Dress To Impress: V&A Show Celebrates The Ingenuity And Richness Of African Fashion

Models holding hands, Lagos, Nigeria, 2019. Photo by Stephen Tayo. Image courtesy of Lagos Fashion Week.
“Africa Fashion”, installation view at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
“Africa Fashion”, installation view at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Catwalk image, Alphadi, c.1992-3. © and image courtesy of Alphadi.
Design by Chris Seydou. © and image courtesy of Nabil Zorkot.
“Africa Fashion”, installation view at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
DAKALA CLOTH ensemble, from the “Who Knew” collection, Abuja, Nigeria, Spring/Summer 2019. © Kola Oshalusi. Image courtesy of Nkwo Onwuka.
“Africa Fashion”, installation view at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Self-portrait, Gouled Ahmed, Addis Foam, Ethiopia. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.
Necklace, from the “Salt of the Earth” collection, by Ami Doshi Shah, Kenya, 2019. Photo by Sunny Dolat. Image courtesy of Ami Doshi Shah.
ANC Nelson Mandela commemorative cloth, South Africa, 1991. © and image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
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Africa’s vibrant and diverse fashion world is quickly gaining recognition. An exhibition at London’s V&A shines an overdue spotlight on its post-colonial history and contemporary stars.

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

“Africa Fashion”, installation view at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
“Africa Fashion”, installation view at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

The Fashion Gallery in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is oddly-shaped. A large dome-ceilinged space is dominated by a central structure with a circular mezzanine floor, creating two self-contained levels separated from the vitrines around it. It’s a perfect setting for the “Africa Fashion” exhibition, because it neatly divides the show into a historical narrative below and a contemporary showcase above. A looped African musical motif floats in the air, creating a warm aural background to the show.

 

Curator Christine Checinska’s forward to the show reminds us that “African creativity has been largely excluded or misrepresented, owing to…colonial roots and embedded, racist assumptions”. Museums worldwide have been scrambling to diversify their collections and shows beyond the works of white males, and this V&A fashion show could be seen as part of that wave. Many of the items on display have been added to the museum’s collection. Crucially, “Africa Fashion” sets the scene with historical context. When Ghana achieved independence in 1957, its first president Kwame Nkrumah wore the traditional handwoven “kente” cloth to announce it. In 1960, 17 African countries became free. Designers and artists started addressing their new world, and the exhibition displays books, posters and record sleeves reflecting the awakening of Pan-Africanism, the idea of a shared destiny for all Africans. 

 

Catwalk image, Alphadi, c.1992-3. © and image courtesy of Alphadi.
Design by Chris Seydou. © and image courtesy of Nabil Zorkot.

 

Then we meet the first wave of designers whose names become international in the heady post-independence days of the 1960s and beyond. Each gets a summary description and photo and examples of their designs on mannequins in vitrines. Not all are from Black Africa—Naïma Bennis was Moroccan, and her long loose kaftan dresses clearly draw on North African traditional djellabas, but her market was the international jet-set. Some major designers learnt their trade or worked in Paris fashion houses, such as Alphadi, known as the “magician of the desert” and who would go on to command a global presence on catwalks; or Chris Seydou, whose designs for women created a uniquely elegant look with a sexy allure. Both were Mali-born, and were adventurous in taking African cloths into new shapes. Kofi Ansah of Ghana studied at Chelsea College of Arts and updated the possibilities of kente. Shade Thomas-Fahm came to study nursing in London, but was inspired by shop window fashion displays. When she returned to Nigeria in 1960, she became its fashion pioneer, opening a boutique anddeveloping distinctive embroidery and updated fabrics.

 

“Africa Fashion”, installation view at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

A section called “Capturing Change” honours photography’s role in capturing and transforming perceptions of African fashion. There are black-and-white family photos, but the colour photography of James Barnor, operating between London and Accra, Ghana, was professional. His fashion shoots for Drum magazine captured Black beauty and style, as well as the interplay between the freedoms of Africa and London’s Swinging Sixties in fashion.  

 

DAKALA CLOTH ensemble, from the “Who Knew” collection, Abuja, Nigeria, Spring/Summer 2019. © Kola Oshalusi. Image courtesy of Nkwo Onwuka.

 

Upstairs, we jump to African fashion today. A great ring of mannequins displays the works of today’s key designers around the circular edge of the platform. There are surprises. Rather than colours or patterns, we see a sophisticated monochrome minimalism in men’s outfits from Johannesburg-based Mmusomaxwell and Kigali, Rwanda-based Moshions. While for women, two outstanding white dresses are displayed. One is a simple short dress by Nairobi-based Katush shaped by a remarkably effective fold around one hip, while a simply stunning white dress of silk, hemp and barkcloth from Paris-based Cameroonian Imani Ayissi’s first haute couture collection in 2020 explodes with white flowers above the waist. Johannesburg label Nao Serati abandons traditional attitudes toward identity and we see a gloriously flamboyant suit of iridescent material that shimmers between pink and blue, with outrageous loon flares and matching shirt, tie and hat. Nor are African designers blind to the massive environmental disaster of the global fast-fashion industry (it is epically wasteful and polluting, and it is estimated to have the third largest carbon footprint of any industry). Africa is blameless but not blind to the issues. Nkwo Onwuka, based in Abuja, Nigeria, not only calls on artisans’ skills in dying, weaving and embroidery, but in recycling material, even inventing “Dakala cloth” from denim off-cuts. We see a dress, jacket, skirt, bra and shoes from two collections of her brand Nkwo.

 

“Africa Fashion”, installation view at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Self-portrait, Gouled Ahmed, Addis Foam, Ethiopia. Image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.
Necklace, from the “Salt of the Earth” collection, by Ami Doshi Shah, Kenya, 2019. Photo by Sunny Dolat. Image courtesy of Ami Doshi Shah.

 

Tailoring bespoke clothing remains a bedrock of African fashion, and tailors can be versatile, as two mannequins showing work by Lagos-based Mai Atafo remind us. The agbádá (a traditional West African robe) and a velvet tuxedo embroidered with lion heads are completely different, but both masterful. We also see luxury metallic clutch bags from Cairo-based Okhtein, founded by two sisters, and adventurous, sculptural jewellery of natural minerals from Kenya’s Ami Doshi Shah. In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, Lafalaise Dion strings cowrie shells together to make transformative wearable creations which hang to the ground.

The heart of the mezzanine floor is mainly given to imagery. A seven-minute film gives a taste of contemporary African fashion from the street to the catwalk. Photography ranges from non-binary Black Muslims shot by Ethiopia-based Djiboutian Gouled Ahmed to cool young Kenyans hanging out at Nairobi’s festival-like creative event Thrift Social, captured by Sarah Waiswa. All the while, projected on the ceiling high above, film loops of models show clothes off, not in the haughty manner of a catwalk, but with a joy matching the clothes, and some playful, mischievous moves.

 The overall impression of the exhibition is an incredible diversity and confidence of African fashion. We get a perspective that takes us from African tradition to cutting-edge modernity, with glimpses of Afro-Futurism, and also from the intimacy of family albums to the world stage where African fashion has established superstar designers. Demographics tell us that Africa will be the last continent where humanity will increase in numbers, and if our civilisation survives the climate crisis, the future is there. This exhibition shows us that we don’t have to wait that long to see the cornucopia of quality and style that African fashion generates to make the future look fantastic. 

 

 

ANC Nelson Mandela commemorative cloth, South Africa, 1991. © and image courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

Africa Fashion
2 July 2022 – 16 April 2023
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

 

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