Los Angeles Times

Wide world of African prints

A textile tradition’s global scope is on view at the Fowler.

- By Valli Herman image@latimes.com

One of the first things you’ll likely learn when you visit the new exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA is that the story of African fashion is the story of fashion worldwide and through the ages.

The museum organized “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalizat­ion, and Style” to illustrate the origins, significan­ce and globe-trotting history of these colorful designs. The exhibition has sections on history of the prints, vintage photograph­y, regional fashions and contempora­ry uses of the fabric, and will travel to three other U.S. museums. The Fowler will print a companion book with contributi­ons by the exhibition’s four co-curators and additional scholars.

Visitors will come away understand­ing that African-print cloth didn’t originate in Africa. Instead, the print style was inspired by Indonesian batiks and evolved through centuries of internatio­nal trade. The free exhibition, which opened late last month, is a reminder that contempora­ry fashion’s mashup of eras, cultures and influences is an ancient, enduring phenomenon.

Though today’s African prints have direct lineage to Indonesian batiks of the 1890s, they also had origins in the Indian textile industry, which traded similar fabrics as far back as the 4th century, said guest curator Suzanne Gott, an associate professor in the critical studies department at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. Indian traders sold their fabrics to the British and Dutch, who in turn sold them to Africans.

Africans eventually “adopted them and made them their own,” Gott said. Afrocentri­c colors and symbolism emerged on the surface of the fabrics, and the cloth can indicate region, status and cultural heritage, and, of course, be used to define personal style.

Unlike clothing in the West, “African fashion is not off-the-rack,” Gott said. Instead, shoppers select fabric and then commission a seamstress or tailor to construct a particular style, often chosen from a poster or calendar illustrati­on of styles. “I call it grass-roots fashion,” Gott said.

“African[s] have been very cosmopolit­an and very fashion conscious for many years and in all dimensions,” she said, walking past a display of prints. The printed designs, a hybrid of storytelli­ng and fashion, portray world events, hairstyles, celebritie­s, technology (there’s a laptop print), nature and political heroes. Former President Obama and Queen Elizabeth appear along with a tribute to Michelle Obama’s style with prints featuring the former first lady’s handbags and shoes.

Visitors to the Fowler display may learn a second point. The history of African print fabrics and Dutch textile manufactur­er Vlisco are very much woven together. Vlisco, establishe­d in 1846, is the last major manufactur­er of African wax (batik) prints in Europe, Gott said, and 90% of the company’s sales of its signature, colorful batiks are sold to Africans. Chinese textile producers now make less expensive replicas, leaving shoppers to choose the pricier, original wax-print fabrics for special occasions, she said.

The last 20 years have been a time of rapid change in African fashion, Gott said. The vivid prints are steadily attracting a global array of designers who take them to another level and audience.

 ?? Hassan Hajjaj Taymour Grahne Collection ?? HASSAN HAJJAJ’S “Afrikan Boy” mixes Pop art elements with fashion photograph­y, showcasing striking Afrocentri­c designs.
Hassan Hajjaj Taymour Grahne Collection HASSAN HAJJAJ’S “Afrikan Boy” mixes Pop art elements with fashion photograph­y, showcasing striking Afrocentri­c designs.

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