As you probably know, fashion has always been a reference point for social organization and, increasingly, become a tool for individual expression within cultural formation. Yet often we tend to think of fashion as made in Paris or Milan, and we forget that it goes hand in hand with local signatures—especially beyond Western contexts. The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam is currently highlighting this notion with an exhibition that presents the current fashion of four prominent cities in Africa: Casablanca, Lagos, Johannesburg and Nairobi.
Fashion Cities Africa invites you to approach fashion from a local viewpoint. First seen in the Brighton Museum, the expo invites local designers, journalists, bloggers and photographers to curate the outfits on display, and share their views on their own clothing choices as well as the fashion of their cities.
Upon entrance, the design of the exhibition takes you onto a catwalk for a tour composed of four stages. These stages celebrate the fashion and atmosphere that each of the cities emanate. Every section is acclimated by a local live radio and adorned with a video featuring the curators, as well as wooden boards that resemble the iconic architectonic shapes of the city. Interestingly, the catwalk is made for visitors, which makes the African exhibitors the spectators; challenging the hegemonic structure of Western societies objectifying non-Western societies.
Fashion Cities Africa begins in the city of Casablanca, well known for its restaurants and architecture. Being the gate between Europe, Africa and the Middle East, its fashion scene is marked by a mix of different cultural styles that allow dwellers to dress up with wide-ranging elements, while still retaining their own cultural identity. Fashion designer Amina Agueznay participated in curating Morocco’s space, for which she’s chosen her own designs: a set of beautiful jewels that uphold ancestral traditions.
Following your way, and faced with colonization and the discovery of gold, you’ll find the insurrectionary city of Johannesburg. The cultural battle between white supremacy and black consciousness thoroughly underpins South Africa. The garments here are all about statements; think of equal rights and ethnic pride. Creative collective The Sartists contributed to the exhibition with self-made clothing items. Their designs resemble and reclaim the ones that were worn only by white people during colonization and post-colonization, thus underscoring a political message and interwoven narrative.
The third stage is devoted to Nairobi: the mature but vigorous capital city of Kenya. Among its hectic daily life, Nairobi distils a new-gen style that features an experimental mix of elements. Second-hand buyers 2ManySiblings are the living proof of this authentic, street-infused, rising generation. Very active on Tumblr and Instagram, they are using these platforms to spread a different stylistic image of Kenya. For this exhibition, they chose vintage clothes that were restyled.
Fashion Cities Africa wraps up its runway in the biggest city of Africa: Lagos. Contrasted by large economic wealth and extreme poverty, the exhibited outfits speak of a fashion industry catering the wealthy. Haute couture, flamboyancy and elegance are quite prominent in these Nigerian designs—you only have to look at Beyoncé and Michelle Obama, who regularly wear garments by Lagos-based designers. Lagos’ fashion direction can be appreciated during the Lagos Fashion and Design Week, where figures like the exhilarating Maki Oh present. Omoyemi Akerele, director of the fashion week, brings to the exhibition the impeccable suits of Mai Atafo, and the colourful, delicate productions of Lisa Folawiyo.
By the time you reach the end of the catwalk, you’ll have noticed that fashion expressions greatly differ from one city to the other. Driven by social, historical and political factors, these cities all propel a unique context, and so, their citizens are led to articulate themselves in particular ways. Reality check: there is no single definition of fashion. This celebration of fashion in Africa’s cities contests a Western, centralized view on fashion as a specific style set determined by the big fashion houses of the moment. Find out for yourself at Fashion Cities Africa, it’s a must-see!