African Prints More Sophisticated, Subtle In 2011 High-end fashion designers have been getting rave reviews for the African prints, textiles and shapes that they sent down the runways. Host Michel Martin explores how it was a good year for African prints and where the trend is going in 2012. She talks with online boutique owner Dolapo Shobanjo and style correspondent Robin Givhan.

African Prints More Sophisticated, Subtle In 2011

African Prints More Sophisticated, Subtle In 2011

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In 2011, a number of major design houses used African prints and motifs, including Michael Kors, Burberry and Oscar de la Renta.

Style writer Robin Givhan singles out designer Haider Ackermann. A Colombian by birth, he brings a cross-cultural sensibility to his designs. After being adopted by French parents, Ackermann studied in Belgium and lived in Chad and Algeria.

"I would like to see it become more sort of embedded within the fashion industry," says Givhan. "People could ... look at African prints in the same way that they look at tartans or ... other prints that are very much associated with a specific group of people."


As you heard earlier in the program, TELL ME MORE and the rest of NPR are taking a look back at the people, movements and ideas that have had a good year. We wanted to tell you more about a trend in the fashion world that you may have noticed.

More and more designers are being inspired by Africa and that inspiration is showing up on runways around the world with major names like Michael Kors, Burberry and Oscar de la Renta. You've seen African motifs and textiles in their collections.

We wanted to talk more about why 2011 has been a good year for African prints, so we've called upon Robin Givhan, special correspondent for style and culture at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She's a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Also with us is Dolapo Shobanjo. She is the owner of the online boutique,, which sells clothes by African designers.

Welcome to you both. Happy holidays.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Thank you.


MARTIN: Now, Robin, you know, we've seen so-called - and I'm putting African in quotes because obviously Africa is a continent, not a country. Can't say that often enough. But we've seen this before. But what's different this year?

GIVHAN: Well, I always am a little bit nervous whenever I'm warned that a designer has some sort of African inspiration because I'm sort of braced for a torrent of cliches, but I think what's been interesting this time around is that it's a lot more sophisticated and it's a lot more subtle. I think it's a lot smarter.

There's a sense of being able to really leap in there and kind of embrace it and make it their own, which makes it more interesting and makes it more vital, I think.

MARTIN: Anybody you want to highlight? Any particular piece or collection that you think was particularly effective in the idea that you're talking about here?

GIVHAN: Yeah. And you know, it's not - he didn't use prints, per se, but he used a lot of interesting shapes and a lot of interesting colors and that was the designer Haider Ackermann, who is Columbian by birth, adopted by French parents, studied in Belgium and his father was a cartographer and so he lived in Chad and Algeria and, you know, all over the world, essentially. And he's got a really sort of international, global sensibility.

MARTIN: Dolapo, what about you? First of all, tell me what you make of the African traditional, sort of, African textiles and patterns and how they're being used by non-African designers. First, I want to get your take on that and then, of course, I want to hear about what you think African designers are putting out there.

SHOBANJO: Well, I mean, none of this is new to me because, I mean, I grew up in Nigeria and this is something that I've seen before. I've seen people use African fabrics and I've seen, you know, designers be creative with the fabric. So it's quite interesting to have seen the Western world kind of embrace this new fad and have editors kind of, you know, market it as, you know, fresh and new and amazing.

And, you know, it's one of those things. When the Western world embraces something, the whole world collapsed, but for me, it's - you know, it's stuff that I've seen before and I think it's great that people are becoming more aware of it. So the example that Robin gave, you know, I think, you know, if you've lived in the country, you can really be influenced by something unique and you can really reference your designs to particular experiences that you've had.

But, you know, you then have, like, you know, the African-inspired people who were - you know, they see a nice print and they make a collection out of it and – yeah, it's African-inspired, but it's not really referenced to Africa, so that worries me a little bit.

MARTIN: Well, doesn't that mean - doesn't all inspiration work that way? That people often borrow ideas and make them their own without feeling that they have to be, you know, completely faithful to the original context?

SHOBANJO: They don't have to be completely faithful to anything, but you can be influenced by something, but I think it's important to really have a reference point. So if you're going to use, like, the Masai prints, like (unintelligible), for example, has used, don't just say, oh, there are Kenyan people who wear this fabric.

You know, really say why it's called out to you, why you've used it, the culture behind it, the story behind it and explain that it's actually from one particular region of Africa. It's not, you know - this is the whole question about Africa being a continent and not a country. You thought just saying it's inspired by Africa - it's actually a particular place and a particular thing that's spoken to you, so I think people just have to be a bit more specific with what exactly in Africa has inspired them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is part of our series on trends, movements and ideas that have had a good year. We're talking about African prints. Major designers have been drawing inspiration from African prints and textiles this year.

Talking about this with us, style writer Robin Givhan and boutique owner Dolapo Shobanjo.

Dolapo, what effect do you think this trend is having on African designers? Does it kind of put a spotlight on them or are you worried that it's overshadowing their work?

SHOBANJO: It's kind of like a double-edged sword. It's good in a way because, when the big designers use prints, you know, you have the fashion editorials, you have the celebrities wearing the pieces and it gives, you know, the masses a way to kind of see how you've put the prints together, how you wear it, how you rock the outfits.

And it encourages people to buy, so they'll find an African designer who makes these pieces and they'd buy it because it's affordable. So in that way, it's good.

But then, it's bad because they don't get the credit that they deserve, I feel. If they've been doing - so we have a designer called Jobalesha(ph) in Nigeria and she does amazing print work and her designs are fabulous. I mean, I think they're on par with any big designer there who's done an African print collection for spring-summer 2012 or previous seasons.

So if you compare those collections, why is it that she doesn't get any notice and these other designers do?

MARTIN: Well, Robin, what's your thought about what Dolapo was saying? That, in a way, it may point up these designers in a way and give them more shine, but it could also overshadow them?

GIVHAN: Yeah. Well, in some ways, I agree with Dolapo, but on the other hand, I also feel like you sort of get into sort of dangerous territory when you start saying that certain points of inspiration, certain points of reference, should be more protected than others. Because I think about, for instance, you know, the incredible amount of inspiration that the fashion industry got from kids who were involved in hip-hop and rap or skater culture.

And they obviously, you know, are coming out with things in their neighborhood, in their basement, in their community and they don't have the kind of big, you know, bull horn to broadcast their creativity and yet Chanel, you know, has been the beneficiary of it.

But I do think that, yeah, I mean, the fact that people are more interested in African prints and in an African sensibility means that their mind is further opened and they're more likely to look at less obvious sources for those kinds of ideas.

MARTIN: Let's have a final thought from each of you. Dolapo, where do you think this trend is going? The African-inspired shapes, textiles, prints, you know, sensibility - where do you think it's going?

SHOBANJO: Well, that's an interesting question because, first of all, I would challenge the use of the word trend. A trend, by definition, is something that comes and goes, but this has been continuous for at least the last three, four years.

There's always a tribal, ethnic print. I mean, editors get crazy with that (unintelligible) and, you know, create all these fancy words for it, but I don't think it's going anywhere. It's just going to be adapted and modified and it's always going to be there.

I mean, in Africa, these prints have been around for years and years, so it's just finding new ways, you know, to present something new and keep it fresh and original.

MARTIN: Robin, what about you?

GIVHAN: Well, I mean, I would like to see it become more sort of embedded within the fashion industry so that people consider it a classic, that they look at African prints in the same way that they look at tartans or the same way that they, you know, look at other prints that are very much associated with a specific group of people.

And I also think that there is hope to think that that will happen because the industry is becoming much more global and I think if someone like Doro Olowu who, you know, is a favorite in the Vogue crowd and that might seem like a very silly thing, but it really matters because he's got the ear of people who are deciding what's going to go on the cover of one of the most influential fashion magazines.

So all of those things, I think, are kind of positioned for this to become something that endures.

MARTIN: Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Robin Givhan is special correspondent for style and culture at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She was with us from Washington, D.C.

Dolapo Shobanjo is the owner of the online boutique, and she was with us from London.

Ladies, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SHOBANJO: Thank you so much.

GIVHAN: Thank you.

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