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?