Africa Fashion in the V&A review: succinct and commemorative

    (Fabrice Malard / Courtesy of Imane Ayissi)

(Fabrice Malard / Courtesy of Imane Ayissi)

The Victoria and Albert’s Africa Fashion exhibition is starter size and leaves you hungry for more.

The task of packing the splendor of tailoring from the world’s second-largest continent into the two-story space of Gallery 40 is impossible. Instead, this is succinct and celebratory, providing a brief history of Africa’s clothing trade from the era of independence, and ends in an ebullient who’s who of contemporary African designers today.

Curator Christine Checinska’s intention is to “involve you in the world of the African scene”. It’s a provocation to encourage “people to go out, find out more and get involved” – and in that she succeeded.

Models holding hands in Lagos, 2019 (Stephen Tayo/Courtesy Lagos Fashion Week)

Models holding hands in Lagos, 2019 (Stephen Tayo/Courtesy Lagos Fashion Week)

A 2019 electric pink raffia couture outfit by Imane Ayissi makes an energetic opening, before the basic foundations of modern fashion and the mainland textile scene are laid. It nods to the African Cultural Renaissance of the mid-to-late 1950s, analyzes the politics woven into traditional kente fabrics and indigo-dyed àdìrẹ fabrics, and presents the first wave of African designers who internationalized their production.

This includes examples of Shade Thomas Fahm, dubbed ‘Nigeria’s first fashion designer’, who studied at St Martins College London in the 1950s, and modernized African women’s dress with innovative designs like his Swinging Sixties mini dresses in traditional fabrics. For other pioneers of this period – including Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah and Alphadi – this marks a long-awaited debut showing their work in the city’s museums.

The V&A’s January 2022 call for the public to share personal artifacts means the photographs of 10 families are also proudly displayed, happily concluding a brief but informative first section.

But the pinnacle awaits on the Cutting Edge floor, where star looks from a variety of new African designers are lined up around the mezzanine. Specially commissioned mannequins have varying skin tones, with different hair styles and textures, and striking faces based on South Sudanese Adhel Bol, who modeled in many of the shows where these looks were first shown.

Mbeuk Idourrou Collection, Imane Ayissi, Paris 2019 (Fabrice Malard / Courtesy of Imane Ayissi)

Mbeuk Idourrou Collection, Imane Ayissi, Paris 2019 (Fabrice Malard / Courtesy of Imane Ayissi)

The elegant minimalist pleat by Rwandan brand Moshions changes to the pink lurex suits by South African Nao Serati. There are intricately constructed and powerful dresses by Ghanaian brand Christie Brown offset by the Afrofuturist vision of Senegal-founded Bull Doff. Get ready to leave with a list of emerging talent to remember.

The museum has acquired more than 70 new pieces to place this. Checinska confirms that it marks a first step in the encouraging direction that this institution should continue. “It’s laying the next layer of foundations for our collection,” she says. “Ultimately showing our commitment to celebrating African creativity in fashion and textiles.”

Africa Fashion opens at the V&A on July 2nd and runs until April 16th, 2020; vam.ac.uk

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