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Forget about the knockoff Ikea bag and those faux muddy jeans. Discover why bold African prints are fashion's real standout

Forget about the knockoff Ikea bag and those faux muddy jeans. Discover why bold African prints are fashion's real standout
Designer Inge van Lierop's Vlisco wax-print dress, Hommage à L’Art” collection (2013). (Vlisco Museum / Foundation Pieter)

One of the first things you'll likely learn when you visit the new exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA is that the story of African fashion is the story of fashion worldwide and through the ages.

The museum organized "African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style" to illustrate the origins, significance and globe-trotting history of these colorful designs. The exhibition has sections on history of the prints, vintage photography, regional fashions and contemporary uses of the fabric, and will travel to three other U.S. museums. The Fowler will print a companion book with contributions by the exhibition's four co-curators and additional scholars.

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Visitors will come away understanding that African-print cloth didn't originate in Africa. Instead, the print style was inspired by Indonesian batiks and evolved through centuries of international trade. The free exhibition, which opened late last month, is a reminder that contemporary fashion's mashup of eras, cultures and influences is an ancient, enduring phenomenon.

From left, a look at designer brands K-Yélé, Kenya’s Style and Dent de Man that show colorful African prints, which are popping up on fashion runways and in stores worldwide.
From left, a look at designer brands K-Yélé, Kenya’s Style and Dent de Man that show colorful African prints, which are popping up on fashion runways and in stores worldwide. (Joshua White / Leslie W. Rabine / Fowler Museum at UCLA)

Though today's African prints have direct lineage to Indonesian batiks of the 1890s, they also had origins in the Indian textile industry, which traded similar fabrics as far back as the 4th century, said guest curator Suzanne Gott, an associate professor in the critical studies department at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. Indian traders sold their fabrics to the British and Dutch, who in turn sold them to Africans.

Africans eventually "adopted them and made them their own," Gott said. Afrocentric colors and symbolism emerged on the surface of the fabrics, and the cloth can indicate region, status and cultural heritage, and, of course, be to define personal style.

Unlike clothing in the West, "African fashion is not off-the-rack," Gott said. Instead, shoppers select fabric and then commission a seamstress or tailor to construct a particular style, often chosen from a poster or calendar illustration of styles. "I call it grass-roots fashion," Gott said.

"African[s] have been very cosmopolitan and very fashion conscious for many years and in all dimensions," she said, walking past a display of prints in the exhibition.

The printed designs, a hybrid of storytelling and fashion, portray world events, hairstyles, celebrities, technology (there's a laptop print), nature and political heroes. Former President Obama and Queen Elizabeth appear along with a tribute to Michelle Obama's style with prints featuring the former first lady's handbags and shoes.

Lekan Jeyifo and Walé Oyéjidé's digital print "Johannesburg 2081 A.D. Africa 2081 A.D." series (2014) depicts a futuristic version of Johannesburg while also paying homage to African prints.
Lekan Jeyifo and Walé Oyéjidé's digital print "Johannesburg 2081 A.D. Africa 2081 A.D." series (2014) depicts a futuristic version of Johannesburg while also paying homage to African prints. (Ikiré Jones)

Visitors to the Fowler display may learn a second point. The history of African print fabrics and Dutch textile manufacturer Vlisco are very much woven together. Vlisco, established in 1846, is the last major manufacturer of African wax (batik) prints in Europe, Gott said, and 90% of the company's sales of its signature, colorful batiks are sold to Africans. Chinese textile producers now make less expensive replicas, leaving shoppers to choose the pricier, original wax-print fabrics for special occasions, she said.

The last 20 years have been a time of rapid change in African fashion, Gott said. For example, Africans' easy access to custom clothing allows a style to speed from a social media photo to a real garment in the time it takes to find a dressmaker and a few yards of fabric, creating a new kind of fast fashion. The vivid prints also are steadily attracting a global array of designers who take them to another level and audience.

Taken together, the exhibition's fabrics, fine art, photos and clothing represent a story of stories, each woven into cloth and fashioned into personal, fashionable expressions.

Fashion pieces as well as photo and other artifacts are on display in “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.
Fashion pieces as well as photo and other artifacts are on display in “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. (Fowler Museum at UCLA / Vlisco Museum)

"African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style," Fowler Museum at UCLA, 308 Charles E. Young Drive N., Los Angeles. Noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and noon to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Through July 30. www.fowler.ucla.edu

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