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African Styles And Motifs Are Making Their Way into Fashion

The Na'vi, the blue-skinned clan of the planet Pandora in James Cameron's screen blockbuster "Avatar," scale treetops and mountains and even fly, with a loose-limbed elasticity that Tarzan would have envied. At once exotic and familiar to fans of adventure films, the Pandorans wear latticed animal skins and brightly colored beads, and score their faces with chalky tribal markings.

Jake Sully, assigned to infiltrate the tribe, can't take his eyes off Neytiri, a regal member of the clan. When he first encounters her clambering along a tree branch, he is drawn unstoppably into her world.

A similar exoticism is casting its spell over the style world of late, as retailers like Barneys New York, mass marketers such as American Apparel and designers as disparate as Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, Frida Giannini of Gucci and Dries Van Noten embrace pan-African influences, responding, as if in concert, to some far away drumbeat.

Western fascination with African art and design has blown in gusts for more than a century, ever since Picasso and Kandinsky filled their canvases with tribal motifs. As recently as the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent introduced a collection of "African" dresses constructed from raffia, shells and wooden beads.

Now another Afrocentric wind is rising. "Its beauty is in having crossed all sorts of racial barriers," says Malcolm Harris, creative director of Unvogue, a fashion-focused Webzine. "It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from. People are incorporating bits and pieces into their wardrobes and their lives."

"Africa has never become quantifiable or entirely knowable," says Rick Carter, the production designer who helped conceive the Edenic universe of "Avatar." "It still suggests romance and a sense of the abundance of life. Threatening or benign, it has something to teach us."

For the fashion world, which is tapping the heritage of Kenya, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal in search of inspiration, Africa is playing the role that India had until recently. "The fabrics and the colors are lively, and the timing seems right," says Humberto Leon, an owner of Opening Ceremony, a Manhattan boutique and a showcase for the spirited prints of Suno, an artisan line produced in Kenyan workshops.

Hints of a fresh global fashion trend first appeared more than a year ago in London, where the glossy magazine Arise, published in Nigeria, has been highlighting the work of African designers. A thriving music scene also lent impetus.

"London is awash with African influences," says Ed Burstell, buying director for Liberty of London, which is hard-pressed to keep its collection of Masai-inspired wooden bangles, horn cuffs and hammered metal collars in stock. People "want items today that don't seem slick and polished."

Like the American work wear and handmade jewelry that also have been popular of late, African-inspired designs offer an antidote to what Max Osterweis, the filmmaker-turned-fashion designer behind the Suno label, calls "a luxury market filled with brands that lately have become machines for mass-produced, logo-covered status symbols."

Beyond the runways, that appetite for authenticity is showing up in clubs and lounges where world music is played, and on Broadway as well. Audiences are gyrating to the rhythms of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian father of Afrobeat, whose music and activist passions are being celebrated in "Fela!"

Pop enthusiasts are as captivated by the music and style of Maya Arulpragasam, aka MIA, a Londoner of Sri Lankan origins, who has popularized tribal leggings and flamboyant African prints. Art lovers are drawn to the imagery of Yinka Shonibare and Kehinde Wiley, who incorporate African-influenced textiles in their work.

Come spring, tastemakers may find themselves snapping up a kinetically patterned jumpsuit by Marc Jacobs, its serpentine piano keyboard design inspired by riotous African prints.

Only a handful of Western designers are as brazenly showy as Duro Olowu, a Nigerian designer based on London's Portobello Road. But work like Olowu's, which juxtaposes feverish colors and geometric designs, seems to speak to a widening audience. The Afrocentric tunics and dresses of another Nigerian, Deola Sagoe, will be unveiled in New York during Fashion Week in February.

Osterweis of Suno, who stitches his pieces from sarong-like kangas, says the number of stores selling his designs tripled in the last year. "I started it as a direct reaction to the postelection violence that took place in Kenya two years ago," Osterweis says. "I decided that by creating jobs and developing skills in Kenya at a time when it really needed support, I could do some good." Michelle Obama has worn Osterweis' eye-popping prints.

Source: Mercury News

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