There are over 50 countries in Africa, so when you want to capture the continent’s contemporary fashion in a museum, you understandably come up with a pretty vast list of brands and styles. This was the challenge facing curators and fashion experts at Brighton Museum when developing Britain’s most groundbreaking exhibition of African design.
The locations chosen to feature in Fashion Cities Africa turned out to be compass points across the continent, and they all contain a melting pot of cultures and styles, so no two looks are the same in this exhibition. There’s a slick fashion film, a very well-dressed boyband, and some seriously cool stylists to discover. Johannesburg is first to greet visitors, with eye-popping printed looks styled by Maria McCloy quickly attracting attention; a 90s-style bucket hat known as a spoti is paired with a jumper by the very trendy Jo’burg street label Butan, whose brand slogan insists ‘It’s not a garment, it’s a piece of art’.
On the opposite wall, fashion photography collective The Sartists capture a group in vintage tennis gear and white lace dresses, as part of their Sport Series: Tennis project, which challenges perceptions of black or African sports players and athletes. More recently The Sartists have collaborated with Adidas.
Before you know it, you’re whisked to Casablanca, where an intricately woven chain-style fringed piece by Amina Agueznay stands alongside a kaftan by Zhor Rais. Both designers combine modern Moroccan taste with traditional artisan techniques, and it’s pretty spellbinding stuff. Things get more interactive in the next room, covering Nairobi. Helen Mears, the museum’s Curator of World Art, explains: “In Nairobi you’ll find second-hand North American and European clothes for sale, known as mitumba, from the likes of M&S and Zara.” Hannah Azieb Pool, editor of the exhibition’s accompanying book, Fashion Cities Africa, writes vividly about shopping for second-hand clothing at Gikomba market, where there’s a ‘huge mountain of white shirts’ to sift through, and ‘runners – personal shoppers effectively – who’ll bring the best stuff directly to you’.
Mitumba is given its own section here, where visitors can pose for a selfie in a second-hand ensemble and get thrift shopping tips from thrifty blogging duo 2ManySiblings. An upcoming thrift social event in June will see 2ManySiblings bringing their own blend of pre-loved fashion hunting to Brighton – a city already eager to embrace vintage shopping and flea market finds.
However, the exhibition also acknowledges the downsides to shopping for mitumba. Mears says, “Unfortunately, these second-hand markets can undercut designers, because you could buy a white shirt for £5 from a local designer or pay 50p for a second-hand version at the market.” When you see the creative spark designers and stylists are bringing to cities like Nairobi, highlighting what’s new and exciting (a very cool transparent jacket with bead embellishment by Nur; kikoy fabric worn as a wrapped robe with biker boots), it’s frustrating to think that consumers are choosing the cheaper, homogenous options imported from abroad… Until you remember we’re all guilty of that. When was the last time you bought a t-shirt from a young British designer instead of popping to H&M? Exactly.
There’s a strong focus on understanding contemporary style issues in Fashion Cities Africa, particularly the use of wax printed fabrics – some designers embrace it, whilst others think it’s an overused cliché. Essentially, as the exhibition proves, wax print isn’t popular across the whole African continent; it tends to be found in West African countries such as Ghana. Besides, wax print wasn’t invented in Africa, as you might assume: it origins actually lay in Holland. There are plenty of other home-grown fabrics on show to get you inspired, including ase-oke, painstakingly hand-woven by Nigerian men. Indigo resist-dyed adire can best be seen on a blouse and trousers from Lagos-based Maki Oh: a cutting-edge label with fans including Michelle Obama, Solange Knowles and Leelee Sobieski.
Every aspect of Fashion Cities Africa has been carefully researched and planned, and it shows. Pop into any high street shop and you’ll more than likely see mannequins painted white, or given a uniform Caucasian skin tone. The curators didn’t want the colour of these plastic models to overshadow the impact of the designs displayed. “Mannequins were a massive thing for us – it’s the politics of cultural representation,” says Mears.
As one of the museum’s Digital Champions explains, the mannequins were sourced second-hand and had to be transformed from their shop window guises (“one looked like Twiggy, others had 80s eye shadow…”). The end result is a range of revamped figurines, all sprayed black to match the walls, allowing the clothes to take centre stage. Some of the most compelling pieces are in Fashion Cities Africa’s final room, including an elegant double layer dress by Ejiro Amos Tafiri resembling a stained glass window.
Ultimately, each room makes you understand the intricacies and nuances of fashion in different African societies, and it shows there’s more to the fashion industry than the ‘big four’ cities of New York, Milan, London and Paris. “I hope it gives people the appetite to learn more – for example, to find 2ManySiblings’ Tumblr, to look up Sartists, or find online boutiques and London boutiques that stock African brands,” says Helen Mears. “We’re challenging expectations with this exhibition.”
Fashion Cities Africa runs until 8 January 2017 at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery; tickets are £5.20.