After 20 incredible years on the isle of Manhattan, I am officially an American in Paris. I’ve traveled the world and been to Paris many times before, yet in living here, my eyes have opened to many nuances and cultural codes not visible to a visitors eye. Paris is more than the city of lights and fashion, it is a city of extreme beauty. Art History and design knowledge are deeply embedded in French culture. The french and their precious “objets” at first seemed excessively trivial after the gritty hustle of New York even for a design lover, but with time, has come to respect the fervent protection of all things belle et beau.
As to be expected as an etranger, life in a new country has brought many surprises, mind-boggling shocks and also some great pleasures. Paris being synonymous with all that is chic, chic, chic, I actually found visually most Parisienne style is cookie cutter cold.
On the contrary one of the most pleasing aspects is the breadth of influence that African cultures bring to fashion here. There is a large population, particularly of North and West Africans in Paris. Early on I became acutely aware just how far the extent of insular life these communities keep, even those that have been here for generations. It simply must be said, that even with France’s proximity to Africa and that most African countries are francophone, Paris is light years behind the open mindedness of New York. The upside to this element is the beautifully guarded cultural traditions, most visibly the mode of dress, which undoubtedly delivers a wealth of style and richness to the parisienne landscape and most certainly to the designers the helm of the top fashion houses.
These communities deliver an unmatched visual power and it is a feast for an aesthete’s eye. Elegant,exhilarating and sublime are the ranges of colorful prints and magnificently woven textiles seen around and about. Barbes in the 10th arrondissement is home to an established West African community. In this neighborhood, jeans and tshirts are few and far between and instead replaced by women are wearing their wonderful wrapper sets.
Designers and fashion houses have long borrowed inspiration from the various textiles of Africa. Its a huge subject, so Wikipedia is always a good starting point if you want to conquer this material, no pun intended.
Yves Saint Laurent, Algerian born, was a truly a pioneer in the sense that besides giving women the power to wear pants, he also placed African beauty and design on a pedestal and opened the doors for its deserved entry into the high fashion world. He truly captured the essence and refinement that African cultures bring to Paris. Below is a stunning manteau from the 1967 “African Collection”, influenced by the tribal garments and primitive arts.
As you can imagine, this collection was beyond revolutionary at time in bourgeois Paris, before the famous protests of “Mai 68” in which at its core, were the youth and middle class fighting against the elite ruling establishment.
Yet, as everything Yves did, it was radical yet supremely sophisticated. The Foundation Pierre Berge-Yves Saint Laurent has a beautiful and concise history on the most defining collections.
While traditional African costume and culture has always greatly influenced the fashion universe, over the past decade there has been a noticeable rise in the influence these textile and prints in runway, street fashion, mass market clothing chains and smaller design houses.
Dries Van Noten and Duro Olowu are great examples of current designers who have directly borrowed uncomplicated elegance of these patterns and shapes and delivered a very smart and modern interpretation.
My preferred aesthetic sustenance is street style, as I find this is where true creativity and ingenuity is on display. There are a plethora of blogs and sites dedicated solely to the African street style and the influence of Africa on street style. Its always a delight for the eyes to see people put themselves together in a unique and interesting way. One of my favorite sites is that of stylist Louis Phillippe DeGagoue. His personal style is compelling, poetic and inspiring. It is in the superb quality of uniqueness, intelligence and spirit of individuality with which he deftly mixes the influences of traditional African garments.
It will be interesting to see how African textiles and their influence evolve into a ever-melding globalized world of fashion. How street fashion interprets them and how they are combined with the textiles and garments of other cultures. This was in fact the concept behind Raf Simmons latest couture collection for Dior. As technology melds cultures together, a fantastic hybrid of influences is undoubtedly the future of fashion, and African textiles are certain to be one of the driving and directional forces.
Written by Nicole Houri