From Kenzo to Lagos: African Iconography and Its Influence on Today’s Style

Kenzo’s fashion film Unity is Strength, directed by Akinola Davies Jr

Text by: Rebecca Rizzi

The 8th edition of LagosPhoto Festival, the first and only international arts festival on photography in Nigeria, will take place in Lagos from November 24th to December 15th 2017, presenting African history and society through photography. Since its first edition in 2007, the Festival gained increasingly widespread recognition, not only for its artistic contribution, but also for its social and anthropological importance. Affirmed African photographer Samuel Fosso will debut with his new work, which delves into politics and religion; if you are not familiar with Fosso, you might have come across his black-and- white self-portraits, depicting variations on African identity in the postcolonial era.

Azu Nwagbogu is the founder of African Artists’ Foundation (AFF), the non-profit organization behind LagosPhoto Festival. In an interview published on the 3rd issue of Collectible Dry Magazine (pg. 233), Azu explores a variety of topics concerning African art, from identity to globalization, to how the interest surrounding African art has increased exponentially over the past years, with repercussions on other creative industries.

The African trend is becoming increasingly popular among fashion images and styling, as there are countless references of African-inspired design and iconography. Context, however, is paramount; the rising popularity of African imagery among Western designers has more than once paved the way for critical responses, so much so that the “cultural appropriation” controversy has now extended to the fashion industry.

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Stella McCartney Summer 2018. Credits Cover Media
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Pic from AVANTgarden. Courtesy of FKA Twigs

An example is Stella McCartney’s October 2017 show: the use of Ankara prints on predominantly white runway models sparked numerous incendiary tweets from African women accusing the British designer of “fashion colonialism”.

Political connotations aside, the African trend pervades fashion today more than ever before, from streetwear to Haute Couture. Genre-bending songwriter and trendsetter Fka Twigs launched AVANTgarden, an Instagram zine that celebrates black hair and hairstyles. Tracing the art of hair braids back to its roots (pun intended), FKA Twigs explains how “cornrows started because slaves would draw maps in the braids of how to escape the plantations”. Embracing African American heritage, AVANTgarden aims to aggregate and empower black communities.

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Kenzo "Unity is Strength" Campaign. Photograph by Ruth Ossai

Kenzo recently conceived a Nigerian-focused editorial and film, achieving stunning results. Each season, the luxury house asks distinctive visual artists to offer varying points of view on Kenzo collections. For Summer 17, curator and filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr. teamed up with photographer Ruth Ossai and stylist Ibrahim Kamara to capture Nigeria’s Nsukka population in a way that reflects Kenzo’s own concept of beauty. In an interview, Ossai talked about the importance of promoting cultural diversity for a multicultural brand such as Kenzo, without sacrificing depth and sustainability; “engagement can be done correctly”, according to Ossai.

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The project evolved around the notion of “ceremony” to show how celebration pulls communities together, generating beauty. Nsukka is renowned for its festivities, such as the Omabe Masquerade Festival, the Onwa Ise (Fifth Moon festival) which marks the beginning of yam harvesting and the Onwa Ess’a (Seventh Moon festival) which indicates the maturing and ripeness of the yam. The festivities center around a beauty pageant in which the young women of Nsukka support one another to develop a stage, shining a light on their own approach to beauty and glamour. “It’s about celebrating young black Nigerian bodies” says Akinola Davies JR. The captivating film vibrates with colourful energy and electric spontaneity as it explores lgbo tribes through characteristic aspects of their culture – dance, rituals and native proverbs – to celebrate tradition while allowing cultural enrichment. The film’s title shows the artists’ commitment to Igbo: “gidi gidi bụ ugwu eze”, a proverb signifying “Unity is Strength”.

The sheer force of the project resonated beyond the summer collection, as Kenzo stores from London to Paris mounted an exhibition and pop-up space featuring the film and a selection of photographs from the editorial.

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All Kenzo photographs © Ruth Ossai