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Ubuntu International Project: redefining African fashion?

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In this world, there are two kinds of people: those who see how far we’ve come and those who are fixated by how far we still have to travel.

At the Ubuntu International Project showcase at Vauxhall Fashion Scout,  I was unfortunately one of the latter. The show got off to a turbulent start, running close to an hour late and then frustrations growing as people jostled for seats. By the time the lights came down and Nelson Mandela’s voice rang out, defining the ‘ubuntu’ concept: “I am what I am because of who we all are,” my expectations were high but my patience was low.

The show got off to a good start with Clinton Lotter‘s collection of dogtooth shift dresses, fitted jackets, pencil skirts and finger gloves in black and forest greens. Fashion for sinister ladies-who-lunch. But soon I was more bemused than blown away. Jewellery by Frankli Wild was by turn both fascinating and – from the third row – somewhat reminiscent of a crafts project: all golf balls, copper wire and brightly coloured stones. By the end, I concluded that the show would have probably been be better appreciated with my eyes closed as I couldn’t fault the music but had no shortage of criticique for the designs.

Some 24 hours and a whole lot of discussion later, I’ve started to wonder if I did not judge the show too harshly.

No, this was not fashion that pushed technical and creative boundaries, nor was I enamored with the styling or the organisation of the show, but what Ubuntu at London Fashion Week was, was an opening for African designers unto the world. Conversely, it also offered a new lens through which Africa can be looked at – and neither of these things should easily be derided.

For a continent so often define by negative stereotypes and its contribution to any art form – not least fashion – trivialised, if at all acknowledged, what Errol Hendrickse and Theo Omambala, the team behind Ubuntu, achieved was to create a space for African creativity at the heart of arguable the most creative show on the fashion calendar.

Besides, the fashion wasn’t all bad. For me, the stand out collection was by Jose Hendo, for the Ugandan designer’s innovative use of fabric – including barkcloth – the complex tailoring and the drama of each creation. I was also pleased to see a little playfulness from the designers behind Ayo van Elmar who stuck lit incense sticks into the kufi hats the models wore. With a nod to Katherine Hamnett’s use of the catwalk to raise awareness for political, economic or social issues, Jacqueline Shaw clad her models in t-shirts with slogans such as: “African grown and sewn,” highlighting the need for investment in Africa’s textile supply chain.

If the philosophy at the heart of the show, as stated by Hendrickse, is to create “a design aesthetic that has depth and meaning,” then these collections achieved that. And from all the raised phones, cameras and iPads clicking away incessantly, from the necks contorting to get a better glimpse of the garments and the excited whispers as each look came down the catwalk, there was no shortage of inspiration for many.

So, now I see how far we’ve come. The Ubuntu team are not intrepidly dipping their toe into fashion waters somewhere on the periphery of where the trend-makers are. They are boldly thrusting themselves and African designers into the mainstream fashion spotlight and are daring to challenge and redefine what the African aesthetic is at the same time.

All gripes aside, for this, they deserve to be congratulated.

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