Thoughts from my last ever entry to Vogue's writing competition (I'll be 'too old' to enter next year). Some might say I was unsuccessful because I wasn't shortlisted from thousands to move on to the next stage of the competition. But sometimes just having a reason write and a chance to explore new ideas with integrity is enough. Sometimes.
Africana: A continent takes centre stage
From animal prints to "ethnic" chic, European designers have long looked to the landscape and traditions of Africa as a catalyst for inspiration. With a new incarnation of the trend amongst us for s/s 2012, now is the time to get under the skin of one of fashion's favourite themes.
Forget Asia or the Americas, there’s something about Africa that seems to capture the imagination when it comes to articulating the boldness and sense of escapism we crave after months of winter hibernation. Sun, safari and savannah plains, rugged landscapes and untamed animals – the continent conjures up images of exploration and adventure, setting pulses racing as we invest in our slice of life on the wild-side: snake-print bangles, raffia wedges, tribal dresses in a cacophony of colours.
This season the catwalks have been more than complicit. Stripes and spots abound in the animal-inspired collections from the likes of Michael Kors and Robert Cavalli, while Burberry Prorsum imitates and re-imagines distinctly “African” fabrics. The high street, too, is following suit: Next, Zara and Topshop offer safari luxe, heavy-duty pattern and radiant florals, as does the ASOS Africa collection and elements of the collaboration Marni for H&M.
The enthusiasm with which European fashion embraces a recurrent African theme could be down to our desire for experiences outside of our familiar frames of reference. Delving into the dress of another culture gives us unparalleled and liberating permission for personal reinvention. But with connotations of being abroad on holiday, this is a trend that is often treated like a summer fling: filling an aching gap with vibrancy, but simultaneously persuading us that its intensity is unsuitable for a permanent place in our everyday lives.
For more astute observers, however, s/s 2012 is the season to challenge this limited view of Africa-influenced fashion. Thanks to a burgeoning industry of its own developing apace through the equalising effects of social media, now more than ever the continent is adding its contribution: successive collections that are shaped by a plurality overlooked from the outside. For these designers, “Africa” is always in fashion and a wealth of commentators are on-hand to help unfamiliar fashionistas grapple with the diverse spectrum of home-grown talent.
One must-have on the road to enlightenment is Helen Jennings’ masterpiece “New African Fashion”: a book that charts contextual underpinnings and profiles current ground-breakers and change-makers. For everyday application of trends from the continent and diaspora, look to blogs like “My African Closet” (myafricancloset.wordpress.com) from Croydon-based Ghanaian designer AJ Taylor and Nigeria’s popular BellaNaija.com. Spiralling out from these starting points are numerous links and further reading helping us learn the lexicon of national and local influences: from the historical heritage of different regional crafts and textiles to their on-going reinterpretation in modern societies.
This is the real adventure: unravelling the continent’s complexity and embarking on expeditions into an enhanced understanding. Our enriched wardrobes will thank us when we realise that Africana is for life, not just for a season.