Have you seen Black Panther? We LOVED the costuming. The sleek, modern style of Shuri, the King's younger sister, shows where African-inspired fashion might go. The costuming of Nakia and the royal guard drew inspiration from traditional styles, while avoiding the stereotypical portrayal of Africa as primitive or impoverished. The success of Black Panther and the surge of interest in African fashion got us wondering: is it possible to buy african print fabric where the profits go to people in Africa, and why should we care?
Spoonflower is a hub for sewists and DIYers looking for unique fabric designs from independent artists, but in a recent African fabric design challenge, not a single designer of the top 25 contestants hailed from Africa or appeared to be Black. Two large suppliers of African prints produce fabrics in Ghana: Woodin and Akosombo Textiles Limited (ATL). Unfortunately they are both subsidiaries of European companies, Holland’s Vlisco and Britain’s ABC Textiles. We know that multinational corporations drain the economic vitality of a country, sending local dollars overseas, that’s why we always encourage Americans to buy goods made in America!
But there is a secondary consideration here, an exemption to our buy local creed. While only specific prints can be protected legally under international copyright law, the manufacture and sale of African-style prints by Europeans is the theft of intellectual property in a moral sense, even if not a legal one. The creation and sale of prints with an African aesthetic by people without cultural or financial roots in Africa reduces the ability of African textile makers to compete in the global marketplace. A majority of what we donate to thrift stores like Goodwill or Salvation Army is shipped to Africa and sold there, and it has been difficult to establish an apparel design and manufacturing sector in a market already flooded with cheap cast-offs. Increased demand for African textiles could deliver a much-needed boost to the economy if consumers are mindful about their purchases. While the people living today are not to blame for colonialism and slavery, or the lasting benefits and disadvantages that it conferred, we as a global community have yet to address the resulting inequalities.
Though we support the fair exchange of ideas and design around the globe, profiting from a heavily and continually exploited culture, whether done by a small business or a large corporation, continues a pattern of benefits accruing to those at the top of the economic ladder, there only by birth and happenstance. Makers, if you want to create a beautiful African-inspired design, give the proceeds to an organization that promotes education and economic growth in the region that inspired you. Consumers, buy an authentic print from an African company like Printex Ghana, one of the few African owned and produced traditional textile manufacturers. Like T’Challa and the people of Wakanda, we need to recognize our duty to help those who aren’t sitting on a mountain of vibranium/the cumulative effects of colonialism.