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In their pursuit of an African voice, designers are often left stuttering when it dawns on them that simply being drawn to the continent, without substance, isn’t quite enough. The mass clamour about how “so-and-so was inspired by Africa”, together with a confusion between east and west African cloths and the question of whether it is a country or a continent, only adds to the general malaise.
Animal print is another story. I use animal print all the time, as does Michael Kors; an instance of appropriation. There is no problem with appropriation, it’s another word for inspiration; do we need the leopard’s permission to use its spots?
The dialogue then becomes something along the lines of, how we appropriate a culture with due regard. Everyone knows what tartan is, but do they know its history? Is it essential they do? At the very least we all know that tartan is Scottish. We’re not just going on about “how inspired we were by Europe this season”.
The majority of African fabrics, like Akan cloths, are an expression of nationality or ritual, or associated with essences like mother earth or maturation, with certain colours reserved exclusively for special occasions, procession or one’s status within their respective culture.William Burroughs created new work with the “cut-up” technique, creating new meaning out of found words – much the way Duchamp did with urinals. How does this practice apply to designers drawing on inspiration from Africa today? For writers, the rule of thumb is that if a sentence or two is taken from a novel no harm is done. But what if a culture or two is taken from a country? And cut up. In the current fashionable case the effect is not new meaning, but dilution. Akan becomes west African, or just African. This is equivalent to tartan becoming just a dish towel. In the case of the patterned cloths sacred to the Akan people, the medieval founders of a vast gold trading empire spanning modern day Ghana and Ivory Coast, simply cutting up their fabrics is not due regard. Perhaps knowing that contemporary Akanmen include Kofi Annan, Kwame Nkrumah and Saville Row tailor Ozwald Boateng would adjust the impulse?
Known for her ongoing romance with textile developments both fragile and tenacious, think hand-dipped silks or hi-tech sporting materials, Trine Linedegaard a Danish designer living in London, is peeling back the layers with her third collection for her self-titled line, which just so happens to be rooted in west African fabrics.
Actually, they don’t just happen to be rooted there. Which is the beautiful point.
Inspired by the wonderful geometrics of the Kita, an Akan fabric, Lindegaard met the Kwevi family – Ghanaian weavers who’ve been making this fabric 1968. Lindegaard and her team worked closely with the family to develop a vibrant and refreshing addition to the long line of Akan fabrics used in her SS13 and AW13 collections, later adding athletic cuts and active embellishments which make for a modern, wearable collection.
The Akanmen, who traded with Timbuktu during the height of west African glory in the middle ages, wearing headpieces and wraparound dresses made of the fabric, rose to power during a 13th century gold boom, ultimately leading to the well known Akan empire of Ashanti (1701-1957). Today the Ashanti monarchy continues as a constitutionally protected traditional state within contemporary Ghana, their current king, the 16th Ashanti king, Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II, who was crowned in 1999, still reserves wearing his Akan Kente cloth for special occasions and ceremonial procession. Perhaps it’s time he wore it with shorts and sneakers and a tangerine pill box hat, like Lindegaard wants us to.