www.neverunderdressed.com BY MARION HUME
SUNDAY 26 JANUARY 2014, 06:00
For spring 2014, designers looked far beyond their backyards for inspiration, mimicking an ever expanding global market with the international flavours of their collections. The trouble is, we don’t seem to have the fashion vocabulary to describe them. Writer and ethical consultant Marion Hume on the pitfalls of provenance and why you should never say ‘tribal’
‘Designers are thinking globally this season, with plenty of African inspired beading.’
The caption, on a jacket featuring bands of blue and white braiding, is from a woman’s magazine. The question is, what is African inspired beading?
Does that mean in the style of the Magreb where the beauty might lie in unexpected juxtapositions of silver, amber and shells? Or is the inspiration the vivid creations of the Samburu, where uniformity is prized to the point that any glass bead not perfectly round is rejected? And why this sartorial esperanto that implies all is the same from Mozambique to Senegal? Designers are never ‘European-inspired’, because that might mean anything from Aran knits to Lederhosen.
AT DIOR COUTURE AW13, RAF SIMONS ‘OBSERVED DIFFERENT CONTINENTS’
”African-inspired’ is just ignorant laziness. Inspired by which part of Africa’s 54 countries exactly? Which part of its 6 different geographic zones? So 1.1 billion people inspired the collection?’ says Kiran Yoliswa, co-founder of the popular website, SBA.
But hang on. Doesn’t SBA stand for ‘Styled by Africa’? Isn’t that wrapping up a continent as one? ‘We called our brand Styled By Africa because we source collections from all over the continent and our mission is to showcase the diversity in African fashion,’ Yoliswa counters. ‘Traditional Ethiopian womenswear is very white with only hints of colour while West African women wear much brighter designs, in turn different from Mali’s mud cloth or Tanzania’s kitenges. To be ‘Styled By Africa’ means simply that the people and places of the continent have contributed in some way to what you are today, which is true of our customers, designers, and collections.’
Ok. With ‘African- inspired’ eliminated, how to describe the trends we’re currently seeing at Givenchy, Dior, Celine? What about ‘ethnic’?
‘Used to describe any non-European aesthetic. Without any real descriptive value,’ says Yoliswa.
‘Cringeworthy, patronising. And used to describe stereotypical geometric patterned prints or beaded jewellery that could be from anywhere. With feathers usually thrown in for good measure.’
Yodit Eklund, founder of Africa’s first youth culture brand, Bantu Wax, says the T-word should be deleted, not just because it is offensive but also because it reveals the writer as hopelessly out of date. ‘Tribal, to me, refers to anything but the cultural explosion that is taking place across the African continent today,’ she says. ‘Africa is moving at the speed of light. There are more mobile users in Africa than in North America.’
‘Global traveller’ is the euphemism of the moment. All it reveals is that fashion scribes – the majority still white anglo-saxon like me – aren’t very good at geography. Or history. Or politics. But how to describe the hottest collections of the season? Some writers called Dior ‘Africa-meets-Japan’ – a distinctly unequal collision if you visualize it, given one landmass measures about 8,000km tip to toe, the other comprises hundreds of islands, (and even then, sovereignty is disputed by Russia, China, Taiwan…). Style.com managed to teeter without breaking any eggshells by noting, ‘a Maasai neckpiece, a Parisienne wrap, a Shinto scarf.. colorful, optimistic emblems of national identity.’
So as long as you avoid thinking of Africa as a country not a continent, you are specific in the nations or cultural groups you cite and you avoid using terms that expose you as a complete colonial throwback, will you then be doing ok? Then what about this scenario:
You’re at the Vivienne Westwood Gold label show. The model coming towards you is wearing a trouser suit of fabric handwoven near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and she is carrying a bag screen-printed in Nairobi and beading by the Maasai in Lakipia, Northern Kenya. (All this is thanks to Westwood’s enduring collaboration with the United Nations ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative for which – full disclosure- I consult). With the best will in the world, how to be culturally correct in a tweet? Is “Dame Viv @FollowWestwood shows fab stripes and squiggles made with @_ethicalfashion #Africa” not ok?
‘I think it’s fine because it is made in different places within Africa. If it was just made in Kenya, there would be more of an argument to just say ‘Made in Kenya’.’ says Kiran Yoliswa.
Westwood’s collaboration allows marginalised artisans to join the fashion chain in a fair way. But what of all those designers who turn to the African continent for inspiration but produce elsewhere so that no profits go to the source?
‘When done properly, some places can actually benefit from the increased awareness about their cultural styles,’ counters Yoliswa, citing Burberry’s use of West African wax prints. ‘I do think this helped place African designers more in the mainstream and allowed the indirect growth of their brands as well.’ Yet, to add to the confusion, those wax prints are created by VLISCO, which is Dutch.
Let’s move on to how we describe designers themselves. In the unlikely event I were ever to cross the fence from journalism to design, I would most likely be ‘English’ (even though my heritage, not my accent, is Scottish). How to describe Nkwo Onwuka, a British designer of Nigerian heritage who lives in Nigeria yet finds inspiration from the traditional craft of the bronze casters of Benin? No wonder fashion writers opt for bland cover-all lines such as, ‘Nkwo Onwuka is worth watching.’
All this is not only ‘An African Problem’ (to use another sweeping and inaccurate term). Let’s travel to the Americas and Walter van Bierendonk’s recent menswear show which included milliner Stephen Jones’ take on a Native American feathered headdress. (Help! Should I be writing Cheyenne, Sioux or the Muscogee war bonnet?). This was daubed with the words “Stop Racism” ; allegedly a response to the headgear at the Chanel Metiers d’Art show in Dallas at the end of last year. The Metiers d’Art show at the end of 2012 had been held in Edinburgh. Yet Lagerfeld’s plays on the sporran and tam o’shanter had my Caledonian heart beating with joy, not righteous anger. Is that because my forefathers, cleared from their crofts on the orders of greedy landowners to make way for sheep at least had a chance, unlike those slaughtered in long years of government-sanctioned genocide?
Damn, fashion is fraught.
I guess where I’m going with this is at least we should acknowledge we’ve got to try harder. But we have a long way to go. This is, after all, the business that refers to a plaster pink shade as ‘nude’. Maybe this season’s style crush, Lupito Ngong’o will at least knock that lazy terminology right out of fashion.
Financial Times | March 2011
Cut From A Different Cloth
by Marion Hume
Last September, I had a telephone call from Pier Luigi Loro Piana. He heads the family business that bears his surname – an Italian textile group with 135 stores in prime addresses, including London’s Bond Street and Avenue Montaigne in Paris. One of its coats can cost £5,000, a sweater £500.
This sixth-generation family firm is led as a job-share between Pier Luigi, 59, and his brother Sergio, 62. While both run the business, the younger brother also searches worldwide for the best raw materials that can be turned into yarn.
Loro Piana wanted to tell me about a new project. He had found a community that makes a fabric that cools down the wearer (perfect for the humid cities that are home to the emerging ultra-rich). This, he said, was new to the west, yet legendary in the Asia – but the know-how to weave it was almost lost. Just one isolated community was left with the skills to make it, and they live on houses on stilts on a lake. I was spellbound. He wanted me to go out there with him, to take a look for myself. Then he told me the village was in Burma.
There are many reasons to avoid doing business in Burma. It is run by a repressive military junta, practically unchanged since 1962. Sanctions were first imposed by the US in 1993 and the European Union in 1996. The EU extended its measures in 2007 after anti-government demonstrations led by monks in Burma were quashed by force.
Reporters without Borders ranks Burma 171st out of 175 countries in the world in its Press Freedom Index (only Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea fare worse).
Although trade in textiles with Burma is not barred by the EU, almost nothing is allowed into the US from Burma. (It makes an exception for teak, when used in decking by American boatbuilders.)
Loro Piana is aware of the moral dilemma of doing business in Burma. In an e-mail to me, he wrote that by finding out more about the country, “We can be more sensitive … Our venture is directed to the … ‘informal economy’ represented by the majority of the local population, and mainly supported by agriculture and craftsmanship.”
I said I would not even consider such a visit until Aung San Suu Kyi was freed. The Burmese opposition leader had endured almost 15 years of incarceration. Then, last November, she was released from house arrest. I recognise that this alone does not make Burma a place to visit lightly. And so I canvassed activists and correspondents based in the region, and was pleased that they felt, as I did, that I should now go to Burma, if offered the chance. (Still, such is the sensitivity of the subject that most of my contacts were unwilling to be quoted on the record.)
Mark Farmaner is a director of human rights group Burma Campaign UK, which has called for targeted sanctions against the regime. Of the Loro Piana project, Farmaner says: “In principle, we have no objection to this. There was never a call for total sanctions against Burma. It is always about targeting the generals and their business cronies.”
So I accepted Loro Piana’s invitation to inspect his “miracle fabric”.
I have been a fashion journalist for 20 years – some of them at the Financial Times – but two years ago I also took on a consulting role with the Ethical Fashion Programme of the International Trade Centre, a joint body of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. My role is to forge links between the best-known labels and the poorest people of sub-Saharan Africa. In my visa application, I wrote “fashion consultant”. However, I also have a US journalist visa in my passport, which the Burmese embassy held for weeks and returned, visa granted, with departure only days away.
It is 10am and Loro Piana looks somewhat rumpled. We had arrived in Rangoon (renamed Yangon by the junta, which also renamed the country Myanmar) the night before, and this morning we had flown onwards to Helo, in eastern Burma. Now we’ve just travelled a further hour by bumpy road. Yet Loro Piana’s jacket, a prototype made of the fabric we are here to see, looks pristine. “See – it doesn’t need ironing. Unlike me,” he jokes as we clamber into a longboat. We pull out of the reeds on to the expanse of Inle Lake, ringed by mountains. The Intha people subsist by fishing and by growing vegetables on floating gardens built using bamboo and lotus flowers. It is those lotus flowers, or more accurately, their stems, that are made into the magical yarns.
We arrive at a thatched house standing on stilts, the kind imitated by watery five-star resorts across Asia. Access is via a rickety pontoon of bamboo poles and wobbly wooden stairs. Once inside, the co-chief executive of a company with a €480m turnover squats down on the floor next to a woman who is extracting sappy filaments, each about one metre long, from lotus flower stems – which is a painstaking process. Another woman rubs the filaments together at extraordinary speed. A third woman sits spinning yarn using a contraption made from wooden bobbins and an old bicycle wheel. Loro Piana scrunches the finished yarn in his hands.
It is his second visit to Inle Lake. He first came a year ago, having learned from a Japanese friend that lotus flower cloth was still being woven here. His friend urged him to save the craft from disappearing forever. The textile baron instantly saw the potential of the Nelumbo nucifera that grows here: it is, among other astonishing properties, featherlight, “slubby” in appearance (like linen), wonderfully cool and also of a good natural colour. Some 26,000 stems are needed for one blazer.
There are, at most, just 300 Intha people who know how to harvest the wild lotus flower stems (they must be pulled from the water by hand – never scythed, which kills the root). About 200 others know how to extract the filaments and process these to skeins, which must be done within 24 hours of picking to prevent deterioration. Lotus flower robes were once worn on ceremonial days by the most senior monks, but they have had to find a cheaper alternative.
When Loro Piana first came to Burma, the fabric was being made into pricey scarves for the few tourists who visit the country. On that first trip, he guaranteed to purchase all the fabric. “This is a key point in the success of the project,” he says. “We commit to buy, not from time to time, but everything. We pay in advance.”
There are four looms operated by women using foot treadles. This involves passing shuttles under the warp threads, back and forth by hand – but they can do so for no more than four hours a day, which equates to about an inch of cloth. Loro Piana is not pushing for more production, mindful that it might force the youngest teenage girls into working at the looms rather than attending school.
Is Loro Piana exploiting these workers? The UN calculates that the living wage for a manual worker in Burma is $1.20 per day. Those working here are skilled. My guess is that they earn at least five times that figure. However, as the project is in its first season, there are no reliable records of pay yet.
There is a whiff of change in Burma – not regime change, but the feeling that the country, so rich in rubies, oil and teak, is about to re-open for business. Thai entrepreneurs are pushing for road development along the two countries’ shared border.
Still, the Burmese officials who granted us visas knew what we were doing in the country – at no time were we “off radar” – we were accompanied at all times by an English-speaking official guide.
The position on sanctions is still complicated. In a speech to the World Economic Forum in January, Suu Kyi said Burma needed ethical foreign investment, but a report from the National League for Democracy, the party she leads, recently concluded that sanctions should remain in place for the time being.
In Burma itself, strangers can be bold, despite the dangers of speaking out. “Our government has a suicidal policy, if I may speak frankly, of stopping people from coming here. Thank you for ignoring it,” someone told me in Rangoon.
Loro Piana admits that he was not especially clued up politically before he began working in Burma. Now, though, his project is helping a few more communities to join the lucrative fashion value chain. The indications are that they will be properly rewarded for doing so, and in decent working conditions.
As Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK puts it: “This is the kind of trade, working with ordinary people, preserving traditions and culture, and paying accordingly, that we support. It is the large-scale, low-wage element of the clothing sector that is a problem.”
Was I right to go there? I think so.
“These are delicate times,” Loro Piana says to me. “But I believe what you have seen is positive and it opens your eyes.”