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February 23, 2019

There is so much happening in African fashion

A dress isn’t like, say, the US healthcare legislation, or the French presidential elections, or the Kenyan courts deciding that the IEBC can’t ‘verify’ vote tallies from polling stations. Yes, fashion journalism is a serious undertaking, but a dress isn’t, generally, a crucial news item. You could argue that a story about a dress does not really matter. And then there’s the whole single story issue: a single story will never tell you the whole story.

But it still stopped me for a second when this turned up in my news feed: the New York Times’ Style Magazine recently had an article about two US American expats (or should that be immigrants?) in Kenya who had teamed up to start a company that produces a dress. Only one dress – that is the concept. It is an A line cut with long sleeves, buttoned at the front. And it is made from African fabrics (which are really mostly Dutch produced, and originated in Indonesia, but that’s a story for another day). Because those fabrics are usually done in limited print runs, and sold in even smaller quantities, the dress basically comes in one cut, but in lots of different colours and patterns. If just one dress is enough to keep their brand, Zuri, going remains to be seen. So far, the dress is sold via pop-ups and a website.

So what’s my issue? Not the dress. It looks cute, if a bit tenty, and I love African fabrics and have a small collection of fun ones, including two patterns with a fantastic laptop print. What made me roll my eyes a bit is that there is so much happening in African fashion. This is no longer Maasai market kaftan things we’re talking about. I would blow my word limit for this column if I just talked about the jewelry and handbag designers here in Kenya that I like, and that’s even before looking at clothes, or anyone in the fashion industry outside of Kenya. There is still limited industrial fashion production, and a lot of people making interesting things still struggle with producing at scale, and selling beyond their city. But there is a lot of momentum, which I find very exciting. So this is not about the Zuri ladies, long may they make dresses. It is the Nicholas Kristof Principle: Does a story have to have 'wazungu' in it to be interesting? This is a single story, so it doesn’t tell you much about fashion from Kenya, and that was probably never the intention. So it is not wrong – but maybe just not enough?

The writer is an independent analyst

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