When people talk about layering they are usually referring to clothes. But the layers of meaning were piled on thick Friday at the Bryant Park tents, where the hastily formed African Fashion Collective staged a show that aimed to dispel some of the hoary clichés that cling to a continent as obscure as ever, in some ways, to the West.
Anybody tuned into fashion knows that sub-Saharan Africa is currently in vogue (and in Vogue). Last year the Paris runways were packed with references to a place that, unless you are Muammar el-Qadaffi, can hardly be thought of as a unified entity.
John Galliano showed exaggerated “ethnic” hairdos created by the wizard Julien d’Ys. Marc Jacobs’s show at Louis Vuitton was chockablock with references to beads-and-bangles tribalism that apparently still evokes ripe associations with Josephine Baker, the so-called “Bronze Venus” from East St. Louis, Ill. (A re-imagined Ms. Baker turns up in the form of a bangle-festooned Madonna in the new Vuitton ads.) In the fringe that was an intrinsic dimension of many collections Suzy Menkes, the fashion critic for the International Herald Tribune, saw a link to the grass skirts worn by bush dwellers.
It was just those associations that motivated Nduka Obaigbena, a Nigerian media mogul, to sponsor a show aiming to counter the prevalent sense that if, in reality, there are many Africas, in fashion there is just one.
“Africa is ready to take it to the next level globally,” he said.
For Nkhensani Nkosi, the founder of the South African label Stoned Cherrie, African fashion has been signified by “the Big Five and leopard prints” for too long. She was referring, of course, to the checklist (lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard) every big game hunter and tourist with a point-and-shoot hopes to bag.
What, she suggested, of the Africa of Malik Sidibe, the much-lauded Malian studio photographer whose images of young people in Bamako in the 1950s and 1960s are a mine of late 20th century African style? What of the Africa of Papa Wemba, the Congolese musician famed for having created SAPE (Société Ambianceurs et Persons Élégants), a movement that made a cult of designer dressing and slyly subverted European notions of African style by adding the raffia skirts and cowrie shell hats of rural rustics to his crisp onstage uniform of Versace and Cerruti suits? “There is so much urban energy right now,” she said, “waiting to be bottled and sold.”