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‘Africana’ theme on catwalk: modern-day racism?

African tribal prints hit the catwalks again this season! The spring breeze brought by those ‘exotic’ and ‘wild’ ‘Africana’ theme might be pleasurable, but does it raise questions of cultural appropriation cultural appropriation?





Just until a few centuries ago, the White-society was still looking down upon tribal African and the Black community. But now, cultural and ethnic differences are being embraced worldwide in terms of cultural appropriation and this is reflected in today’s fashion industry.

Tribal prints have gone viral over these years and native Africana reference continue to pop up on catwalk in recent seasons. Let’s say only in the Spring Summer 2012, more than 7 designer brands adopted the Africana theme in fashion show, such as Roberto Cavalli, Burberry Prorsum, Donna Karna Collection, JW Anderson, Topshop Unique, Bottega Veneta, Missoni, Paul & Joe, Victoria’s Secret and the list goes on. The bold, graphic prints and simple geometric shapes are described as the ‘must-have-item’ particularly during the spring/summer season. More and more people are wearing the African tribal printed clothes, no matter where are they living at. This denotes the cultural exchange in today’s era of globalisation and the global society is increasingly becoming unified as continental boundaries are diminishing. Indeed, people everywhere are wearing clothes with similar themes every season. Tribal trend is a depiction of our modern society, which is free-spirited, that has broken off the shackles of racism and conformity.



Although to an extend this trend of borrowing from Africa represents how far modern society has evolved in terms of racism, cultural ‘misappropriation’ can easily occur when sheds a negative light to the discussion. Just few months ago, Valentino has infuriated the mass by unveiling their Spring Summer 2016 ‘Africa’ theme collection at Paris Fashion Week. This controversy theme showcased clothing referred to Africa as a whole, that their clothes generalise the culture of the entire African continent. Have you ever heard of someone saying – African is a country? Well, guess everyone does. But yea, Africa is absolutely NOT a country but the world’s second-largest continent. People and culture of Africa are as diverse as its geographical landscapes. So, for Valentino, naming the whole collection as ‘Africa’ diminishes the enormity of the continent and reflects the tendency of the Western society to stereotype people and culture outside their boundaries.


What makes people angrier is that, the fashion designer Valentino describes the ‘Africa’ collection as ‘primitive, tribal, spiritual, yet regal’, which is offensive to the whole of African when their combined culture is being called ‘primitive’. Not only that, there were only 8 coloured models in the show out of 87 models. Here, it’s an irony if ‘Africa’ trend doesn’t even dare to use majority as Black models. This reflects the social trend that although modern societies on the outside seem to have evolved to integrated racial differences, when examining them behind the curtains, racism still seems to prevail on the inside.


Valentino is not the only fashion house that reference to African culture, well-known examples such as Alexander McQueen AW00 Eshu collection, named after a god of the West African Yourba people and Adriana Degreas SS13 Bahia of all Saints collection, which referred to the slave history and culture of the Brazil state Bahia. For Degreas’s collection, one of the dresses referenced to the story of Escrava Anastacia, a Brazillan saint with neck shackled and mouth muzzled. Although her message is an enlightenment on how our societies have become a ‘slave to fashion’, it is still offensive to some who regard it as passive-aggressive from racism especially since she is a white person.



What’s more, in Milan fashion week SS13, the models of Dolce & Gabbana were wearing dresses and earrings with offensive, maid-like stereotypical representation of African women. And yet, there wasn’t a single black model in the show. As catwalks in a public fashion show, shouldn’t the fashion houses be more careful with their references and cultural appropriations?

Although the world seems to have evolved into one small village when it comes to fashion trends as seen in the use of tribal prints around the world, our societies are still culturally sensitive, and racial stigma is still an important issue that needs to be addressed. Nonetheless, catwalks always draw inspiration from art and cultural and any form of art has the potential to transform the world. As such, fashion designers have the responsibility to bridge the gaps on our societies.


So, what’s next? Should fashion designers stop using Africana as reference? The answers are both Yes and No. Designers should take extra caution when they are associating others’ cultures, useless the history and culture are correctly represented in a respectful way, otherwise it wouldn’t be a very good idea.


Anyway, SS17 is arriving in Sept. Let’s see how designers will response to all these critique on the Africana theme.