Monday, June 29, 2009

Not my daughter! ARISE Africa Fashion Week

I'm just recovering from the emotional charge of the ARISE Africa Fashion Week that rocked Joburg over the past two weeks. It was eight days of glossy pouts, big hair, funky catwalk struts and all the glamour of the fashion theatre.

As with all fashion weeks, the designers on show presented a myriad of inspired statements. What was so endearing about the ARISE Africa Fashion Week, was the promise of a creative volcano presented by over 50 'elite African designers'.

This was Africa's story of contemporary, mostly female expression, told through fashion, to the world. Predictably, some of the characters were a literal cut and paste from fairytales of the West. Joyously, some designers 'dared' to reignite African folk tales, bringing recognisable cultural motifs and silhouettes to the stage.

Dresses were all the rage. All styles, shapes and lengths. From Alphadi's sultry, flowing kaftans to African Mosaique's take on a micro-short rouched kaftan, they were all ultra-feminine, asserting a female sensibility of gentle but powerful grace.

One dress from Egyptian-based Tunisian designer Soucha, sparked much controversy. All lace and not much of it at that, as the model set out on the ramp, her naked form became the talk of the AFW. Without so much as a leaf to cover her modesty, her total exposure was nothing short of gratuitous.

At that point, many who were loving the collection, wrote him off as a sensation-seeking misogynist, disrespecting the very women he claims to adore. As the storm brewed, I asked Soucha who he is designing for. With a breezy smile, he told me that women who wear his clothes are 'sexy, modern and free'.

Well, one thing Soucha definitely did do is strike a match against one of the key issues that fashion designers this side of the world are grappling with. African values and identity, versus commercial appeal are perennial challenges.

One outraged veteran fashion designer, Sonwabile Ndamase, couldn't understand why the crop of the 'elite' African fashion designers on show were so shy about expressing their roots. For him, the problem was deeper than creative inspiration for a collection. He said Soucha's decision to parade a nude model in lace was "as if he is forgetting that models are people and that she is someone's daughter!"

Leaders and pioneers
Clearly, modernity offers the new generation of Africa's fashion vanguard the opportunity to be just that - leaders and pioneers in a world renowned for its fickle nature. However fickle, no matter what era or world space you look at, fashion is always a pulse indicator for a nation's head space. So, where do questions of morals, ethics and values stand in the heady crucible of Africa's fashion visionaries?

At the ARISE Africa Fashion Week, the hosts created a continental fashion week on the wings of Obama's rise to the White House and other landmark achievements for black people that they cite as Africa's big moment. Clearly, emotions are riding high as we proudly embrace our Africanism. What we need as a parallel process are spaces where we can dialogue and debate what kinds of dresses we will make for our daughters in the new world order. As they say in Nigeria, 'who no know go know'!

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