Embellished with thousands of beads, clothes by Nigerian designer Lisa Folawiyo twinkle under the lights.
The prints on these fabrics may echo traditional African designs, but there is a distinctive modern twist.
These are on display at the new ‘Africa Fashion’ exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
It retraces clothing from the liberation years of the 1950s and ’60s when 24 African nations freed themselves from colonial rule, up to modern day designers.
It’s billed as the UK’s most extensive exhibition of African fashion ever.
“We really see fashion as a catalyst with which to tell deeper, richer, expanded stories about the myriad histories and cultures across the continent,” says exhibition curator Dr. Christine Checinska.
“And so we hope that our visitors will come away feeling inspired, and perhaps some assumptions might be challenged as well. So it’s a space where you can think about African fashions, you can experience the buzz of the African fashion scene, and you can come away inspired, we hope, to find out more.”
On display are more than 250 objects, including 70 that are new acquisitions for the museum.
It’s part of a wider push by the V&A to increase its collection of work by African and African Diaspora designers.
There are clothes by 40 contemporary designers in the show.
The exhibition wants to highlight the impact they are having on the wider fashion industry.
“It was really important and actually vital to have this exhibition right now, because we see it’s the African creatives that are shifting the landscape of global fashion. That’s how important their impact is right now. So they demand to be seen. They demand to be heard. And we see their impact spilling out across global fashions,” says Checinska.
Nigeria-based Nkwo Onwuka’s outfits are made from recycled denim, and give a nod the the West African country’s culture with the traditional gele head wrap.
South African brand Nao Serati’s sparkly purple suit blends femininity and masculinity in a celebration of gender fluidity.
And from the very north of Africa, Moroccan fashion house Maison ARTC has created something especially for this exhibition.
“My piece is based on the two garments that come from two different cultures. The first one is the British culture, which is the trench coat. And the second one is the burqa that is also very profound in Morocco, and all the Arab countries. In Morocco, as far as we know, it’s the North Africa. And I decided to make a dialogue between both of them and to give a respect to the two countries,” says designer Artsi Ifrach.
The back is printed with the poem ‘Our Deepest Fears’.
It’s a call to strive to be the greatest version of ourselves, despite our fear of failure or other people’s judgment.
It’s a profound message and for Ifrach, fashion is always about more than just clothes.
“Africa fashion means to me: Africa. There is no fashion in Africa, there is culture that evolution wise becomes fashion and inspires many designers all over the world. But this was a place that culture became so profound and so strong and we had to dress ourselves with beautiful garments and beautiful artisans,” he says.
Africa Fashion opens on July 2 and will run until April 16 2023.