Imitation or Appropriation? Stella McCartney’s Ankara Prints
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but recent developments in the fashion world have highlighted that this outlook can sometimes be a tad idealistic. Stella McCartney’s Spring 2018 collection sparked cries of outrage and disbelief as models took to the runway wearing Ankara prints - the traditional clothing of Africa, while the show’s program referred to the collection as "a joyful exploration of British style”.
Critics of McCartney’s new collection of African skirts and other pieces took to social media to voice their disdain at what is deemed cultural appropriation by the designer, made worse by the fact that none of the prints were featured on models of African descent. Three of the models who wore Ankara were Caucasian, the fourth was Asian. Throughout the entire show, only one black model was seen on the catwalk.
The Stella McCartney team has defended against the backlash, with a statement to fashion publication Fashionista from a PR executive saying: “The prints were about celebrating a unique textile craftsmanship, its culture and highlighting its heritage. We designed the prints in collaboration with Vlisco in the Netherlands, the company that has been creating unique Real Dutch Wax fabrics in Holland since 1846 and helps maintain its heritage."
Ankara was introduced into West Africa by Dutch traders in the mid-1800s and soon began to take on a life of its own. By the 1900s, Africa had embraced Ankara and started producing its own African-inspired versions, embellished with the colours and tribal patterns of the continent. Some would argue that the PR statement itself is a clear directive towards Ankara’s white Dutch roots, as if to whitewash the subsequent African significance of the cloth altogether. Does the statement justify the decision, or has McCartney’s interpretation of Ankara borrowed too much without giving credit where it is due?
The Problem of Fashion Colonialism
Stella McCartney’s foray into African fashion could be regarded as a tribute to the vibrancy of African culture; an homage to the distinctive patterns of the continent, and, as the designer herself put it: “a celebration of summer style”.
The glorious vibrancy of Ankara prints was originally taken and evolved by different African countries, its beautiful patterns reflecting the different tribes who adopted it. The vibrant colours are more than just decoration: in some prints, they are used as powerful messages that communicate your rank in society and the type of job you have, or family you belong to.
The term ‘fashion colonialism’ (not to be confused with the rising colonial fashion - that’s another story!) is a great way to describe how high-end designers readily get their inspiration from industries and cultures without acknowledging the part they have played in the creation and development - especially when those industries and cultures are non-white. To some, the message this sends is one of at best indifference, at worst hostility; McCartney has glamourised Ankara, adding a hefty price tag at the same time, without so much as a nod to its African heritage.
The issue has many layers, in that highly influential, commercial fashion designers are allowed to first plunder their ideas from long-standing non-white traditions and cultures, and second that they do so without feeling the need to even include people from that race in their runway shows.
Should Fashion Be for Everyone?
The backlash against Stella McCartney demands that the origins of Ankara be acknowledged rather than accredited entirely to the British design company; as one online critic succinctly put it: "We all know African prints are awesome & beautiful, appreciate them, but don't make it look like you just discovered them."
Giving credit where it’s due for creative ideas and traditions is of course a tricky business. No single person or even country is solely responsible for something as fluid and ever-changing as fashion, but Stella McCartney’s Ankara uproar is about more than just recognising creative ownership - it’s about a business operating as a colonial nation does. The collection absorbs a cultural identity, blanketing all of Ankara’s original significance, and churns out its own muted version that is designed only for aesthetic purposes.
Africa’s bloody history as the result of colonialism makes it particularly sensitive to issues like this. To some, it’s the modern-day embodiment of Joseph Conrad’s blunt interpretation of Africa: a culture that is full and complex becomes something that is thoroughly un-white, and therefore as something that must be tamed and ‘civilised’.
On a more positive note, Ankara is making waves on the runway, Beyoncé is flaunting her best African prints on Instagram and African fashion is turning heads among the top movers in the industry. The success of Ankara may well contribute to the eventual removal of racism and cultural appropriation entirely.
And, however you view it, Ankara is a celebration of the unique vibrancy of Africa and a symbol of an illustrious and many-layered culture that is just as important today as it ever was. In a world of fast fashion and a leaning towards reserved, mundane textiles, Ankara cuts a bold figure that trumpets colour, creativity and joy. With Ankara, you can express your unique personality, and enjoy a timeless and high-quality fabric that is breathable and gentle to skin - whatever its colour.
What Do You Think?
The fashion industry has often been criticized for racial misrepresentation, so is McCartney’s latest offering just another attempt to capitalize on ethnic traditions, or simply a celebration of a unique textile? Does McCartney’s statement justify their decision, or is the nod to Ankara’s Dutch roots simply a way to ‘whitewash’ this time-honoured fashion worn by so many native Africans? Or are you excited to see Ankara prints featured in such a public arena? The answers are from straightforward - we’ll leave it up to you to decide how you feel.
Is Stella McCartney’s collection flattering or insulting to African tradition? We’d love to hear your thoughts - share your views in the comments section below.
Authentic Ankara Fashion by Sika’a
Discover the universal beauty of authentic African fashion at Sika’a. We pride ourselves in producing African dresses and other garments of the highest quality garments that evoke both the beauty and power of the African continent. We are partnered with the marvellous people at Vlisco. These historical Dutch designers are experts in developing the most gorgeous and authentic Ankara prints on the market.