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    The bold beauty of African-designed fashions

    When I stepped into the fashion exhibit room, I was just as struck by the textures and colors as I had been a few moments before by photos of the ancient pages of the manuscripts of Timbuktu.

    Granted, the two exhibits were nothing alike, but both were representative of the history of a continent that much too often is depicted as troublesome and aimless.

    That image is shattered by the African-designed garments on display at the Creative Africa exhibit in the Perelman Building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Creative Africa highlights all that is good about Africa and its peoples, and includes artifacts from the Penn Museum, photography, textiles and architecture.

    The fashion exhibit will continue until Jan. 22, 2017. Others end at various times.

    africa fashions

    Fashions on display at the Creative Africa exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pepita Djoffon of Benin designed the dress at left and Josephine Memel of the Ivory Coast at right.

    The beautiful fabric of the garments was not made in Africa but most were designed there. The fabric was manufactured in a small Dutch town by a company called Vlisco, which according to the description cards, loaned most of the dresses, along with samples of wax print fabric hanging on walls inside the exhibit room. Vlisco makes luxury wax-print textiles that seemingly is the fabric of choice in West and Central Africa. There are home-grown textile makers and producers in Africa, with most in Nigeria.

    The company was founded in 1846 to make Indonesian batik. The fabric found its way to Africa and the company built itself on designing textiles for the African market. Some have questioned its authenticity but its supporters are the women who love the fabric.

    Vilsco has its own in-house designers, who were represented in the exhibit alongside African designers who work with the company.

    african fashions

    A wedding dress by Inge van Lierope of textile-maker Vlisco.

    One of the most amazing dresses was a wedding gown – its skirt heavy with fabric but very much unlike the white wedding gowns you’d see on  most American brides. No lace or satin or chiffon here. The fabric was a mix of colors with the same cornucopia motif and a trail that looked and flowed like a queen’s robe.

    The strapless gown was designed by Vlisco fashion designer Inge van Lierop and was embellished with beads, including a veil that was embroidered in India to match the fabric. The dress was accompanied by a suggested bridesmaid’s dress whose design was first made in 1922 by the Dutch Haarlem Cotton Company.

    The most famous outfit was perhaps a turquoise dress designed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden. She picked up the custom-designed dress in July 2014 while on a weeklong trip to Africa, visiting Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone. The trip was aimed at empowering African women.

    african fashions

    A dress custom-made for Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, in the exhibit (left) and her wearing it at a state dinner. It was designed by Ruhimbasa Nyenyezi Seraphine of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Biden photo: Official White House photo by David Lienemann.

    She stopped by the shop of Madame Monique Gieskes, a group director for Vlisco who operates the company’s flagship store in the nation’s capital of Kinshasa. A month later, Biden wore the dress at a White House dinner during the U.S.-Africa Leaders summit.

    Biden loaned the dress to the museum for the exhibit. The description card noted that the dress was designed by a company called Sera Perfection, founded by Ruhimbasa Nyenyezi Seraphine, one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s fashion pioneers. She started out making clothes in her home in Kinshasa with two sewing machines in 1981, the card noted, and four years later moved into a workshop. She registered her company as Sera Perfection in 1994.

    Here are other fashions in the exhibit:


    african fashions

    A possible bridesmaid dress made by Inge van Lierop of Vlisco to accompany a wedding dress in the exhibit.


    african fashions

    I loved the frilly yellow back of this dress.


    african fashions

    Dress by Deshalvyse Diffusion, founded by Leonie Amangoua. The Ivory Coast fashion house specializes in la decoupe, as seen in the leaves cutouts.


    African fashions

    Some favorite motifs: jumping horse pattern on a dress by Ejiro Amos Tafiri (left); chickens in a pattern called The Family on a dress and skeins of yarn on the coat by Inge van Lierop (center), and high-heeled shoes, also by Lierop.


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