Originally published in
July 2011
The Author of New African Fashion's top 10 African-inspired fashion moments
Author and stylist and editor of African lifestyle magazine ARISE, Helen Jennings, has just published a brilliant and brilliantly hefty coffee table book about African-inspired fashion called New African Fashion. We wanted to know more, so she kindly outlined her 10 most seismic moments in African and African-inspired fashion!

The textiles, landscapes and colours of Africa have been pillaged by international fashion for decades. But in the past few years a new generation of African and diaspora designers have been showing the world how African fashion is really done. Lets go back in time and look at the best moments yet!

1. 1967 - Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent’s landmark 1967 Africa collection featured a series of revealing shift dresses made from raffia, shells and wooden beads. Harper’s Bazaar described it at the time as “a fantasy of primitive genius”. The following year the Algerian-born designer introduced the safari jacket and later collections reflected his love of Marrakesh with his take on tunics, caftans and turbans. Yet it was the 1967 dresses that have been re-imagined by so many brands, Dolce & Gabbana (spring/summer 2005) and Gucci (spring/summer 2011) among them.

2. 1975 - Iman

In 1975 photographer Peter Beard presented Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid to the New York fashion industry as an illiterate tribeswoman whom he’d discovered herding cattle in the Saharan plains. In reality Iman was the daughter of a Somalian diplomat and gynaecologist and spoke five languages. She had met Beard while studying at the University of Nairobi and was an accomplice in his myth-making scheme for three months. It worked – her first modelling assignment was for Vogue, she became an Yves Saint Laurent muse, and remains one of the most successful African models of all time.

3. 1995 – Alek Wek

African and black girls owned the catwalks throughout the 1970s and 1980s but by the early 1990s, it had become a white wash. So when Alek Wek came on to the scene in 1995 her extraordinary looks were like a bomb going off. A then 18-year-old Sudanese civil war refugee studying in London, she was spotted by a scout and moved to New York. Her 1997 Elle cover caused ripples. She was named model of the decade by i-D magazine and opened shows for Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Ralph Lauren all in the same year. She’s since added author, campaigner, activist and designer to her CV and has paved the way for other Sudanese models such as Ajak Deng and her niece, Ataui Deng.

4. 1997 - John Galliano

John Galliano’s debut haute couture collection for Christian Dior included a series of silhouettes inspired by the East African tribes. Beaded hats, chokers and corsets were worn with long silk evening gowns. The collection was well received for his irreverent mish mash of references - Masai warriors wear corsets yet the garment is more commonly regarded as originating from the court of Henry II of France.

5. 2005 - Jean Paul Gaultier

Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2005 haute couture show featured models baked in red mud and wearing afro wigs, feathered dresses, shields made from tortoise shell and a bridal gown consisting of a huge white leather African mask. Subtle? Non.

6. 2008 – Spring/Summer 2009

The tribal trend reached crescendo for spring/summer 2009 with a roll call of designers looking to Africa. Alexander McQueen’s kaleidoscopic prints referenced Savannah wildlife and landscapes. African fauna inspired Tsumori Chiasto’s feather dresses. Louis Vuitton teamed grass skirts with wooden accessories. Junya Watanabe’s models wore towering headwear filled with sheaves of flowers. Vivienne Westwood tied leopard and zebra print fabrics around the body. And Diane von Furstenberg offered safari shirtdresses. After this season, it could truly be said that African aesthetics have become part of fashion’s lexicon.

7. 2009 - ARISE

ARISE magazine brought a collective of African designers to New York Fashion Week for the first time for autumn/winter 2009/10. The Bryant Park show starred veteran Malaian designer Xuly Bët, South Africa’s Stoned Cherrie and Nigeria’s Momo and Tiffany Amber. The stand out moment came when Grace Jones appeared on the catwalk and prowled down it accompanied by Oluchi Onweagba, Tyson Beckford, Alek Wek and Liya Kebede. ARISE has since hosted three further shows at NYFW, one in Paris and in March this year hosted over 50 designers at the inaugural ARISE Magazine Fashion Week – Lagos 2011, the biggest, most comprehensive fashion event on African soil to date. Need to know designers include Jewel By Lisa, Maki Oh, Angelo Van Mol, Klûk CGDT and Pierre-Antoine Vettorello.

8. 2010 - Ozwald Boateng

British Ghanaian tailor Ozwald Boateng celebrated 25 years in fashion and his debut London Fashion Week show with the sort of spectacle at the Odeon Leicester Square normally reserved for blockbuster premieres. Guests were welcomed with a black carpet, fragranced air, champagne and classical music and the show featured 100 male models – the most a LFW menswear show has ever seen. Post show, they all marched up to his flagship Saville Row store, stopping traffic in their well-suited wake

9. 2011 - Azzedine Alaïa

The legendary Tunisian designer returned to the catwalk after an eight year absence to close autumn/winter 2011/12 haute couture week. His was the most anticipated and exclusive show of the season and offered a fresh take on his masterful clingy silhouettes. Sofia Coppola, Kanye West and Donatella Versace were among those who joined in a 10 minute standing ovation.

10. 2011 - Burberry Prorsum

Christopher Bailey reached for Africa’s most recognised fabric, wax print cotton, to complete spring/summer 2012. Brightly hued, draped and knotted dresses, blazers and skirts, cropped bomber jackets and men’s shirts were teamed with wooden bead and raffia embellishments. Did someone whisper Yves Saint Laurent?

New African Fashion by Helen Jennings [Prestel] £20, out now newafricanfashion.com