Yesterday, Louis Vuitton showcased its new spring 2017 men’s collection in Paris, inspired by the childhood memories of creative director Kim Jones. Born in London, Jones grew up in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Botswana, developing a love for wildlife and conservation and producing a collection inspired by the various cultures of Africa.
Jones wanted to “evoke” Africa, but many runway collections don’t execute African-inspired fashion very gracefully, much less evoke it. Instead, they rely on stereotypes of Africa as a primitive, tribalistic monolith, images that continue to be used in the fashion world. African-themed collections often spark public outrage that leads to boycotting the company or petitioning for the offensive clothing being pulled from shelves, highlighting the very fine line between genuinely evoking and ignorantly appropriating.
Jones’s approach to the Louis Vuitton collection moves away from what’s typically considered typically “African.” There’s no stereotypical “staple” items like feathers, tribal patterns, kangas, safari shirts, or dashikis (which Elle Canada somehow called “the newest it-item”). Nobody is rocking war paint or wearing hay. Nobody is in glittery blackface—this time. Instead, the new collection splices animal prints with woven plaid, earth-colored silks and trousers, crocodile trench coats, and a red and blue sweater inspired by one of Jones’ childhood Masai blankets. But just because the collection didn’t unleash Twitter fury, it doesn’t mean it set the standard for ethnic-themed runway shows. For an African-theme collection, there were only seven models of color. The other 28 were white.
For a designer, an African-inspired line is a great way to exhibit some of the continent’s many beautiful patterns, colors, fabrics and trends, but it has to be done ethically and tastefully. Below are some things to consider to avoid turning an African-themed collection into a Joseph Conrad novel.
But First...What is “Africa?”
How to Appropriate “Africa”
Let’s be honest: We all appropriate other cultures. It’s almost impossible not to, considering we’re all interconnected to each other through travel, literature, the arts, and the internet. And fashion takes from everywhere to create new trends. But that “taking” is the problem.
Susan Scafidi, Founder & Academic Director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or the designs of artifacts from someone else's culture without permission.” However, she says that finding one definition is complicated. “If the taking is offensive, it may become cultural misappropriation,” she says. “But if it is acceptable to the source community, it may be mutually beneficial cultural exchange."
To make it absolutely clear: Cultural appropriation involves members of a racially dominant group using or profiting off various aspects of a less privileged culture without permission and with little understanding of that group’s history, traditions, and experiences. While some might call it “borrowing,” cultural appreciation can harm the appropriated group by reinforcing negative stereotypes.
Valentino’s spring 2016 collection, based on the theme “Wild, tribal Africa,” was promoted as “primitive, tribal, spiritual, yet regal” on their Twitter account. The statement perpetuates the stereotype that Africa is uncivilized and barbaric, and that Valentino’s collection will bring some sort of refinement. The collection included tribal motifs of no specified culture, safari prints, feathers, and fringe—and each model had cornrows. Of the 90 looks showcased for this “Africa-inspired” runway, only eight were on women of color.
Japanese designer Junya Watanabe also appropriated the myth of primitive Africa during his Spring 2016 collection, which featured the traditional scarrings of the Karamojong people of Uganda. Models sported Masai beads, battle shields, and fake dreadlocks. The irony? There were no African models in the African-themed show.