several African designers have mounted a bold defense of their tradition while finding innovative ways to push it into the future.
Determined to seduce consumers back into the fold, they have experimented and discovered ways to merge traditional styles with contemporary trends. And so far, it has worked. Having won their way back into the wardrobes of many of their countrymen and women, these designers are now moving their merchandise beyond the borders of their homelands into foreign lands. These are places where Africa is still viewed as an agent of everything ancient and historical, rarely of anything current or cutting edge, particularly not when it comes to couture or design.
"Times have changed," says fashion impresario Kwesi Nti, "so it only makes sense for those styles to also change. Nobody wants to wear the same kind of dashiki their grandparents wore in the 1970s, but that doesn't mean they won't wear a dashiki that's been made for today's times."
So, Nti, whose label, Tribe, is one of the most sought after in West Africa, skillfully does what designers the world over have been doing for centuries—taking classics and making them chic once again. We're talking caftans, boubous and batakaris, the very same patterns worn by the subjects in National Geographic photographs from back in the day when Africa was an anthropological curiosity, except Nti's renditions are sleek and modern enough to be worn at professional events or swanky social affairs.
"It's about doing something that not everybody else is doing," is how Abnaa Dua-Sakyi sees it. Her line, House of Abnaa, is so popular that it is now being featured in select high-end boutiques in Europe and the United States.
Whether she's designing wedding gowns, cocktail dresses or pants suits, Dua-Sakyi ensures that her artistry is reminiscent of the continent which she believes is too easily overlooked or underestimated. "I think there is a strong call back to our roots. We're Africans, so why not do something that comes from inside of us? Why not do something that depicts our people in a positive light? There are a lot of good things happening in Africa."
Meri Nana-Ama Danquah is the editor of The Black Body, a collection of personal essays, which will be published this September by Seven Stories Press.