Why africa? Why now? The designs of Ade Bakare
Most academic studies of African dress and fashion tend to be made from the perspective of those wearing the clothing and the impact they want to make on the people around them, or of western designers whose creations perpetuate ‘primitivist notions of an imagined Africa’ (Keller 2013: 189), rather than from the perspective of the African designer.
However, as art historian Victoria Rovine (2006) has pointed out, there is a small but growing literature that has begun to address the work of Africa’s haute couture fashion designers, including a Revue Noire special issue (1997, vol. 27), Els van der Plas and Marlous Willemsen (1998), Renée Mendy-Ongoundou (2002), Hudita Mustafa (2002) and Rovine herself (2004). The focus of this article is one designer, Ade Bakare (Figure 1), and his personal and continuing journey through fashion design – from Africa to Europe and back – and the resulting nuanced character of his collections. Only relatively recently, nearly a decade ago but over ten years into his career, did he begin to incorporate into his garments textile types and designs characteristic of his own ethnic background, raising the questions: Why Africa? Why now?
Bakare and Africa
The very western orientation of his training and work, as well as his emphasis on couture, distinguishes Bakare from some of his younger compatriots who, though often not working in Nigeria, focus on a mass-market audience and on an almost strident use of African identity design. Consider, for example, the work of Adeleke Sijuwade, Lola Faturoti and Jimi Gureje (Croyle 2013: 52–54) or Duro Olowu and the line he created for J. C. Penney (http://ankarafashionmag.com). When questioned about ‘Why Africa?’ and ‘Why now?’, Bakare responded by saying that when asked as a student and fledgling entrepreneur why he did not incorporate some elements of his own background, something African, into his designs, he did not truly understand what these questioners meant. During his formative years growing up and going to school in Nigeria, everything was western – clothes, shoes, movies … No one, at least no one his age, was interested in ‘African’ dress. It was not until he visited South Africa in 2005 that he understood what drawing from ‘African’ culture meant. In his own words:
I remember at college they used to ask me ‘why don’t you inject something African into your collection?’ And I had no idea what they were talking about. And when I graduated, I took my collection around to prospective fashion houses, and fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s and Queen … and Tattler – and they said: ‘But we can’t see anything of your culture in what you do …’ but my thinking was that fashion was international and so why should it have to be whittled down to an individual culture – but that was in part because I didn’t really understand what they were talking about … I didn’t know what ‘African’ culture was … So it was later on, when I was invited to South Africa, to do a fashion show there, […] [that] I said to myself: ‘Hmmm, I’m going to try adapting African fabrics …’ And so I used aso oke [narrow band weaving historically done by Yoruba men] in one or two out of about twelve designs.
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