Does ASOS Cross the “Tribal” Trend Line?

If you follow me on twitter, you may know that I get aggravated by the use of the word “tribal” in the fashion industry today. It’s a generic term mostly used to denote a style reminiscent of a nonWestern, nonwhite culture. It’s as if the fashion industry only knows that something is either Western or nonWestern, and anything nonWestern gets lumped together without distinction. It doesn’t seem to matter if a pattern is actually based on a specific ethnicity’s dress or textile traditions or something completely made up — the term “tribal” can be applied to almost anything it seems.

Unfortunately as “tribal” is a big trend right now, I’m seeing it everywhere, and getting worked up again and again.

Yesterday I was reminded by a friend that the online retailer ASOS has a line called “ASOS AFRICA.” On a first glance this made my blood pressure rise a little. Great, I thought, this retailer is perpetuating the notion that Africa is a homogenous continent with no diversity in culture. (No wonder I’ve come across people who think Africa is a single country.)

The description of the collection on ASOS’ website reads, “Go wild in ASOS Africa’s new collection of sporty dresses, pants, tops and jackets in acid-bright zebra, giraffe and rhino prints, mixed with traditional Kenyan patterns. The best bit? It’s produced in collaboration with SOKO Kenya, allowing underprivileged communities to establish sustainable business through local craftsmanship.”

This intrigued and confused me. If they are using traditional Kenyan patterns, why not call it “ASOS Kenya?” Africa is a multicultural continent. Marketing a collection as African obscures the true origin of some of the patterns and keeps alive homogenous stereotypes of Africa.

Then I dug a little into SOKO Kenya. It is a “clothing production workshop” in Kenya that creates garments for the international fashion industry and aims to improve the quality of life for its workers through training, employment, and social services. It appears to have exemplary goals to create sustainable economic solutions while producing fashion products in ethical and environmentally-aware methods.

I am very interested in SOKO’s work and plan to do more research into its practices and products, but on a first overview it seems like an organization I would support. I would really like it if ASOS would expand the information on its website about its work with SOKO. I almost always support more transparency so I know exactly what the product is I’m buying and what kind of company I’m supporting. And also so the consumers might actually learn a little about cultures other than their own.

But there is one more bone I have to pick. ASOS used two models to model the ASOS AFRICA collection and both of them are white with blonde hair. Why couldn’t ASOS make a little effort and hire at least one model of color to showcase a collection that purportedly derives its influence from Kenya?


  1. Terri says:

    I’m interested to learn more about SOKO. I only have ever done one sponsored post on my blog, for a very similar business Marketplace: House of India. When you try to research a company, it’s always a little frustrating to try to research how far they investigate their chain of production. And, grr, I hear Africa referred to as a country more often than you think I would in a college setting.

  2. Amanda says:

    Oh yes… the other day I saw this pretty swimsuit! and was like wow… they are describing it as “kaleidoscopic techno animal-patterned” , however it was “inspired” by the typical embroidery of the otomi ethnicity from Tenango de Doria in Mexico (see : ) and I was so shocked that they did not give any credit at all. I understand fashion gets inspiration from everywhere, but this is a craft passed on since times immemorial, and the fact that it was just omitted to be mentioned made me so so sad.

    By the way, great blog…I am fascinated about how you show us fashion as it is related to history, art, and human stories all intertwined.

    • jacqueline says:

      Good call on that bathing suit! It’s a shame that the influences get lost so easily in the merchandising side. It’s one of the reasons I get how people think that fashion is much more commercial than art. Artists and gallerists more often share where artistic influences came from as to better position themselves/the artist in the artistic cannon than fashion designers/fashion retailers do.

      And thank you. :)

  3. Karen says:

    I don’t even they they look “African” inspired. I find the same thing with the term “Asian.”

    • jacqueline says:

      I’ve never come across anyone who thinks Asia is a country, so you would think people would be better at identifying the specific culture in Asia that a garment was influenced by. But the blanket term “Asian” is just as misused.

  4. Giselle says:

    Agreed! The term ‘tribal’ seems to reach its peak every Summer when the trend is rejuvenated. If you are going to be inspired by a certain design, at least research it and SHARE it with the consumers. Fashion magazines should also do this and mention where and what the design is from instead of the copious ways to “copy the look”. Great post!

Speak Your Mind