by Samira Sawlani

Walk into any store on the British high street and you are bound to see costume jewellery, artefacts and clothing which look as if they are made in Africa or branded as ‘ethnic’ or ‘tribal’ (the usage of both which are not only irritating but also problematic). Women will use these words to describe their style, glossy fashion magazines and newspapers which seem to have little consideration for any form of political correctness will use the same when discussing celebrity outfits (The Daily Mail describing actress Anne Hathaway accenting her outift with ‘African-inspired patterns on her scarf and shoulder bag’ at a rally for the kidnapped Chibok girls) and stores welcome this ‘trend’ often using it in advertising campaigns.

Be it brightly coloured Sissal earrings associated with Rwanda or carvings of lions traditionally found in the markets of Nairobi the trend for what is branded ‘African’ is always in season and can be seen anywhere from the high fashion catwalk to the humble furniture store in a corner of London.

Image1Look closer at these though and you will  find that the chunky beaded necklaces reminiscent of Zulu jewellery are not actually made by women in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The selection of handicraft created to complete your African themed living room has not been made my Akamba carvers in Kissi.

From clothing to interior design the world of fashion goes to great lengths to brand the aesthetics of its collections, items and themese as ‘exotic’ or as menioned above ‘ethnic/tribal.’

The first problem, and this is the real question; what does tribal, ethnic, exotic even mean?? These words are just bandied about! The second problem is the classic ‘othering’ (if it ain’t from the west it has to fall into one of those categories) and the third problem is most of this stuff is not authentically made, there is rarely reference to what it is replicating and if there is reference it is as usual done with the careless usage of cliched words.

if we look at the world of high fashion and famouses designer houses such as  YSL, Gucci and Oscar De La Renta, they will present collections where the Pan- African influence upon their designs is evident captured through the use of patterns found in the different cultures present in the African Continent.

However, it is rare to see European fashion houses actually choose to source directly from the continent itself. For example, Burberry’s 2012 cruise collection featured heavy usage of Ankara, a fabric which originates in West and Central Africa. However, the clothing was not made from Ankara material produced in Africa; the print was simply borrowed and produced elsewhere.


Burberry Prorsum Cruise Collection 2012- Uses Traditional African Ankara print, not sourced from Africa

The majority of these products are in fact mass produced and made in China or Taiwan. This is not only the case for jewellery and fashion but also applies to furniture and home accessories. One British website offers a variety of figurines which are an exact replica of the binadamu carvings of Makonde men and women. Enquire further and you will find that these are not from Kenya; they have been made in a small factory outside of Beijing.

Not only do they take away from the possible economic success which African countries could benefit from, they also do no justice to the unique cultural and fashion of each African country. A necklace inspired by the Mazahuas people of Mexico, coconut earrings that look like they are from Uganda and bangles which resemble those found in India are all described as ‘Tribal’, ‘exotic, ‘ethnic’?

If a company is not importing directly from any country in the continent, the least it can do is provide specifications on which culture or country has been the source of inspiration. For example fashion from Europe is generally referred to as ‘Parisian’ or ‘Italian rather than ‘European inspired.’

On the other side of the spectrum is the fact that the rise in Internet shopping means there is now access to a variety of businesses which do source their products directly from the African Continent. The astonishing part of this is how almost all of these websites focus upon how ethical this practice is. For example, the American company Walmart have a product range known as ‘Full Circle Exchange.’ This is a collection of products handcrafted by women around the world. Some of the items on offer are wrist purses, baskets and bowls made by women in Rwanda. Though there are vivid descriptions and images of the products, one cannot help but wonder if the selling point is that these are ‘ethical’ and the aim is to appeal to the philanthropist within a shopper, many refer to this as the ‘Pity Purchase.’ There are those designers such as Vivienne Westwood who emphasised that her ‘Africa Collection’ of handbags made by Nairobi based women living in poverty ‘is not charity, it is work.’

This concept is almost like a double edged sword; on one hand importing products from African Countries is important. However, this being part of a ‘good practice’ venture rather than a business and manufacturing related decision can be more hindering rather than progressive.

What is more worrying is that this trend for ‘African culture’ (wondering what that means!) being produced and manufactured by non- African markets is prominent within the continent too.

For tourists it is increasingly challenging to be able to tell the difference between souvenirs made in Africa and their Chinese made replicas. A British traveller spoke of his shock at purchasing an “authentic” Masai shawl in the Mara, only to find a ‘Made in China’ label on it. Another time while visiting South Africa he found that a large number of magnets, souvenirs and T-shirts available at stores aimed at tourists were not handmade by carvers in rural parts of the country as he was led to believe.

So why are countries like China undercutting locals in the production of ‘African items’?  And aside from perhaps ignorance, what other reasons can explain the gap in products being imported directly from Africa? Surely the answer to these challenges lies in encouraging the growth of Africa’s manufacturing sector?

According to International Development Consultant Jeremy Weate the biggest reason is competitiveness.

Labour costs are much cheaper in Asia. Sweatshop conditions, the use of which is widespread among fashion retailers are hard to compete with.  The other reason for additional competitiveness is that electricity is much cheaper in Asia.  In both West and East Africa, it is common for factories to have to rely on generator-based power as the primary source of power. As labour costs in Asia rise, and as the electricity situation improves in Africa, the competitive edge that Asia has at the moment may reduce.”

Social Entrepreneur and Development Consultant, Ida Horner suggests

The biggest problem for African producers of Fashion is being able to produce on the same scale as the Chinese. Also, African fashion has no copyright laws so the Chinese simply copy and mass produce.”

Cost and infrastructure are the two challenges cited to explain this phenomenon. If African countries are having to import replica souvenirs from China for financial reasons then so will the rest of the world.  These reasons also explain the limited investment in manufacturing in Africa and why some companies choose not to import from the continent. The Ernst and Young Africa Attractiveness Survey released in May 2013 stated  ‘The two fundamental challenges that are present for those already present or those looking to invest in Africa are transport and logistics infrastructure and anti-bribery and corruption.’

Taxation, custom duties and the impact these have upon time- scales also present problems.

image3Establishing a chain of production, finding quantities to bulk buy, and the transportation and logistical costs are also factors which sway buyers towards the East. In reference to competitiveness, China has a factory based system, one which is yet to grow in Africa. Furthermore, its large scale and skilful workforce means that the Chinese can create large volumes of products at a low cost which aids the profits of those buying. The Chinese have also invested in developing highways and ports which make export a highly efficient process. In terms of product design, though a handmade set of earrings from Uganda may carry authentic value, it is far more lucrative for a company to order thousands of these in a standardised design from a factory in China.

It has long been said that Africa must turn from consumer to produce in order to recover the losses it has made in brain power, standards of living, life expectancy and economic success over the years. Now, however the continent risks losing its greatest asset; its culture, this perhaps is its greatest challenge and biggest opportunity.

While one hopes to see this change, the fashion world’s obsession with using careless terminology seems less likely to, and add to this the great love for cultural appropriation and the likelihood is we will continue to see many a fashion publications write things like this: ‘But for SS13 the ethnic trend doesn’t focus around one singular group or part of the world – such as Native Americans, the Far East, India, tribes etc. – so this is not a trend that will have you feeling like you are wearing a ‘costume’ or fancy dress’

Samira Sawlani is a UK based writer specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories set in Africa. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani

3 thoughts on “‘Exotic’, ‘Tribal’, ‘Ethnic’ fashion?

  1. Thank you Samira for your incredible expose on this subject. I had just been discussing this very concern with my mother. We are African American and we remember the authentic African wax prints of 40 years ago. At that time, we were serious pan Africanists and would never have chosen to wear anything but the real deal. My, how times have changed!


  2. I had really just started noticing this myself. I was looking for some fabric to make myself a skirt because i’m too cheap to buy. And all the fabric was from china. There are tons of stores now with african print clothes now but all i see on the labels is China or Vietnam or Taiwan. No African countries at all. As a result i haven’t bought anything. I’d rather save up and buy an expensive set of cloth one time that’s authentic than pay for a cultural knockoff.


  3. I find this topic very sad, so many clothing and shoe factories have closed in South Africa because goods are now made in China. My feeling is that this just increases the profit margin for the suppliers. The drop in quality related to this is very disheartening.


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