Is it just the print? That has been disputed.
Is it the design? That too, has issues. The gomesi and kanzu have Asian inspiration. Even the Nigerian agbada is said to trace its origins to Arab traders.
The revered Ankara prints, kikoyi, kente, Maasai shuka and kitenge wax, among other fabrics, are not originally African. Most of the prints are made in China.
The originator of the so-called African print is a Dutch company that was initially inspired by Indonesian prints.
The final product just happened to become popular in West Africa and later on took some customized pattern ideas from countries such as Ghana.
And today, vibrant colours and prints are associated with African fashion. Yet, if one were to talk about strictly African wear or fabric, then probably only the bark cloth would make the cut.
Bark cloth is making inroads of its own, but not as fast as the kitenge and other fabrics. We can argue about Kitenge, Kanga,Kente,Bogola or Kuba all day but this is a discussion beyond the choice of fabric.
Without a doubt, African fashion is soaring, especially in the western markets.
It is catching the eye of many celebrities and major brands and designers. It has been described as bold, fierce and vibrant with its prints, colour and elaborate accessories.
The likes of Gucci, Michael Kors and Roberto Cavalli, among others, have experimented with their own interpretation of African fashion. Gucci did it with zebra prints while Burberry Prorsum’s 2012 Spring collection was a mix of Ankara prints.
Louis Vuitton did the same with the Maasai shuka in the same year and received rave reviews. There are now even high-end, waterproof swimsuits in African print, thanks to a crop of young and bold designers working outside the box.
While the fabrics have become part of African fashion, a section believes it is more of a stereotype; that our fashion is more than just fabric.
Giulio Molfese, the fashion photographer behind Photo4Fashion and has been in the industry for 29 years – 15 of those in Uganda – says the stereotype of African fashion being colourful with tribal prints and elaborate accessories has taken over as the definition of African fashion.
He, however, says that individual designers come up with concepts, cut their fabrics and designs and how they apply the said colour, tribal prints and accessories define the ‘Africanness’ in their designs.
For example, the kanzu has been beautifully worn in blue denim, looking just as fiercely African as it does in polyester, only trendier.
Fashion designers speak out
According to Lawrence Okoronkwo of Renzioni fashion house, there is need to break down African fashion into different eras if we are to fully understand and appreciate it.
There is pre-European- contact African fashion, post- European-contact African fashion (immediately after contact with colonialists) and contemporary African fashion.
“If you look at contemporary African fashion, there is a lot of copying just like they [Europeans] are copying us. We look at what we like and we interprete it in our own kind of fabric that we have adopted. African fashion is African fashion, as long as it fits the African body,” he says.
Emmanuel Bagwana, a graduate of Evelyn College of Fashion and Design in Nairobi and the designer of the Eguana Kampala brand, has showcased in different parts of the world, including fashion weeks in Uganda and Baltimore, USA.
He says there is no need to box designers into one dimension. Bagwana says an African designer may be inspired by a trip to Paris or an Indian movie and that may give birth to a collection.
“The inspiration does not make it less African or more French,” he says.
He believes an original idea by an African designer possibly based in Africa is African enough if the designer decides so, depending on their inspiration.
“It is important for us Ugandan and African designers to develop a unique signature while still staying true to our brand aesthetic,” he adds.
He agrees with Giulio on the ‘African fashion’ stereotype, which has become a marketing tool, when in fact fashion should be about an individual designer, fashion house and what inspires them.
African fashion, is therefore, how we blend and fuse the creative ideas inspired by our surroundings and cultures, given that Africa is a continent of 54 countries.
The next step for the industry will be having individual signature designs that one can look at and conclude that it is from a designer in Kampala, Accra or Cape Town.
This article first appeared in The Observer Newspaper