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The Emergence of Tribal African Print in Mainstream Fashion

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Bryant chapter.


Tribal prints have become a prominent trend on catwalks as well as in mainstream retail stores such as Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe. This past week, I saw a handful of girls during Bryant’s Spring Weekend wearing tribal print skirts, shirts, and sandals. One of my suitemates wore a cute skirt to the Big Sean concert which resembled a Woodin (a prominent fabric boutique in Ghana) fabric. I was ecstatic when I saw the skirt on her because it looked like a Woodin skirt you would see people wearing in my hometown of Ghana. However, my suitemate did not comprehend my excitement because to her it was just a skirt. To me, that ‘tribal print’ skirt was a representation of my African heritage, but admirers of this trend are not aware of its origin.

Gucci, Versace, Michael Kors, Marchesa, and Roberto Cavalli are few of the high fashion designers who have featured ‘tribal’ prints on their catwalks. As a native African, you would think I would be extremely happy that African fashion is finally getting the spotlight on catwalks all over the world. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that African inspired fashion is crossing over to mainstream fashion. However, knowledge of the distinct origins of these prints and the effect it’s proliferation in the fashion world has on up and coming African designers is essentially nonexistent.

The terms ‘tribal’ and ‘exotic’ are often used to describe African-inspired clothes. Furthermore, Africa is often referred to as a country. Africa is a continent, not a country. When designers get inspiration from Italian or French fashion it is not referred to as ‘European’ inspired fashion.  

So why is it that ‘tribal’ prints are merely referred to as African?

 Are the prints reminiscent of Kente, Ghanaian Adinkra symbols, aso oke, or Nigerian lace? Different countries in Africa have different traditional clothes. Even in the relatively small country of Ghana, different tribes wear different styles and prints. A Ghanaian Northerner does not wear a Kaba and Slit which I would wear as an Ashanti woman.  Rarely do designers ever mention which countries they get their inspiration from. As a result of this, by the time these prints make their way into huge retailers like Forever 21 or Charlotte Russe, they lose their identity and become referred to as ‘tribal.’

African fashion designers could give their ‘tribal’ and ‘exotic’ prints the recognition they deserve, but this is easier said than done. Big fashion houses usually don’t give African designers the recognition they deserve. In the fashion world, it is okay to view a designer’s work and duplicate all in the name of ‘inspiration.’ In essence, African designers like Kayda Afriyie, head designer and owner of Knaf Couture Ghana, are forced to compete with these big fashion houses for recognition. Trends are usually derived from the catwalks of prominent designers. The popularity of the trend often depends on which celebrities are photographed wearing it. These trends are then made affordable to the general public by huge retailers. After a couple of seasons, the ‘tribal’ trend will fade away and be forgotten along with authentic African designers.

In recent years prominent designers like Vivienne Westwood have teamed up with African designers to create Ethical African fashion. Perhaps if more prominent designers team up with African designers, their clothes could end up in stores like Forever 21. Until then, all I can do is hope that the ‘tribal’ trend does not fade out like most trends.  

Photo Sources:

Tribal Skirts: Forever21
Blake Lively in Marchesa: Shadders 
Yellow Sheath Dress: Knaf Couture

Makena is a senior at Bryant University, studying International Business, Marketing and Spanish. In addition to co-founding Her Campus at Bryant, Makena is a published author, a peer mentor for Academic Programs International, works as a research assistant on campus, and is over-involved in general (and loving it). When she isn’t running frantically between classes, work and meetings, Makena enjoys travel, good Tex-Mex and getting lost in a great book.