By Tanwi Nandini Islam
Every Halloween season, a new crop of blackface horror stories appears in the news. Word of Saturday night’s annual Hallowood “Disco Africa” themed party in Milan has caught fire, attended by the likes of Stefano Gabbana, designer Allesandro Dell’Acqua, and model Anna Dello Russo dressed in tasteless garb involving blackface, suits in leopard print, tiger, and ornate feathered headdresses. As far as I could tell from Instagram, one of the few black attendees came dressed as a tiger, seemingly because all the white attendees were dressed as black caricatures.
I’m as outraged as anyone seeing such flagrant displays of racist imagery, especially among those considered the apex of fashion. Remember, this isn’t the first time Dolce & Gabbana has gotten flack for racism—last year’s SS 2013 Collection was a full on display of Mammy-inspired prints, famously boycotted by Azealia Banks.
There seems to be an obsession in fashion with blackness—as a motif, an accessory, an inspiration board of pattern and color. But there is little accountability for blackness as an experience, which belongs to human beings, living and historic.
What I wonder is this:
I just returned from Lagos Fashion & Design Week. Lagos in October radiates a soft, sweltering humidity, and the energy for new art and fashion was in the air. I’ve come home ready and energized to write about the vivid, colorful collections from emerging young Nigerian fashion designers. Designers presented a riotous mix of original prints, original renditions of menswear, flowing dresses using West African dip-dye techniques. Some designers used the iconic, patterned “traditional” fabrics we most associate with this part of the world —which are actually manufactured by Dutch wax textile company VLISCO—while others avoided it completely, wanting to avoid anything that might pigeonhole them into narrow definitions of what it means to be an African designer.
These African—mainly Nigerian—designers are either born on the continent, or call it their homeland, or make an ancestral claim recalling Africa as a site of inspiration and creation. Some of my favorite new African brands, forces to reckon with in the global fashion market, include womenswear designers Maki Oh, Jewel by Lisa, and Tsemaye Binitie, as well as menswear designers Orange Culture (the name inspired by Orange is the new Black), Samson Soboye, and Post-Imperial. The silhouettes ride this thrilling line in and out of being African and being Western, what novelist Taiye Selasi termed Afropolitan. It is sophisticated, wearable, luxurious, and fun—all at once.
Maki Oh has already shown at SS 2014 in NYC, and is a burgeoning fashion darling, representing a sophisticated collection of Nigerian-made original prints. All of the models walking the runway are stunning black African models—and that in and of itself is a thrilling thing to see, especially when juxtaposed with your average New York—Paris—London—Milan shows, where without the Diversity Coalition’s work, you might see one or two black models per show. (If that.)
Milan’s Hallowood party featured the tribal African aesthetic as a comedic source of “inspiration”—but mostly, we know this is a way for these people to have “fun” playing dress-up. How on earth might African designers stand a chance to break into the global fashion market with such odds stacked against them? With odds like this, to be African is to be the butt of the fashion world’s joke. It is to pit yourself against European and American designers who have little to no regard for blackness, African-ness ,and your point-of-view because of a neo-colonial assertion of their aesthetic superiority.
They are in a perilous place. You can only draw from the same well of inspiration over and over, without depleting the source. These minstrel shows might serve as fun nights out for fashion’s elite, but give enough people a look into your sadly deranged sense of cool—and you soon become the butt of the joke. This is another example of history repeating itself, no? They can only steal, colonize, and claim what is not theirs for so long, until they undo their own place in history.
Lagos Fashion and Design Week Photo Credits: Kola Oshalusi (Insigna)
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a writer, youth educator, and performance artist based in Brooklyn, NY. She writes for Elle.com, Fashionista.com, and is currently an Open City Fellow with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, Bright Lines, is forthcoming by Viking Penguin in 2014. Follow her @tanwinandini.