African Textiles Make Their Way onto the Fashion Runway

Once Marc Jacobs trotted out his black and white checks and stripes on the Spring 2013 runway, it was cinched: take-notice graphic prints would be a serious contender for the most notable seasonal trend.

Wallflowers, you’ve got the fashion world’s validation at trying to look a little bolder this season. While patterns are usually a matter of aesthetic preference, this year, shoppers have their pick of black and white prints that run the gamut from zigs to zags. This is nothing new, of course. Marc Jacobs’ designs might have snagged the blogosphere’s attention and many a magazine cover, but a handful of smaller fashion lines are most likely pshaw-ing at the latest renewed attention to patterns.

African textiles have long demonstrated a unique artisanship and not-easily-replicated patterns, varying throughout the years in reflection of the continent’s rich but vacillating history of turmoil and peace. Polka dots and stripes, these are not.

London’s British Museum investigates the social implications of the industry with an exhibition running until April 21, focusing mainly on the textiles of southern and eastern Africa. Museum curator Chris Spring explains to the BBC how the evolution of style using these textiles often reflects celebratory times as well visually expresses community rallying against particular issues, such as apartheid.

You can say it with cloth or you can say it in the way you’re wearing the clothChris Spring

These techniques, painstakingly handcrafted by skilled artisans, have been threatened by the onslaught of cheaper Chinese manufacturing opportunities, but they’ve got some fashion heavy-hitters on their side.

If you can’t make it to London in time to take a turn about the exhibit, check out these fashion lines gleaning inspiration from exotic textiles and repurposing them for a contemporary western audience. Might just be cheaper than booking that flight, and better yet, here, shopping takes also socially-minded turn.


SUNO Website

Max Osterweis and Erin Beatty launched SUNO in 2009, initially using Osterweis’s collection of vintage textiles from Kenya, his second home where their line was first largely produced. The duo conceived the line once they saw how the specialized industry was being threatened by post-election violence. Since then, the critical darlings continue to send out wearable nods to African textiles all while supporting Kenyan industry by basing some production in Osterweis’s beloved home.


MAIYET Website

Founder Paul Van Zyl, a South African human rights advisor, joined forces with fashion industry veterans to create this luxury line which seeks to preserve artisanal craftsmanship the world over. The line works with local artisans throughout Kenya, Vietnam, and elsewhere to help develop business plans and create sustainable economy. Currently, Maiyet’s Kenyan partnership has produced a stunning line of luxury jewelry, using natural by-products and quality materials sourced from the Nairobi community.


Edun Website

In 2005, Ali Hewson and her husband, Bono (yes, the very one), launched the line to encourage trade with Africa and improve the continent’s reputation as a viable creative source. The brand works with manufacturers in Kenya, Morocco, Madagascar, Uganda and Tunisia and hopes to produce 40% of its collection in Africa by this year. The Irish couple are far from designing dilettantes: they have developed Edun into a popular, viable line whose ethnic prints and contemporary luxury pieces attract A-Listers every season to its seasonal New York Fashion Week shows.


lemlem Website

Model Liya Kebede founded Lemlem, a line of women’s and children’s clothing, in 2007 to preserve the highly skilled tradition of weaving in her native Ethiopia. The result is brightly hued, intricately crafted pieces (produced in Ethiopia of course) that are sure to attract attention. It’s worth clicking through the slideshow itemizing each delicate step in production to get a sense of the beloved handiwork and astounding skill that does into each piece.

Image via

Comments are closed

© 2024 Pierce Mattie. All rights reserved.