Lights, Models, Runway: Africa Fashion Week in New York
With standing-room only, the 600 seats at the Broad Street Ballroom was filled with fashionistas, buyers, press, designers, admirers and models as Africa Fashion Week July 11-17 kicked off with the with edgy sophistication of Korto Momolu, the Project Runway star from Liberia. Totaling over 21 featured designers including headliner Bill Witherspooon, Kikoromeo, Suakoko Betty, AAMAA a la Mode, Washington Roberts, and Saint Wobil, fashion designers from Africa and the Diaspora were gracing the downtown Manhattan runway. Sponsored by USAID/East Africa’s “Origin Africa”, the three day fashion show and week long programme was organized by luxury brands company Adirée and included an exhibition and industry networking events.
Just a few years old, Africa Fashion Week is a phenomena occurring in London and other major cities. This event is part of an on-going effort to improve African trade and encourage sustainabilty, fair trade and green marketing. According to Diane Harper, a blogger for USAID, “…By building the capacity and increasing competitiveness of African goods, USAID promotes broad based, sustainable economic growth that is necessary to accelerating development and eradicate poverty in Africa.” Some $7.8 million in business deals where reportedly generated between the American garment sector and African businesses.
With a mirade of cultures whose innovative traditions serve as a source for both materials and ideas it isn’t surprising that many US and European designers and fashion houses would look to Africa for inspiration. However, the issue of intellectual property rights, living wages for workers, transfer of techonology and training that will move the continent one step closer towards realization of MDG’s and other socioeconomic objectives is yet to be realized. The East African Community (EAC) and other regional intergovernmental organizations such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) focused on developing economic markets within the continent seek to make Africa a producer of goods and finished products, not just provider of raw materials, raw talent or skills. Africa Fashion Week (AFW) shows promise. See: www.AFWNY.com
Overall, the show catered to the occidental market but it did host a few gems for those with global African sensibilities. Some of the pieces took our imaginations to the most extreme places, like a few designs those featured in the photo essay. Mr Witherspoon’s (see photo styling a straw fedora) radically chic, funk-inspired clothing for men mixed bright colored leathers, graphic prints, fake fur, bone and silk to make one of the most potent statements about black male power spiritually; physically; and sartorially made the fashion shows nothing short of fantastic. But for all its glory, occassioanl groaners and questionable political agenda, it appears the organizers themselves did not fully support the argument they are making for their brand or understand the objectives of Origin African and USAID.
If Adirée expects the rest of us to encourage design and fashion from African then the least they could do is be consistent and through with that most important message. Perhaps they should consider how they show their support and respect for African farmers, weavers, printmakers, designers, tailors, seamstresses, manufacturers, and distributors thorough out the continent by doing what any exceptional artists does well: pay attention to details. With the plethora of European hair weaves flitting about the heads of key organizers of the event, and the hopelessly conventional compunction of having team members do the “NY thing,” with their wardrobe, a powerful message was lost however subliminally on the audience and potential buyers. Namely otherwise beautiful young female ushers of African descent wore “little black dresses” instead of sporting attire no matter how short or of what sartorial tradition that send the message home: Support African Fashion! And be the change they want to see in the world. Adirée’s organizers and staff should have worn outfits made with African textiles or designed by one of the African designers showcased. They didn’t … Perhaps next year?
All images and reporting by Dowoti Désir
For more AfrobeatRadio Images, visit AfrobeatRadio on Flickr
Ms. Dowoti Désir is the Founder of the DDPA Watch Group. She is culture rights activist, curator of contemporary art in the African Diapsora, and independent scholar based in New York. Dowoti Desir is producer with AfrobeatRadio.