Black-owned businesses make amazing clothing inspired by African designs. What happens when everyone inevitably starts buying them?
The recent influx of support for black-owned businesses has caught the attention of fashion brands working with African prints. Many of these labels are based on West African designers living in the United States and Britain, transforming standard samples of West African materials into modern American silhouettes. Half of what drives the current dialogue is that although African-born designers see the African press as an option to develop their tradition, they are promoting it in a rustic style with a personal separate historical past and relationship to those materials. Many people in America of all colors have grown up associating African patterned clothing with expressions of satisfaction with black, primarily on its recognition in the civil rights era and its use in the Black Energy movement as an opportunity to represent solidarity and reference to one’s African heritage. They do not see African style as an option for developing African tradition, but to reclaim it.
“May was our biggest month in our history, and June will be bigger than May,” said Addie Elabor, founder and designer of D’iyanu, an African print label launched in 2014.
Nicolette Orji, aka Nikki Billie Jean, founder of the All Things Ankara blog and a designer of herself, was equally optimistic. “Anyone who is currently selling anything online feels that support, and it’s amazing if they delay it a bit.”
While the market for most of these designers is the largest market for blacks born and raised in America, this year’s success has also attracted new customers.
“When I first released my masks, a white friend of mine sent me a message saying, “Can I buy this, or would that be a bad idea?” said Maya Lake, the founder of Boxing Kitten. Her brand is often considered one of the first to have Ankara prints on the American fashion radar.
“I told her to buy it. I mean, especially now if you want to support black-owned businesses. I think it’s fine.”
But, said Ms Lake, there is an important difference between non-black buyers who use their money to support black designers and non-black designers who use African prints to make money.
“As an African American, I treat fabric differently,” she says. “If someone doesn’t have a personal cultural connection to the fabric, it’s not fair,” she said, referring to fashion houses like Stella McCartney, who was turned down for using Ankara print. “Just because you go somewhere and study something doesn’t mean you can make it your own to make money.”
The difference between customers and designers is important to many in the industry.
“I would love to see African prints everywhere,” said Yetunde Olukoya, a Nigerian-born designer who moved to the United States with her husband when she was 26. “As long as it is produced in Africa and gives value to the people who made this fashion popular, I would love to see it used all over the world.”
Ray Darten, a brand that started in her living room in 2016 with 160 hand-sewn pieces, now employs more than 100 workers in Nigeria.
For Ms. Olukoya, the clothes printed in Ankara contrast with the stories that too often associate Africa with poverty and disease. “Americans need to learn that there are beautiful things that come from here,” she said.
Ms. Olukoya estimates that approximately 80% of her customers are African American.
For Ms. Elabor, who moved to the United States from Nigeria as a child, every designer who popularizes the African press must be of African descent. “Otherwise, it looks like we have to wait for a new race to come and wear it before the world realizes it’s popular.”
Ms. Orji of All Things Ankara has seen an increase in the number of white customers on her site over the past month, a trend she welcomes. She publishes pictures of non-black models in the Ankara prints. “If we want these prints to go viral, we need more people to use them,” she said.
Part of what is driving the conversation today is that while African-born designers see African print as a way to spread their culture, they are selling it in a country with its history and connections to these fabrics.
Many people in America of all colours have grown up associating African patterned clothing with expressions of satisfaction with black, primarily on its recognition in the civil rights era and its use in the Black Energy movement as an opportunity to represent solidarity and reference to one’s African heritage. They do not see African style as an option for developing African tradition, but to reclaim it.
“The first time a customer cried in one of my pop-up stores, I didn’t know what to do,” said Olukoya of Ray Darten. But when she started to explain how she was feeling, I also started to cry. I am Nigerian, and I know where I am from, and I cannot imagine how I would feel if I did not know where I am from. It’s not just the clothes on the racks. It’s about trusting them and trusting the culture.”
Abiye Yvonne Dede, British clothing designer and founder of L’aviye clothing, is born in Nigeria, She estimates that about 70% of her business comes from the United States and that African Americans are her largest demographic.
A few weeks ago, she posted a post on Instagram in which she wore her design alongside models in L’aviye clothing. “Because they always ask us if L’aviye belongs to a Black,” the caption read.
The comments came quickly: “I can buy now. I did some research and couldn’t find out if it was black. My bank account is already crying !!! “
Other designers see their African heritage as a starting point from which they can bring something new to the global fashion scene.
“While I looked basic on vacations because I had nothing else to wear, I decided to start going for swimwear,” says Buki Ade of why she founded Bfyne, a swimwear company known for its innovative use of straps, sleeves, and prints from her Nigerian heritage.
“In these designs, you can walk into a room, and you have nothing to say because the costume has already presented you,” she said. “It’s a vibe.”
The past few months have garnered more attention, including Allure and Elle magazines, which she says would not have known about her label without the greater awareness of black designers. She’s grateful for the attention, but it’s hard to see why so many black designers are getting the attention.
With the notable exception of Kente cloth, many recognizable African prints today are based on Indonesian batiks. Also known as African wax block prints or Dutch wax prints. Dutch traders introduced them to West Africa in the mid-19th century, after the Dutch tried to imitate traditional batik fabrics through machine work, but found that their mechanized fabrics were unsuccessful in entering the Indonesian market.
Vlisco, a Dutch fabric company founded in the Netherlands in 1846, has designed and manufactured fabrics that are sold throughout West Africa. Today, it continues to design many of the most popular fabrics sold in the region, although local women give the fabric a name and special cultural significance.
Even dashiki tops, which became popular in the United States in the late 1960s, were shaped by Vlisco’s Angelina print, which was, in turn, borrowed from a long-standing tunic design in West Africa.
For centuries, patterns have been a way of communicating without a single word, and some may regret that these designs were worn without regard to the original messages. (Some of the fabric now used for shorts, dresses, and jumpsuits has a specific meaning in Nigeria or Ghana, where it may indicate that she is pregnant, just married, or in mourning for a parent.) But others say there’s no way to stop cultural innovation.
“It’s time to say you want to wear something because you look great and love it,” said Paulette Young, director of the Young Robertson Gallery in New York, specializing in the visual arts in Africa. “And that’s okay.” Ms. Young wrote her thesis on the Dutch origin of African wax fabrics.
Scot Brown, Associate Professor at U.C.L.A. A historian of African-American social movements and popular culture, he is not concerned that Ankara’s prints will lose its importance to the African-American community if it becomes mainstream. While he loves his D’iyanu blazers, he sees the innovative use of this print in Western business clothes as another sign that African fashion will continuously evolve and adapt to changing conditions.
“When something enters the mainstream, something new underground always happens,” Mr. Brown said, adding that black pride expressions will only evolve and take new forms. “The African style is such a huge, almost endless body of creativity that you never have to worry about running out of creative gas.”