The past few years have seen the emergence and rising profile of African designers, fashonistas and even solely African influenced fashion shows within the Western world. One such example of this is the highly successful Africa Fashion Week in London (Started in 2011) that has enabled those who are African and inspired by African culture, to showcase their designs to a rapt audience of various cultures and backgrounds. It has been a refreshing platform and contrast to the homogenising Western ideals of fashion and style we are bombarded with every day. Furthermore, there has been a surge in blogs, Youtubers, etc, catering to Africa origin style and fashion, contributing to a growing sense of vocal pride in showing off African origin culture and style. Perhaps it is this determined and visible passion for our history and culture that has attracted Western designers in Louis Vuitton and Céline to select “Ghana Must Go” bags as a focal point for their collections (although this has not been explicitly cited as the source by either brand).
Personally when I first heard about the Céline Fall 2013 collection featuring clothes with designs based on the designs of the GMG bags, I was concerned. Furthermore after looking up images of the designs, I was appalled. I know high fashion can be a bit whacky and that half the clothes models wear on catwalks no-one would ever wear in real life, but these designs were abominations. The actual bags themselves have more colour coordination, cohesion, and beauty in them than these designs. I’d rather poke three holes in a bag (one for the head, two for my arms), wear it upside down like a dress, and go outside than wear any of those designs.
The existence of the collection just brings up so many issues for West Africans in particular. GMG bags are iconic bags of mockery to Nigerians and Ghanaians. When Ghanaians who originally fled Nigeria due to political unrest were expelled from Nigeria due to rising tensions between the two governments, Ghanaians were sent packing in these bags. There was a serious stigma attached to owning these bags. Most recently, that stigma has been watered down, but the bags are still a source of mockery and derision when brought out and used. Even in other cultures where they are used, they are seen as the ultimate dispossessed peoples accessory. Moreover, one wonders if Louis Vuitton or Céline designers knew of these contexts behind the bags, and if so, why did they decide that made them a fantastic inspiration for a fashion collection? It smacks a little bit of Western romanticism of other cultures with no regard for the true history or background of things. It could even be said there was a hint of arrogance in assuming that such a collection would be welcomed and hailed as innovative. Personally as an African, I could never wear those items of clothing (putting aside the fact that they are hideous), as it would make me a laughing stock. Which again raises the question of who were these clothes being made for? Certainly not any African. Certainly not anyone who has had to move about like a refugee from place to place. I’d be interested to hear from any African, particularly Nigerian and Ghanaian, who would wear these clothes.
Some people may say ‘It’s not that deep’, and perhaps it isn’t as the Céline collection does not in anyway shape of form even allude to the fact that the inspiration behind these designs are the GMG bags or dispossession. But most Africans who saw them would recognise instantly where those designs came from. Just because a piece of clothing or bag has “Céline” on the label and is called “check” or “jacquard check”, will not change that fact. So potentially what we have here is not only the appropriation of what is pretty much an world-renown inner-continental joke among Africans as a whole, by Western fashion, but also the apparent and perhaps clever omission in the official fashion press of this fact and the iconic bag that inspired those designs. As if denying its associations makes these “prints” something new, fashionable, and finally acceptable to the world as dictated by the gods of Western fashion and style.
Ergo “Ghana Must Go” bags now become “check” and “jacquard check”, and what were once and still are a joke on the Earth’s biggest continent, are now acceptable patterns of Western high fashion and style. And yes, some may argue that it’s not fair to infer that these designers are essentially pilfering aspects of African culture, remixing it and presenting it as innovative thought without acknowledging the source – it’s your opinion, you’re entitled to it, but I’m afraid I don’t agree.
It would appear that even in the midst of greater exposure, more platforms, and more freedom in which to share our creations, in order to reach those stratospheric levels of recognition, African origin style and fashion is still subject to a Western seal of approval.
Writer: Tols M