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?

Book File – New to My Bookshelf

I love books. My husband can attest that our bookshelves are overflowing. But this never stops me when I see a great new title.

I recently finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. So many friends recommended this novel to me, and it was a light-hearted, enjoyable read. The whole book is written through letters between the main character, Juliet, and her friends, family, and new acquaintances on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. The novel is about friendship, love, career, and literature. As a fashion historian, I was entertained that Juliet makes reference to clothing coupons used during and just after World War II for rationing purposes.

And on my last trip to Minneapolis, we stopped in two bookstores, prompting a few more purchases.

The first was a used bookstore, and I found the book Massive Change which accompanied an exhibition of the same name I saw at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2006. The exhibition changed both the way I thought of museum shows — that they could be catalysts for social and environmental change — and design — that it could address social, environmental, and other cultural needs. I’m so happy I scored this book.

The second book bought in Minneapolis was found in a independent bookstore. Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy is the catalogue of another exhibition with the same name. This exhibition was put together by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book is filled with gorgeous color photos of garments in the collection and on the runway, and is broken down thematically. I’m sure I’ll use it in my future research, especially when talking about the body and its presentation through fashion.