Photos by Nneka Salmon

Fashion and cultural appropriation are more than passing acquaintances. The latter, which is typically bandied about with terms like “borrowing” or “inspired by,” refers to the unauthorized adoption of elements from another, often minority, ethnic group. The issue came to a head in February when the Navajo Nation sent Urban Outfitters a cease-and-desist letter demanding the removal of the “Navajo” trademark from than 20 of the retailer’s products, including “hipster” panties and liquor flasks, both of which the tribe deemed “derogatory and scandalous,” But the sovereign Indian Nation isn’t the first culture to be gobbled up and regurgitated under the catchall—and woefully non-specific—”tribal” heading, nor will it be the last. With Africa’s sartorial influence on the ascent, one question begs to be asked: Should the practice be lauded as diversifying fashion or is it just a different form of post-colonial exploitation?

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DESIGN AFRICA

The topic was among several discussed “Design Africa,” a panel held at Soho House in New York City on Thursday. Hosted by Topaz Paige-Green, founder and director of the Lunchbox Fund, and moderated by Essence editor-in-chief Constance White, the event wrangled opinions from the likes of Nadiyah Bradshaw, head of production at Suno; Enyinne Owunwanne, founder of Heritage1960; Yodit Eklund, founder and designer of Bantu Swimwear; and Scott Mackinlay Hahn of Loomstate and Rogan.

Earlier in the week, the International Herald Tribune penned a piece about “rebranding” the continent.

The dialogue couldn’t have been more timely. Earlier in the week, the International Herald Tribune’s Suzy Menkes penned a piece about “rebranding” the continent. Italian Vogue event dedicated this month’s menswear issue to black creativity, beauty, and elegance. “All the pictures are made in a glamorous way—there is nothing sad, trashy or poor,” Franca Sozzani, the magazine’s editor, told Menkes. “People may say that Vogue does not want to talk about sickness and poverty, but if we can give an uplifting image, it is helping people who would not have considered Africa at all.”

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GLOBAL INFLUENCE

Raising the perception of Africa beyond conflict and suffering is one thing, but what about designers who reference Africa without pursuing business on the continent? “I think it’s a double-edged sword,” said Owunwanne, who runs the African and African-inspired fashion boutique Heritage1960 out of Nigeria. “It can help spark a conversation, especially brands that have a greater presence to them. Even if the designers don’t necessarily speak about where their influence is coming from, you can tell from their aesthetic.”

Drawing inspiration is one thing, but the failure to manufacture on the continent is a wasted opportunity.

But while this can help contemporize the traditional African aesthetic for a global audience, the failure to take that extra step and bring production to the continent is a wasted opportunity. “You’re always gaining inspiration from somewhere; nothing is new,” Owunwanne admits. “[But] there really needs to be more attention on the craftmsanship of the product and how it can add value to the brand.”

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MAKING IT IN AFRICA

Not that an African-made garment has to look like it was made in Africa, Bradshaw, who oversees production at Suno, said. “Something made in China doesn’t necessarily need to have a mandarin collar; something that was made in Mexico doesn’t necessarily look like it was made in Mexico,” she said. “In order to keep Africa moving and evolving and growing, we don’t always need to have that aesthetic there. I want the garment to look like it could have been made in China, France, New York, India, or Peru. So if you derive sources from there, then yes, call it out. But if you’re not, it’s just as important to say it was made there.”

The African aesthetic is referenced so much because it’s one of the best in the world, said Mackinlay Hahn.

Mackinlay Hahn from Loomstate described a “bifurcation” in the issue of African-sourced fashion. “Certainly there’s the craftsmanship and technology, the ability to produce goods that can be anonymous and made anywhere in the world. Then there’s the greatness of Africa and the celebration what that culture is. So it’s both. You want to build the capacity but you also want to preserve the aesthetic. It’s probably referenced [so much] because it’s one of the best in the world.”

For Western designers who want to borrow cues from Africa in a respectful way, one solution is to cultivate a relationship with the continent on on a deeper, more human level. Bantu’s Eklund, who is of Swedish and Ethiopian descent, sees the collaboration between the first and third worlds as a two-way exchange. “It’s very much a give and take in terms of what we learn from the craftspeople and what we bring to them,” she said. “That’s what makes us so passionate.”

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CULTURAL DIVERSITY

It’s important to remember that Africa consists of 54 recognized sovereign states (“countries”), nine territories, and three de facto states with limited recognition. “Within Nigeria, there are hundreds of different tribes, languages, textiles,” Hertage1960’s Owunwanne said.

Africa consists of 54 recognized sovereign states, nine territories and three de facto states.

Not all textiles are created the same, either. “There’s woven, there’s printed, there’s indigo-dyed adire, and these are not even textiles we’re seeing used in a mass, contemporary way,” she added. “People have to get past that surface level and dip into the history and cultural and gain inspiration in different ways, rather than looking at the same things.”