Not since the emergence of Bakelite have the possibilities of plastic been so refreshingly attractive. In 2011, second-hand plastic in Nairobi got a new lease on life; it had found its way into the workshops of Vivienne Westwood’s Gold Label Handbags.
The cities marginalized seamstresses were to benefit from a work-not-charity program. Westwood had been invited by the United Nations’ to participate in their Ethical Fashion Initiative in the East African nation of Kenya. And so it was that the Ethical African Fashion collection was born and would soon after make a grand splash at Florence’s renown Pitti Uomo.
Despite continued downturns in global economic markets, one corner of the fashion stratosphere was rather quite immune. No sooner had the collection of bags hit the shelves, were they promptly snapped up. Who knew that waste literally could with a dash of economic philanthropy transform into the designer recycled accessory du jour. After all this is not Freitag transforming truck tarpaulin into courier-inspired shoulder bags, it’s Vivienne.
While it’s not clear how much of these hand-made bags are constructed from re-purposed waste, nevertheless at a price point of $150 – $435 USD, maybe the combination of Vivienne, eco-chic and supporting disenfranchised Kenyans makes for a compelling story?
That she continues to this day to show irreverence to her own métier fashion, has endeared her to loyal fans throughout the years. The Africa Bag Collection is no exception. One such clutch bears the words “I love crap” printed in large type; the double-entendre genius.
However this is where the love for this outwardly fantastic collaboration began to wane; the campaign visuals gave me this sinking feeling of impending disappointment. They left me wondering had Westwood and collaborating beatnik photographer Juergen Teller inadvertently fallen into perilous waters?
Evidently whilst a new experience of plastic was indeed revealed, a relevant image of Africa clearly seemed as out of reach, as the riches of Timbuktu. The campaign images conjure the ghosts of an age when meaning was starkly black and white. A time when the black figure in advertising was something undeveloped, native, and other.
The logic of media communication in an age of image-saturation is different from that in an age of image scarcity. In today’s media it is harder to pin down exactly which underlying schemata are being recreated or broken, in turn making pre-war advertising appear transparent and simple to us now. But a transparent world made a black and white view of white-black relations possible.
It appears Westwood’s exploration of cause marketing has unwittingly applied two centuries of gradually expanding circles of black-white relations to her accompanying campaign, weaving the photos into the West’s rich tapestry of blacks portrayed in its media as servile, passive, illiterate or on the upside brainlessly jolly.
Media literacy, media logic, hybrid cultures, global configurations, stereotype recycling are brainteasers kvetching at the surface of any story about Africa. To creatively navigate the realm of contemporary Africa a story teller, like Teller or Westwood, need only set their gaze on the highly internationalized urban segments of the continent to avoid the implications of niggering in their work.
British literature has long been preoccupied with the experiences of gin and lime drinking British colonists in Africa. The classic scene of European exploration in Africa is the reduction of Africans to bystanders, extras in their own continent. A cosmic eye from another time might view this charade as a piquant detail of the 19th century. Yet Teller cavorts down an unsettlingly familiar trail, framing Westwood as the only activated figure amidst a gathering sea of non-media literate faces.
Whilst I thoroughly enjoy an acerbic G+T, it is ironic that a woman who portrays herself in Western media as otherworldly, fringe, obscure even, should unwittingly cast herself as the only relatable figure amongst a rabble of ‘others,’ advancing white hegemony while subtly nourishing the complacency and narcissism of the West.
Westwood’s cause marketing, a cockeyed evangelism, is a recent development associating advertising with capacity development or other benefits with the purchase of a product. In this case, buy one Gold Label bag and you’re not only helping the environment but the poor blacks in Africa too. One Teller image presents a black figure seemingly under the spell of the white hand reaching out to her.
Reminiscent of missionary work on the continent the photo presents an anonymous figure, shadowy at first, appearing at closer examination serene, eyes closed beneath jeweled black lace. The ‘anonymous’ white hand presenting the figure with a golden bracelet perhaps of ritual importance. Blessed saviour by kind white foreigner? The uncanny resemblance of gesture to a problematic Pears’ advertisement from the turn of the century makes it even more disturbing.
The campaign’s default position toward me as an African, is a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. The underlying message assumes that Kenyan’s wouldn’t know how to don her bags nor wear her clothes let alone aspire to. Kenyans may make her bags but they certainly can’t carry them. No possibilities of feelings more complex than pity, and certainly no prospect of connecting as equals.
Even if some of the images escape this quagmire, Teller’s lens and Westwoods’ complicity nevertheless give credence once more to an untenable narrative; a single story of a continent defined by poverty and calamity. This campaign goes a long way in describing the incongruities which continue to inhabit fashion editorials today; some image coding harmless while others however subtle, remain poisonous. The perpetuation of this message comes as no surprise, that it emanates from Dame Westwood though is the rude awakening.
I expected her to reveal a new Africa, as only she could. Instead I was bemused by a pastiche of the continent mined from Westwood’s Anglophile subconscious and the informalities of Teller’s typical technique, thrown together on a dusty African plain to sell something.
What if Westwood and Teller had made the effort to develop and expose the rich history of exchange between cultures that make up a composite image of Africa. Rather, Westwood bankrupts her aspirations by reducing the campaign to unhelpful designations such as Western and African. While these designations can be useful in understanding the source of inspiration they build an ever expanding cycle of stereotypes – generating futility in those outside of Africa, and disdain in those living in Africa.
The potent yet simple response to Westwood’s campaign from Africans and more specifically Kenyans I know is a derisive; ‘oh well, what do you expect from a Brit.’ And so the stereotype is recycled and projected back; Occidents become too dull-witted for any African to bare.
Westwood and Teller who have collaborated on numerous campaigns in the past, place their visual conceptualisation for this specific campaign in murky waters at best. The fashion editorial motif with regards to Africa has had it’s fair share of problematic clichés. After all the visual terrain of modern imagery taken in Africa does not have many shining moments, particularly so in the world of fashion. We can feel slightly elated that this campaign dodged the all too common safari or tribal situ’s. They did also make the effort to cast Nairobi-based models with the addition of Sonnietta Thomas and Elsie Njeri along with the renown Kenyan model Ajuma Nasenyana. However that is about all we can say is of any particular significance.
I remain confounded by the paradigm of hi-fashion shoots set in rather dire situations, the setting not only contrived but also rather ludicrous. The other being the grouping of models by race, perhaps inadvertently to meet a certain expectation of what the ethnological landscape of a place might be. How often do you see Adriana Lima and Gisele Bündchen dressed in Herve Leger, cling to your body like saran wrap one pieces set in one of Rio’s dodgiest favelas because the general public has watched too many films like City of God and only have that one paradigm to imagine Brazil by? Or for that matter placing Karlie Kloss adorned in Prabal Gurung to the nines and shooting her on some shady corner in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. It doesn’t happen. So why should it be the case in Nairobi or any other African metropolitan city for that matter and this gaffe continues to be perpetuated.
One need only look as far as last month’s French edition of L’Officiel and the editorial, ‘Town Chic’ to see African-American model, Chanel Iman dressed up in various ‘Ethnic’ flavoured get-ups shot with two other models of colour in some non-descript shanty town cum township environ. It is not often that we see this type of context even in real life, perhaps in days gone by, when royalty would descend on the plebes, this disparity in garb might have been the case. However in modern times even Lady Diana had the sense to dress appropriately casual during her international anti-land-mine campaign activities or more recently Hollywood starlet, Angelina Jolie’s work with UNICEF.
The point is there is some obvious disconnect, a kind of latency in the mind of fashions editorial elite who keep perpetuating this same not only banal but offensive, and more to the point, non-aspirational view on style and fashion. Aren’t these images supposed to be about inspiration but inadvertently aren’t they suggesting that in order to feel good about oneself, you need to elevate yourself above others? The last we checked, this was not what style was all about, and also flies in the face of what Vivienne has represented throughout her notoriously wonderful years as the enfant terrible.
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To read Vivianne Westwood’s blog, Our 1st Trip to Africa: Kenya.