February is Black History Month … a month during which the contributions of Americans of African descent are celebrated as well as a month during which African-influenced fashions take center stage.
When it comes to African clothing, the first things that may come to mind are the dashiki, the West African tunic that became one of the staples of 1960s/early 1970s fashion; Nigerian Yoruba ensembles — consisting of the iro (wraparound skirt), buba (blouse) gele (head tie or headdress) and iborun (shawl) for women; sokoto (trousers) and agbada (robe) for men — and Ghana’s famous kente cloth with its eye-catching, multicolored geometric patterns.
For those who want to celebrate Black History Month with a nod to the Motherland, the choices are more numerous and, well, more fashionable than ever. Nowadays, African fashion manifests in not only the traditional sense, but hip, youthful, 21st-century pieces, usually body-conscious fare that incorporates Western styles. It’s no surprise, then, that retailers such as Empress Cyncha, a seasonal vendor at Little Rock’s River Market, have noticed that those ages 18-30 “are interested in the African attire more so than the people [who are] older.”
Most notable in African fashions that have become sought after in America are the modern ankara pieces. Ankara, also known as African wax print or Dutch wax print, is a fabric whose origin dates back to 19th-century Netherlands and its colonization of Indonesia. The fabric, with its colorful, tribal-like patterns and motifs, became popular in Africa. Although the fabric is not new, ankara style has exploded in recent years in the form of maxi skirts as well as dresses in African and Western styles and in day dresses as well as evening gowns. These pieces are often stunning, as a quick look at those offered at online mall Etsy.com will show; prices are reasonable, starting at less than $100.
Ankara dresses and skirts are plentiful at Desirene Afrik, a boutique in the Midtown Center, 5919 H St. (not Midtowne Little Rock shopping center, but in a small strip mall behind Forest Heights School). Irene Mangan Chedjieu, who operates the store, says these garments have been quite popular with her customers. Her current inventory of dresses goes for $100-$120; tops and skirts, $60-$65. It’s the elegance that distinguishes this clothing, says Chedjieu, whose inventory included a chic brown/yellow/turquoise cutaway high-low skirt that could be worn over a matching pencil skirt.
Brenda Mitchell, who offers African fashions, church attire and other unique clothing and accessories at J. Mitchell’s Hair & Boutique, 1216 S. University Ave., sells the majority of her ankara skirts in the summer. But she also sees a lot of interest in February from customers attending Black History Month programs. “People seem to want more to wear a one-piece instead of a whole ensemble of African … so they’ll want a skirt or a top or a head wrap or something,” she says, adding that most of her skirts come with matching head wraps.
Melanie Lacy, who offers African fashions from various vendors at Harambee Market, 2114 Main St. in North Little Rock, notes that “every February is a pretty good month for me.” Lacy, a teacher, operates Harambee from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays and opens on weekdays during the summer.
“Last year I really was embraced by a lot of the church community. … The choirs usually dress in African attire for black history programs. So I was getting a lot of elders that were coming in and wanting just something simple.” She, too, gets more people looking for accent pieces than entire outfits. One of her biggest sellers is a handmade, rectangular head wrap ($15), which customers also place over their shoulders and wear as a fashion accessory. Customers also seek out ankara skirts, which average $55 and up; earrings, $12 and up; and dresses, $40-$75.
By the way, according to these retailers, those dashikis are still in demand. The dashiki pattern has now been co-opted into other items — dresses, skirts, pantsuits — and, for those who need a little give, even in stretchable fabric.
I’m always up for the best ways to look as “smooth” as possible underneath outer garments, especially if the shapers used can do so without cutting off my circulation. One of the better brands out there offering such garments is Shapeez, a brainchild of Unbelievabra creator Staci Berner. Shapeez has become a multimillion-dollar company since that product was introduced in the mid-00s. Products include the Shortee ($79), a modern version of the “long line” bra, with the benefit of a microfiber makeup and the ability to smooth out those unlovely back rolls. Rated five stars by 95 percent of online reviewers, the bra is designed to do away with back bulges and visible bra lines, with a waist-length back for smoothing. I tried a Shortee sample sent through the company publicist; as advertised I found it to be comfortable and supportive. I can’t say it eliminated my back rolls — but it certainly minimized them.
Other Shapeez products range in price from $79-112; sizes go from extra-small to 1X, cup sizes AA to DDD. Currently, no Arkansas outlets carry Shapeez, but here’s hoping that will change. Visit Shapeez.com.
Arkansas Fashion School, 3625 Kavanaugh Blvd. in Little Rock, is hosting another free Tailoring Workshop, this time on Friday. Sessions will be from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-8 p.m. Students of all skill levels, age 13 and older, are welcome, but slots are limited. For more information, call Jamileh Kamran at (501) 663-3242, or visit ArkansasFashionSchool.com.
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High Profile on 02/11/2018