Wed, Jan 13, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Under African skies

Designers as disparate as Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, Frida Giannini of Gucci and Dries Van Noten are embracing the exoticism of pan-African influences

By Ruth La ferla  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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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, the former Marine 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 slender tree branch, he is drawn unstoppably into her world.

A similar exoticism is casting its spell over the style world of late, as vanguard retailers like Barneys New York, mass marketers like 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 over a century, of course, 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,” said Malcolm Harris, the creative director of Unvogue, a popular 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.”

That may be because in the popular imagination, African jungles, deserts and plains retain a near-mystical allure, which the reality of the continent’s political turmoil and poverty have never entirely dispelled.

“Africa has never become quantifiable or entirely knowable,” said Rick Carter, the production designer who helped to conceive the Edenic universe of Avatar with its obviously African elements. “It still suggests romance, and a sense of the abundance of life. Threatening or benign, it has something to teach us.”

To armchair travelers in the fashion world, many of whom are tapping the heritage of Kenya, Mali, Nigeria or Senegal in search of inspiration, Africa is playing the role that India had until recently, its themes embraced in the hope of making cash registers hum. “The fabrics and the colors are lively, and the timing seems right,” said Humberto Leon, an owner of Opening Ceremony, the downtown Manhattan boutique and showcase for the spirited prints of Suno, an artisanal line produced in Kenyan workshops.

Hints of a 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,” said Ed Burstell, the buying director for Liberty of London, which is hard-pressed to keep in stock a collection of Masai-inspired wooden bangles, horn cuffs and hammered metal collars. People are responding to their rough-hewn appearance. “They want items today that don’t seem slick and polished,” Burstell suggested.

Like the American work wear and handmade jewelry that have also 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.”

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