African Fashion Makes Inroads But…

by Kofi Ayim

Without a doubt, African fashion has experienced a significant boom of late. With the growing exposure through movies and social media, African fabrics is no longer just the choice of the African diaspora, but has now become top-of-mind for celebrities and trendsetters alike.

For the past several years, African fabrics that used to attract curious onlookers have gradually become fashionable in the New York Metro Area, especially during warm weather. With a variety of designs and wide selections from the continent’s numerous cultures, African fabrics are fast becoming popular because of their ease of wear and care. Fabric dealers contend that trips to Africa, especially by African-Americans, have facilitated the fad of African fabrics and wax prints.

Black History Month and special programs at historically Black churches also propel sales of African fabrics and clothes for cultural identity. Kente stoles have become symbols of cultural identity at college graduations and inductions of people of African descent across the U.S.

In the past few months, Black Panther, the all-Black cast movie, helped increase demand for African fabrics and clothing. And with the craze came the appearance of numerous African fabrics outlets in the New York Metro Area and beyond.

At the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market (116th Street and Lenox Ave), African stalls are filled with fabrics and textiles of Bokola (mudcloth) from Mali, Manjak from the Senegal, Adire from Yoruba, Nigeria, Akwete, from Igbo, Nigeria, among others.

Baba, a vendor from Mali, says most of the items on sale at the African Plaza – designer clothes, djembe drums, shea butter, etc. – come from Ghana. “Ghana is Africa’s China,” he beams. Almost all the vendors at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market are from West Africa.

Conspicuously absent from the stalls is Ghana’s Kente, even though shades and varieties of it from elsewhere are scattered here and there.

The Flatbush Caton Market on Clarendon Road, Brooklyn, offers a compelling contrast to its counterpart in Harlem. Most of the vendors of the indoor market are of Caribbean descent, and clothing and dresses are more conspicuous than fabrics or textiles.

In other parts of New York City and in Essex County, New Jersey, individualized stores carry more varieties of African fabrics, prints, textiles, and designers’ clothes. At a few places, tailors and seamstresses produce custom-made clothes and dresses such as fugu and danchiki.

According to Sarah Sarpong, proprietress of Akuaba African Fashions, a Kente and African fabrics/clothes vendor in Maplewood, New Jersey, the greatest threat to authentic African fabrics such as Kente or mudcloth is the knockoff duplicates that are factory-manufactured in some Asian countries.

Authentic Kente, mudcloth, Akwete, Korhogo, and others are handmade and not factory-produced, she emphasized. Ms. Sarpong is worried that some customers unwittingly buy anything that resembles Kente or mudcloth.

She may be right, but the factory-manufactured fabrics from China, Thailand, Pakistan, and India are far cheaper than those produced manually. She explained that hand-woven Kente can be distinguished from a factory produced item by its texture, which is heavier to the touch. Hand-woven Kente is made in strips and manually sewn together; factory produced Kente is seamless.

Rosina Osei of Rosina’s African Fashion in downtown Newark, New Jersey contends that customers have a choice to buy quality textiles or otherwise. Linda Kuffour of My Outlet African Fabrics in Orange, New Jersey  pointed out an original Jooji (George) from Nigeria and one made in India.

She believes Africa is losing its unique handicraft fabric designs to some of these Asian mass producers. Kente is believed to have first been factory-manufactured by a textile company in Ghana. Wholesale dealers looking to beat down cost took the designs to China, where they were factory-produced at cheaper rate than in Ghana.

Today, most African fabric dealers import factory-produced textiles from elsewhere and sell to wholesalers and retailers. While the exquisite and expensive Ghanaian men’s wraparound cloths are products of India, African wax prints have been manufactured in Holland for decades. In New York City, midtown Broadway is filled with fabrics mostly utilized by Africans.

One textile vendor told this writer matter-of-factly, “African fabrics, prints and clothes are worn by Africans, but they no longer come from Africa.”

Posted by on May 16 2018. Filed under top stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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