The first sign that fashion was about to take a trip to the wide blue horizon came long before the spring/summer 2014 shows; the exact moment came mid-way through Raf Simons’s autumn couture show for Christian Dior.
The Belgian designer broke with his New Look silhouettes and elegant Parisian day dresses to throw some highly intricate riffs on tribal costumes – a shiny sheath in orange, cobalt blue, red and black was worn with a wide tribal collar, while sheer tulle dresses in an intricate mix of checks and stripes echoed the traditional cloth worn by the Masai people of Africa.
It didn’t take long for the mood to take hold; Stella Tennant accompanied Simons to the Guggenheim’s International Gala last autumn draped in a patchwork of silks and prints with an African flavour. But before that the spring/summer collections were awash with sub-Saharan references; rich earthy colours, bold prints that seemed to reference the vibrant costumes of East Africa, as well as drapery that clearly owed a debt to the neat folds and pleats of ethnic costumes.
Quite how and why fashion moves to the same beat of the (tribal) drum bemuses editors and critics each and every season. But when influential and maverick designers including Raf Simons, Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and Phoebe Philo at Céline all take a trip at the same time, the force of the message is bound to reverberate across fashion at all levels. It was clear that all these designers had drawn on centuries-old ethnic costumes, even if none of them overtly acknowledged the reference. For Phoebe Philo it was ‘about a lot of power. Strength.’ She combined printed tops with an African feel with wrapped, pleated long skirts. Elsewhere she used vibrant prints in wide brush strokes for draped and layered looks and frayed printed scarves tied high up the neck.
Riccardo Tisci may have credited Madame Grès, the couturier famous for her exquisitely draped jersey and silk gowns, as the inspiration behind his spring/summer collection for Givenchy, but the show buzzed with African influence, from the ‘warrior masks’ painstakingly applied in crystal by Pat McGrath to the draped jersey dresses in an earthy palette of deep khaki, tobacco, terracotta and burnt orange and the perforated leather shawls.
‘The collection is a clash between two cultures, Japanese and African,’ explained Tisci. ‘I’ve been working with Madame Grès pleats and drapes and colours that remind me of Africa in a romantic way – but mixed with Japanese elegance and fragility.’ It may be an odd mix, but Tisci pulled off his culture clash with fluid dresses topped with leather harness straps. He even eschewed his usual sky-scraper heels in favour of flat, chunky strapped sandals.
For many designers, the African influence was interwoven with a nod towards modernist art of the early 20th century – an era in which African culture was inspiring artists and designers such as Picasso and Mondrian. ‘I didn’t want it to feel too referenced to a period or a theme,’ said Sarah Burton after her electrifying show for McQueen – but her themes, deftly interwoven, were clear: tribal costumes, graphic modernist art and, as always, plenty of knowing nods to the house heritage. Burton sculpted tribal breastplates from crocodile skin, built skirts in intricate cut-work geometrics and created amazing dresses with layers of vibrant feathers.
Into the wild
If many of the season’s African influences were a very modern mash-up then Moncler’s trip to the continent felt far more light and literal – leopard, giraffe, snake and leopard topped or trimmed with exotic feathers and contrasted with khaki separates and safari jackets. Alexander McQueen once suggested that his first port of call when it came to inspiration was the National Geographic and his incredible archive of collections rooted in myriad continents and cultures is a rich illustration of that. For spring, that spirit lives on, embraced by a new wave of forward-thinking designers.
But the culture clash never looked more wearable and real than when it was interpreted by fashion’s romantics. The pompom-trimmed tapestry-inspired tops at Dries Van Noten were reminiscent of North African Berber rugs. The exquisitely beautiful embroidered capes, coats and dresses that opened the stunning Valentino show had the same air of North African adventure. It’s the stuff of fashion dreams – and creative wanderlust come to life.