“Africa Calling: Plumes and Prints” from The New York Times

Enduring Afrochic! I am investigating the historical origins of the fashion trend that had powerful currency throughout the 20th century. And it seems that “exotic” Africa will continue to inspire in the 21st century. Love and Theft! Love and Theft!

Africa Calling: Plumes and Prints 

Louis Vuitton, by Marc Jacobs, spring/summer 2014, in Paris.
October 2, 2013 

PARIS — The news of the departure of Marc Jacobs from Louis Vuitton overshadowed the final day of the Paris summer 2014 collections. But people in the audience were reminded of the designer’s exceptional skill at creating great fashion moments by this presentation, all in black, of showgirl clothes.

The models, with their giant Folies Bergère feather headdresses and jet-embroidered chiffon, looked dramatic. But they gave the impression that the party performance was over, not least because bluejeans were often worn under the finery as if the dancers were making their way home.

The clock ticking at the back of the show space might have been rolled back 16 years to the first, minimalist collection shown by Mr. Jacobs, who has since followed that up with extraordinary theatrical flair. The real huff-puff vintage train that ran through the autumn 2012 show, its models descending to show their clothes, was probably the high point of the excess of the designer and his cherished brand.

The Vuitton bags with which Mr. Jacobs has created such an exceptional fashion story were only a small part of this latest show. The headdresses, in collaboration with the couture milliner Stephen Jones, were only commissioned last weekend — wild and fantastical handcrafted accessories to match the intense beading and embroidery that were the designer’s last hurrah.

Alexander McQueen, by Sarah Burton, spring/summer 2014, in Paris.


Significantly, those plumes spoke of craft and of African headdresses, two strong themes of the season.

Power women, graphic patterns, fringing, feathers and the echo of Africa — the Alexander McQueen show was so dazzlingly “on message” that it could be seen as a template for the summer 2014 season, which ended on Wednesday.

The models in their metal warrior helmets marched over the checkerboard floor, thrusting forward in leather harnesses with breast plates. Dense beading met up with peplums of plumes, making the message clear: tribal.

But not for Sarah Burton, the designer, who said backstage that she had been looking at portraits of women in the 1920s, hence the (metallic) cloche hats. She also had scouted the Cubist and Modernist paintings of that era from Piet Mondrian to Pablo Picasso as inspiration.

Hermès, by Christophe Lemaire, spring/summer 2014, in Paris.


But Ms. Burton’s designs were much more than an elaboration of a graphic concept.

“Empowering women,” the designer said backstage, defining the intellectual thread that united art with Africa.

The tom-tom beat began as the Cubist squares morphed into African patterns and beading, which united the two big “F’s” of the season: feathers and fringe.

But Ms. Burton used them not for decoration but instead as a complex meld of ethnic handcraft that is another important trend. At McQueen, the work was intense and beautiful in a noble way.

Hermès wrapped up the Paris season and the five-week international season with a “green” show in the Orangerie in the Luxembourg Gardens, where the designer Christophe Lemaire seemed to have drawn inspiration that was perfectly adapted to the brand’s “slow” fashion.

In fact, his kickoff point was the tropical paintings of Henri Rousseau, the primitive painter of naïve nature. At Hermès, the exuberant lushness of the floral patterns had the spirit of the famous scarves let out of their frames.

The brand’s speciality lies in the quality of the fabrics — lambskin, nubuck and crocodile, all made into calf-length wrap skirts. Even simpler materials, like cotton, linen and silk crepe, had a richness about them, although they were the absolute opposite of showy.

To prove that Mr. Lemaire was on message for the season, there was subtle craft work. The most exceptional was a plain, papaya-colored blouse worn with a neutral but tactile skirt. With its fabric applications and saturated purple and blue colors, it looked like the most stylish of this season’s ethnic outreach.

After making Africa a focus of her Milan show, Miuccia Prada was on a different tack at Miu Miu, gathering a front-row lineup of young women, including Michelle Dockery, otherwise known as Lady Mary from “Downton Abbey,” who came out saying: “I want the coats! All of them.

There were a lot to choose from. Ms. Prada, still with the band of colored Prada feathers in her hair, called the show “classics of different genes.” That meant a whole lot of tailored coats, in sweet colors, slightly 1960s in cut and with cute images of cats, birds and fish. The coats were worn with thick, woolly hose, awkward stilt-heel shoes and sometimes with silken or beaded fringed skirts.

The thickness of knits and a focus on outerwear made Miu Miu seem more for winter than summer. But this line is always a little contrary and can be guaranteed to produce a hot item of the season when the clothes hit the stores.

With skateboarders racing by lush green trees, the models in feathery rah-rah skirts or wearing snake, python and leopard prints, the Moncler Gamme Rouge show was a rumble through the jungle. The designer Giambattista Valli said that after a month of shows, he wanted people to have fun. But he was also spot-on to the African trend of the moment and incorporated it into everything from zebra-print dresses to checked puffy sleeping bags.

Drapes and pleats are à la mode, which means that the fashion world is catching up with the spirit of Madeleine Vionnet. And so is the owner and designer Goga Ashkenazi, whose show this season seemed more credible with its triangular constructions on stage and geometric cutouts in the clothes.

The introduction of crisp blue cotton, as if from men’s shirts, gave a fresh feel to the pleated and draped codes of the house. So did flat sandals and the draped dresses in yellow and blue, bringing Vionnet down from its couture pedestal and into the daylight.

Author: Camara Dia Holloway

I am an art historian specializing in early twentieth century American art with particular focus on the history of photography, race and representation, and transatlantic modernist networks. I earned my PhD at Yale University in the History of Art Department. Besides my leadership role as the Founding Co-Director of the Association for Critical Race Art History (ACRAH), I am recognized for my expertise on African American Art, particularly African American Photography, and as a seasoned consultant for exhibitions, museum collections, and symposia/lectures planning.

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