1 May 2011

Guest Post Prt 2: The Brilliance of Batik

Emerging from the wilderness years of adolescence I found expression in fashion – a hereditary gene passed on from my mother (my style icon). At first I experimented with bright colours and eccentric (by 1990s suburban Milton Keynes standard) styles; daring and bold; always accentuating my curvaceous figure. Despite encouragement from my mum I found the African batik she wore archaic, irrelevant and not appropriate for boggling (yes I went there) and the butterfly (down to the ground with my batty in the air – I long for that flexibility now) in the clubs – the traditional kaba and slit proved a tad too restrictive. Then the High Street started their cheaply made, unimpressive zebra print brand of ‘ethnic’ clothing and I was converted. I was 18 years old and still impressionable. In the high street’s denigration of African fashion, I found the ubiquitous mainstream acceptance of African design I needed to legitimise my burgeoning interest in African fabric. And so it began…..

I never did venture on to the high street, like every fashion conscious African on a budget I became adept at finding fabric (Woodin or when I’m loaded Vlisco) taking it to a seamstress, who barely takes my measurements (everything is done by eye and an unspoken commitment to return on several occasions for fittings/alternations) and instructing her through a series of photos, magazine cuttings and some handy free style drawing to create a Sex and the City inspired masterpiece – For no more than £50. I have a wonderful seamstress NOW, but I’ve been through a fare few (and have a wardrobe of dodgy dresses as a painful reminder) to get here. Not to sound like my mum ‘but it’s always the finishing that let’s them down’. Flashback to the dress that I couldn’t get over my head as the hole was made for a pre pubescent child. This was in Ghana where the seamstress had the cheek to proclaim her measurements had been correct; as I would have found out should I have risked hyperventilating and forcing the dress over my ‘enlarged’ head (yes she went there – Africans always do).  Other notable experiences include the zip which after one tug broke (at a party – the shame!), or one sleeve longer than another, or the inner lining (I left her to buy – mistake!) which was so cheap and nasty I broke out into a rash from it.


Slowly things are changing and African’s are taking charge of their own industry (no more shipping out of leather goods and beads by Europeans at the expense of the African craftsmen). Needless to say, the UK high street far outsells the likes of my seamstress, but several entrepreneurs like her are moving out of their backrooms and setting up shops and boutiques to showcase their creations - and their finishing has far surpassed even my mother’s expectations! Even in Ghana, the home of the quintessential seamstress industry, shops are being set up to attract wealthy Ghanaians and tourists alike to spend big money on quality tailored pieces. MANISE in Ghana (opposite Citizen Kofi – for those of you who will visit) is a casing point. I’ve bought two amazing pieces from there. The high waisted skirt you can see me in below is one of their trademark looks. In this photo my friend in the short green dress bought hers from SIKA in London, a wonderful company growing from strength to strength and regularly featured in Vogue. Sika is in the prime location of trendy boho Greenwich market and is regularly bursting at the seams (the store not the clothes) with middle class, wealthy women seeking a unique eye catching piece for a dinner party or gala.

 With accessible, well sewn classic designs, Sika has cornered the market. I haven’t ventured to buy one of her frocks yet, knowing the amount I’d pay any number of seamstresses in Ghana to produce the same thing, but for her target (non Ghanaian) audience she undercuts high street prices and gives her clients a statement piece. Sika has nailed it and for that I am proud!

Gone are the days of the bad finishing, now black tailors and seamstresses and I don’t just mean Oswald Boateng (although he’s quite the role model) are designing for the masses. Still injecting African essence in their designs through colour, patchwork and batik fabric, the modern Africa designer’s notion of fashion is taking the world by storm. 

Check out some of these great African owned fashion houses.


Portobello/ Camden/ Petticote Lane markets – There are always a ton of new designers showcasing their African inspired work in London’s markets.

Calamity Jane 


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