The global circulation of fashions, styles and dress codes is a beguiling field. But the buzz generated by an innovatively assembled Yves Saint Laurent suit on the dusty streets of Brazzaville, for example, or the adaptation of African fabric designs in the collections of international fashion designers, cannot hide the fact that such transfers between cultures and social milieus are marked not only by mutual relations, but also by asymmetry. Gentlemen of Bacongo (2009), the much praised photo essay by Italian photographer Daniele Tamagni about the culture of the Congolese ‘sapeurs’, is not just a story about flamboyant, impeccably dressed men who defy adverse conditions with fuchsia-coloured suits and elegant poses; it’s also a colonial and postcolonial tale. After all, this style resulted from a blending of Congolese culture with influences dating from French colonial rule.
The backdrop for the TRADING STYLE – World Fashion in Dialogue show at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt is precisely this complex network. Such economic, historical and cultural factors resulted in sapeur culture, though it also generated other forms of expression based on mutual appropriation among nations faced with post-colonial legacies. Curated by Teimaz Shahverdi, TRADING STYLE is an idiosyncratic and emancipatory attempt to outline a concept of global fashion in which the circulation of styles, motifs and techniques is understood as productive and – as far as circumstances permit – egalitarian. Four fashion labels – A Kind of Guise (Germany), Buki Akib (Nigeria), CassettePlaya (UK) and P.A.M. / Perks and Mini (Australia) – were invited to spend several weeks engaging with the artefacts, photographs and films in the museum’s collection and developing new works in the immediate vicinity of the ethnographic material held by the museum. The results were exhibited together with the curator’s personal selection of objects from the collection. Buki Akib, for instance, developed new types of knitting and weaving based on the texture and composition of instruments; these extravagant pieces were presented alongside nose flutes, leg rattles and mouth harps. Her latest menswear collection, Homecoming – A journey into an idealised future (Autumn/Winter 2012), takes on the theme of a young returnee from Lagos, with added influences including African punk and military clothing. Here too, then, an echo of postcolonial realities. But Akib’s tradition-conscious reclamation of African identity deliberately sets itself apart from the sapeur style that emerged from a subversive importation of Parisian chic and prosperous French bourgeois culture.
In the meantime, ‘la Sape’ has flowed back into mainstream Western fashion as a source for appropriation and re-adaptations. In the video for Solange Knowles’s Losing You (2012), the singer dances, surrounded by sapeur extras, in a version of Brazzaville ‘recreated’ in Cape Town. Her brightly coloured outfit quotes the style of the sapeurs, but also features elements from African fabric patterns. In fact, these clothes are by designers like Diane von Fürstenberg and Kenzo.
Yet such borrowings from the formal repertoire of global fashion are not always so elegant. Within the global industry of cheap clothing in particular, postcolonial conditions are often perpetuated. At present, for example, the Navajo Nation is suing the American multi-label retailer Urban Outfitters, which sells products under the Navajo name, such as a ‘Navajo hipster panty’. The practice of appropriation also cuts the other way: the Frankfurt exhibition includes a beaded hairclip from the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation decorated with an Adidas motif, and a comb from Polynesia carved with ‘Nike’ and its trademark swoosh – a curious craft-based ‘homage’ to mainstream Western labels.
With its transdisciplinary approach, TRADING STYLE goes beyond the standards of a fashion exhibition and the usual format of ethnological presentations arranged by region and theme. The show is put together partly on the basis of subjective associations and partly sorted by motifs. The artefacts are mostly accessories from various periods, contexts (everyday, ceremonial) and regions. These act less as objects representing non-European societies (a relic from the historical development of ethnology) and more as design items that draw attention directly to their properties, to colours and textures, techniques and materials: bags decorated with dog’s teeth, ceremonial penis sheaths made of ferns, earrings made of feathers and beetle wings. The fact that this form of presentation inevitably faces the problem of dehistoricization shows once more that any approach to ‘exotic’ material in the context of an ethnological museum will always be surrounded by ambivalence, if not bear out more problematic results.
For all their differences of content and aesthetic, what these labels share is the way they combine global fashion thinking with regional production. By supporting local industries and craft traditions, as well as producing only made-to-order clothing, A Kind of Guise, Buki Akib, CassettePlaya and P.A.M. stand for a new, horizontally structured fashion landscape that nonetheless engages in permanent dialogue with world fashion, as well as being globally networked in terms of infrastructure (their products are sold mainly online).
In the context of the exhibition, the primarily technical visual approach of Munich-based designers A Kind of Guise (printed fabric with a mask pattern, experiments with batik techniques) contrasts with presentations in the show that more explicitly incorporate ethnological reference material. In P.A.M.’s sumptuously thrown together, almost collage-like arrangements, for example, the materials’ origins become almost impossible to pin down. This stance, with its clear subcultural slant, is based not least on a notion of a global ‘tribal culture’; as such, it distances itself from fashion labels that work to establish links with, say, the luxury goods sector.
London-based designer Carri Munden of CassettePlaya also introduces a subcultural element; here, though, the focus is on analogies between subcultures and initiation rites, a stress that foregrounds the other ethnological objects in the exhibition. Two chains developed in cooperation with Duffy Jewellery refer directly to initiation objects, translating their original symbolic function into the accessories of contemporary youth-culture: pendants made of glued, painted latchkeys, and bottle tops. Similarly, a headdress made of fake hair, faux fur and appliquéed chenille transposes a bridal veil from New Guinea into an urban style (the materials used for the headpiece include a baseball cap). For TRADING STYLE, CassettePlaya also produced Blood Rites (2012) – an abrasive video collage combining tattooing scenes from contemporary Britain with historical footage of a ritual sacrifice in New Guinea shot by the German traveller and ethnologist Hermann Schlenker in the 1970s. Like the sapeurs’ own sartorial statements, Blood Rites shows the mechanism of critical appropriation in the field of world fashion (and beyond): rather than blotting out or trying to plagiarize its model, it renders modes of overwriting visible – in the form of aesthetic breaks.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
The exhibition TRADING STYLE – Weltmode im Dialog is on show until 31 August 2013 at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt.