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Africa undressed

In a land far away physically yet, genetically so close, lives a people who are more than what is portrayed on television.

The spirit and soul of African people is often hidden in the pamphlets, news reports and over exaggerated details provided in an attempt to solicit charity. The beauty of this continent is often masked by its poverty stricken streets, faces of starving children, and AIDS and HIV infected communities. But all it takes is a scalpel and mallet to chip away at the commercial images and uncover the beauty that is our native homeland–Africa.

Africa is the second largest and second most populous continent in the world, so it is no wonder that its beauty can be found deeply rooted in its people, and seen in the colorful fabrics of the nation. In the past, African fashion was most often seen during Kwanzaa and Black History month but, today it is slowly infiltrating Western civilization and becoming a distinctive presence increasingly embraced in the world of fashion.

Arise magazine’s African Fashion Collective and African Vibes “I Wear African,” are part of the drive to position African Designers to move to the forefront of fashion. These two shows have featured the newest and most ground-breaking African designers.

Both publications are driven by a strong desire to change the face and image of Africa in the eyes of the world.

Amebel Nibe, editor in chief of African Vibes magazine, has strategically designed a show that has captured some of the most innovative African Designers, and delivered them not only right to your door step in the glossy pages of her publication but right down the catwalk. The “I wear African” show was created to shine a positive light on the continent and its people; a light that is long overdue, suggests Nibe. As a lover of fashion Nibe, realized the need for such a platform for African Designers. “African Designers are often operating on a lower budget and have no platform to expose their work. New York fashion week has become so redundant, and I wanted to see something new.”

The desire to create something fresh was also a motivation for Arise magazine which has been showing at the tents in Bryant Park during New York Fashion Week for three seasons, and this past March, infiltrated the runways of Paris. Arise continues to “provide a unashamedly positive portrayal of Africa and its contribution to contemporary society” through their show, which acts as a portal to bridge the gap between Africa and the world of fashion.

Mixing Africa and fashion is not new. In the early 1970’s, Yves St. Laurent introduced the world to a collection called “African,” which consisted of dresses constructed from African-printed fabrics adorned with wooden beads, raffia and shells; it also contained Safari inspired silhouettes.

Recently other designers such as Oscar De La Renta, Marc Jacobs, and Frida Giannini of Gucci  also adopted this social trend of embracing Africa’s culture through their color combinations and designs. This affect has trickled down to the better brands and can be seen more in brands such as American Apparel and Forever 21.

However, while historic fashion houses and their smaller counter parts tell a story of Africa through fabrics and tribal trimmings, transferring real African culture has been seen best through the hands of its people; cut and sewn by African Designers.

This includes designers such as industry veteran Ozwald Boateng, Project Runway alumni Korto Momolu, and newcomer Kahindo Mateene. They are just a few names people are gravitating to because they embody the African Culture and are designing accordingly.

Ozwald Boateng
Ozwald Boateng a British-born, Ghanaian man from the Ashanti tribe, has dominated the menswear industry with his custom designed, hand-crafted suits under his label Bespoke Couture LTD. His tailored pieces are a carefully crafted story, in which the designer uses eloquently textured fabrics along rich and bold culturally influenced colors to adorn his clients.

“When I first started designing, I never used to reference Ghana as much. It was not until I went there in early 1990 (that he realized what he was doing). I looked out from my hotel window and saw a market; if you know Ghana, all the markets are run by women. All these women were wearing these beautiful, colored fabrics. But more interesting was the combination of the colors were very much like the way I used color in my own work. And that completely blew me away.

“It was the use of color and how that had subconsciously been influenced in me from my cultural roots,” said Boateng in one published report.
His use of intense color combinations and slim cuts have made him a favorite among celebrity clients such as Will Smith, Laurence Fishburne and recently President Barack Obama. With collections entitled Tribal Traditionalism and Ashanti Hip Hop, Boateng’s designs have been described as “an exploration of tribal aesthetics with deeply rooted cultural significance.”

At a very early age, Boateng was determined to make a difference. When he opened his store in 1995, he was one of the first Black tailors on Britain’s noted Saville Row, and although he experienced many hardships, the designer managed to stay afloat and has since become a name synonymous with style and respectability.

In addition to opening on Saville Row, Boateng was also the first Black creative director of a major fashion house, when he was appointed in 2003 by Givenchy, the largest luxury goods company in the world. Boateng said of his position with Givenchy: “Being of color, it was huge point in France, and I would get stopped in the street regularly by anyone of color congratulating me on being appointed.”

But despite all his notoriety and success Boateng, still feels uneasy with the state of his native land Ghana and has since created “Made in Africa,” a company that he and a few others attempt to use to find vehicles to generate a cash flow into Ghana to assist with the economic issues.

Boateng’s future goals are to parlay the success of his eight part American television documentary “House Boateng” into retail stores in U.S. serving the current clientele he has in the states and continuing to help Ghana.

Korto Momolu
Liberian-born design maven Korto Momolu is quickly becoming a household name. Many are familiar with Momolu because she was a finalist on season five of Bravo’s hit series “Project Runway.”

Her colorful designs and appeal to real women with curves have captivated audiences, and becoming a finalist on the competitive reality series proved to be a door opener for both Momolu and Liberia. “Project Runway was a door opener, I received so many e-mails from immigrants from Africa saying ‘thank you for inspiring me; You inspire me to be who I am and who I want to be.”

“I wanted to show Project Runway a strong African woman, a woman who isn’t going to trade her morals and beliefs because she wants to win. I wanted to shed a positive light on Africa.

Africa is more than just a people who (are) starving and need rice bags thrown at them.” Momolu, a former student of L’Academies des Couturiers Design Institute in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, did just that. She inspired the world with her designs. Her intricate use of African garb draped in more contemporary silhouettes and designed for a real-figured women has landed her designs in the closets of many fashion elites and in the pages of glossy fashion magazines.

Her fall 2010 collection, which was not only seen during New York Fashion week but also in the “I wear Africa” fashion show “is an eclectic blend of rich fabrics and, detailed beading.”

Momolu’s creative process is simple: She designs six to eight pieces for the women whose bodies look like hers, then she intertwines color, design and texture to create a contemporary female apparel line featuring intrinsic creations. Combined with her gorgeously crafted handbags, her line has won the hearts of Dillard department store executives, who have partnered with the designer to create an exclusive line of handbags and jewelry.

Kahindo Mateene
As a young child, Kahindo Mateene, designer and founder of Modahnik, knew her love for fashion would lead her directly to where she is today. At the age of 6, Mateene was inspired by watching her late mother adorn herself from head to toe in traditional African outfits, accented in bright spicy colors. But, it wasn’t until after working a few years in a corporate environment that the Uganda-born native of Congolnese decent decided she would return to school and pursue her love for fashion and design at the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago.

She said her creative inspiration is drawn from many places, one of the biggest naturally being her homeland and international travels. She explains that it is very necessary for her to design for real women. “It is hard for women (like me) to find good clothes that fit well. I would go out shopping and would not be able to find anything.”

Kahindo has been designing for more than six years now, and started initially for friends and private clients. This has blossomed into a full-fledged line.

Her first collection debuted during Chicago Fashion week in 2009. She has since been recently introduced to the Los Angeles market through the “I wear African,” fashion show, where Kahindo debuted her spring 2010 collection. The line included her selection of bright African-printed cocktail dresses that are the new alternative to the “little black dress,” and each has it’s own flair and contemporary silhouette.

The future appears bright for this young designer, who has already completed her fall 2010 look book and is set to expand into the Los Angeles fashion arena.

From the blue skinned tribe of the Na’vi people in the latest blockbuster hit, “Avatar,” to the wooden bangles that are stacked on the wrists of every fashionista’s arms today, the exoticism that is African fashion and culture have captivated the minds of the creative. The designers behind the collections have found a way to translate the traditions of our heritage into contemporary pieces that are functional for everyday life. With the help of vehicles such as  the Arise African Fashion Collective and African Vibes “I wear African” shows, Africa is quickly moving to the head of the fashion class.

Sheranne Jackson contributed to this article.