May 21, 2009
The African aesthetic is hot this summer. The continent's tribal beat is pulsating through fashion, accessories and even makeup trends.
Fashion designers including Junya Watanabe created African-inspired collections by referencing the continent's exotic motifs in boldly printed dresses worn with mile-high wrapped headdresses.
At Louis Vuitton, designer Marc Jacobs presented Josephine Baker-style feathered skirts along with colourful jewelled stilettos and necklaces in a jubilant tribal motif – python, beads and wooden pearls. And at Dior, John Galliano designed stilettos with fertility symbols etched into high heels. Exotic animal prints at Lanvin.
This preoccupation with African themes has been mined before, most glamorously by Yves Saint Laurent in the '60s and '70s. His African collection for summer 1967, for example, included the famous Bambara dresses constructed of raffia and flax with wood- and glass-beaded embroidery.
International Herald Tribune fashion editor Suzy Menkes recently explored our culture's long fascination with what used to be called the Dark Continent – "in art, in Picasso's African period at the birth of Cubism; in entertainment, when Josephine Baker appeared in a Paris revue in 1925 wearing not much more than a skirt made of fake bananas; in fashion, when Cecil Beaton photographed the fragile arms of Nancy Cunard engulfed in ivory bangles in 1929." Tomorrow and Saturday, Toronto jeweller Dandi Maestre will hold a trunk show at her studio. Maestre will unveil her spring/summer line of accessories – a primitive, tribal collection right out of Africa. "I think of it as more aboriginal than specifically African," she says.
"There is something very raw about these pieces that may not even fit with fashion."
But her creations obviously do. Bracelets constructed with pieces of bone, ancient raw amber, seeds, pony hair, shed moose antlers, shells and reclaimed wood provide a powerful, natural statement, a trademark of Maestre's work over the past 2 1/2 years.
The graphic-artist-turned-jewellery-designer wanted the collection to be bold. "I didn't want it to look mass produced."
The trend is also being expressed in seasonal makeup lines from companies like YSL Beauté and MAC. Both brands are capitalizing on the currency of Africa, the intense light and the spicy colour palette associated with the continent.
Called "Treasures of Africa," the YSL 2009 summer look draws on "the richness, rhythm and poetry of Africa" – the power of the sun combined with intense colours.
Yesterday, MAC launched a summer collection of makeup called Style Warrior with a "deliberately diverse colour story" exotically packaged in stylized zebra and leopard prints.
MAC creative director James Gager believes that, as more men and women take responsibility for developing their own style, it makes sense to take inspiration from cultures that "decorated themselves as a form of expression. The cookie-cutter mode of beauty is long past."
Gager even suggests U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama has illustrated the allure of developing a style that's individual. Key colours, says Gager, are bright yellow and purple – reminiscent of vibrant vegetable dyes from saphron and berries.
While some designers explored a "tribal" African vibe, others like Ralph Lauren went on safari, employing typical "colonial" costumes as inspiration – cargo jackets, khaki trousers and floppy Crocodile Dundee hats.
Which proves the point that even the European influences on Africa are as ripe for appropriation as a mountain-high headdress.
JOSEPH SARACENO PHOTO OF JEWELLER DANDI MAESTRE'S WORK.
Dandi Maestre's pony cuff and white croc bangles as used in THE STAR newspaper story.