Art is Freedom
Described as one of the finest designers on the African fashion scene, Beatrice Arthur, of Ghanaian and Russian heritage, is the founder of B’EXOTIO. Known to many as Bee, she has been in the industry for over a decade and keeps pushing the boundaries because for her, fashion is about freedom and that freedom is derived from the art of being creative.
Beatrice Arthur: I believe its traditional African garments or contemporary garments made entirely or partially with African or fabric, be it hand-woven or printed. In most instances, the manufacturer and consumer are people of full or partial African descent.
Belinda: How would you describe the current state of the global African fashion industry and do you have any idea what is it worth in monetary terms?
Beatrice Arthur: I don’t have access to exact figures in terms of the actual worth of African fashion globally. But I think African fashion is significant mostly on the African continent itself. Westerners patronise Africa or African-inspired clothing to a minimal extent. If there are statistics out there that attest to the opposite, then I’m happy to be wrong.
Belinda: We seem more comfortable wearing traditional African fabrics now than in previous years, what do you think changed?
Beatrice Arthur: As a child, I recollect that going to a kiddies party wearing an African dress was a guarantee that the other kids would tease you throughout!! But over the decades, fashion in Africa has evolved tremendously. Nowadays, we are not limited to shapeless long tunics, kabas and boubous with turbans. Our women can opt for smart skirt suits and sexy short dresses or hot pants with halter neck tops. There is more variety in terms of colours, patterns and textures. Our designers are getting more innovative and more attention is paid to finishing and details. So yes, we enjoy the fabrics and the clothing much more now. It’s no more synonymous with being “not modern”. In Ghana, TRADITIONAL FRIDAY has been instituted in most organisations. So employees come to work in a garment of their choice made with an fabric or with African Accents In recent times, African American celebrities too have started wearing printed wax clothes to events like BET Awards and the Grammies. Gwen Stefani did a wax print collection this summer. Finally, the “endorsement” that we crave so much from the west has made the African youth feel cool about wearing African Clothes. (African artistes should copy them and wear more clothes Made by African designers!)
Belinda: Why has African fashion become very fashionable in recent years?
Beatrice Arthur: Am baffled… Maybe Kofi Annan ushered it in when he became UN GENERAL SECRETARY or maybe the World Cup and that infectious song played its role. Or maybe folks in the west are beginning to look past AIDS, malaria, famine and wars and beginning to see some positive things in and about Africa. Maybe the financial crisis has made them more humble so they feel closer to Africans now. Honestly am not quite sure why African Fashion is so “a la Mode” now. But it’s a good sign, undeniably!
Belinda: As a designer, how would you describe the styles that you create?
Beatrice Arthur: I have evolved over the 16 years of my illustrious career, I don’t like the idea of being pigeon-holed or stereotyped as an AFRICAN Designer. Indeed, I started out as a designer of purely Afro-Cosmopolitan Chic and my quest was to show the world that one could be super funky and hip and cool wearing clothes or accessories made in Africa with African cloth or African symbols. My concept was mixing linen and cotton fabrics with hand-woven clothes like kente, mudcloth and aso-oke. I focused a lot on the embroidery of multi-ethnic symbolism, and it was great fun to reflect my Russian and Akan heritage by mixing Cyrillic letters with Adinkra Symbols on my garments. Now, I still do that, but alongside, I make very contemporary clothes that could easily be from Italy or Spain or London. Am free to do whatever I like without feeling pressured to make African clothes because am half African! Simply put, my style is fine, fun and funky, and i don’t feel the need to have to prove my heritage if I don’t feel like it.
Belinda: Your websites says that you ‘blend elements from Eurasian and African cultures.’ How does your Russian and Ghanaian heritage influences your creations?
Beatrice Arthur: Yes, I am known to have put a Russian Nest Dolls called Matryoshkas on a Mudcloth dress. Or paint Cyrillic and Chiness letters on a linen skirt which has a wax-print trim or lining. I have a “sans frontiers” attitude towards symbols and patterns and colours. Art is freedom.
Belinda: Why do you think your line attracts individuals across the board, be they westerners or Africans?
Beatrice Arthur: My line attracts individuals across the board because I have knowledge of people’s cultures, tastes and styles. There is something for everyone. I design clothes that very classic and elegant, but I also design quirky clothes that are worn by fashionistas and artistes. In my shop, there is a rack of clothes that appeals primarily to Africans, a rack that attracts African Americans, and there is a rack of minimalistic clothes that the westerners like and prefer. I think I figured this out a long time ago. I do business across the board and I have clothes are simply meant for funky people from everywhere.
Belinda: Do you have a made-to-wear line that is affordable and a separate couture line for your various clienteles?
Beatrice Arthur: I do. I also take orders for custom made clothes. And in recent times, I make wedding dresses, both western and African-Inspired types.
Belinda: You have worked in the industry for a long time and have great insight into its dynamics. Why has African fashion become big business in recent years and what do you think changed the tide in favour of African fashion and designers?
Beatrice Arthur: The question is, how big is “big business”? Is it big business inAfricaor in the West? I don’t see more folks in Europe wearing African clothes nor Accessories. You might be privy to statistics that I’m not aware of. Personally, I managed to fill a void and capitalise on the lack of funky African-inspired clothing 15 years ago and managed to inspire a whole generation of young designers in my native Ghana. It’s funny, but some still imitate styles I invented a decade ago. But it’s all positive. Now we need to see how we can sell our fabrics and clothes across the continent and in the west. That is the tricky part.
Belinda: What role do you think African fabrics, which come in variations have played in changing the game?
Beatrice Arthur: I do think that the new fashionable wax prints have played an important role in making African fabrics more appealing to westerners. Some of the prints have designs that are reminiscent of western designs, hence the appeal. Plus they are more practical. I believe the zig-zaggy patterns of mud cloth and kente are perceived as too geometric or too ethnic. Westerners prefer their kentes and mud cloths hanging on their walls, thrown on the couched or nicely framed.
Belinda: For your designs, which particular fabrics are you fond of using and why?
Beatrice Arthur: For many years, I used predominantly plain cottons and linens. They better suit the African climate. I also worked with silk and wool. Occasionally, I used a bit of polyester. In recent times, I work with tule and lace and organza and fabrics with lurex. I have experimented with plastics and zippers. I love recycling old clothing. I enjoy patchworks. Painting, adding sequins, shell, recycled glass beads.
Belinda: What are designers from different parts of the continent been doing right in recent years, in comparison to say 15/20 years ago that is also bringing the spotlight to African fashion?
Beatrice Arthur: Various designers across the continent have made their designs more modern and improved finishing. The concepts are more interesting. So people are now noticing it this development.
Belinda: What role do you think African fashion shows like the one in Dakar, Senegal, which you were part of earlier this year have played in the process of that exposure/visibility?
Beatrice Arthur: The organisers of the Dakar Fashion Week 2011 (Adama Paris) carefully chose designers of a high calibre from across Africa so as to show the world that African Fashion is modern, wearable, glamorous and has a global appeal. The show was supported by the local media and the government, which sees that fashion, also implies tourism for the country. The DFW organisers were careful to employ professional artistic directors and coordinator for their show and invite journalists from major western media organisations: AFP, Le Figaro (France), Paris Match (Fance), Reuters andItaly. International photographers were also present and these journalists are vital in the process of projecting a positive image of fashion made inAfricato the rest of the world.
Belinda: There are camps which argue that it was when western designers started using African prints, that it gained the prominence and momentum we are seeing now, do you agree with that POV and is that detrimental in terms of the credit going to African designers for all their work and effort to date?:
Beatrice Arthur: I agree to a large degree. It’s a tragedy. Until the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier and Givenchy started using African motifs and fabrics, no one paid much attention to African prints or fashion. I have been in the business for 16 years. I won the Kora Fashion Award in Sun City as far back as 2001. Why have you not heard of me until now? Keisha White and Jordin Sparks both own an outfit of mine, and Mrs Kofi Annan. Why are you not aware of that? To be a celebrated designer in Africa, an African designer must be endorsed by foreign media and must participate in shows in places like Milan, Paris and New York. What does that say about us, Africans?
Belinda: How have you managed to combine and negotiate the design and business savvy approach needled to sustain one’s self in the industry in order and maintain the longevity that you have had?
Beatrice Arthur: You secure your place in the market by constantly coming up with original ideas. Am constantly creating and looking for inspiration. I read a lot. I travel a lot. It’s very enriching. Also, I don’t compromise on my finishing. My repertoire includes classic garments, timeless pieces, very trendy clothing and one of a kind unique collectibles. There is something for everyone. And there is always something new. Voila!
Belinda: How would you describe the gap in terms of visibility, which existed between African fashion and designers in comparison to their western?
Beatrice Arthur: Well, for starters, there are magazines that have a French edition published in Paris, and an English edition published in the UK. And guess what? The French version focuses on francophone designers, while the UK one focuses on Anglophones. The result? Africans don’t know each others’ designers. Am lucky that I speak French and English and Spanish and I managed to get some visibility across the board over the years (AMINA, Black Fashion, WEST Africa, Samvirke). Now, it looks like things are picking up a bit and Africans are realising that fashion shows are not “animations” and entertainment, but serious business that will benefit fabric producers, tailors, designers, models, make-up artist, photographers, hotels, restaurants , hotels…I could go on!!!! The government is giving a bit more support in some countries. And so is the media.
Belinda: Can African fashion designers afford to relax now because the recognition is there or there is more work to be done?
Beatrice Arthur: No way!!!! This is just the beginning! No relaxing! Plenty of work to bee done!!
Belinda: As a designer, in what ways do you think African fashion designers can continue to carve a niche in the global market?
Beatrice Arthur: Yes. But not by making clothes that look identical to those you can buy in C&A or Mango. African designers should make distinct clothing that appeals to westerners, but have a special touch that would compel folks to desire them.
Belinda: There has been criticism in recent times about the proliferation and reliance onAnkara, in defining the fashion credence of a continent. Has the criticism got any truth to it?
Beatrice Arthur: Well, the idea that wax prints now define African fashion is not something I completely like. In Africa, we have so many lovely indigenous fabrics. But it seems wax print’s appeal to the youth as well as to westerners is due to its relatively inexpensiveness, ease of maintenance and the limitless colours and patterns in which it comes. Plus, there is always a new design on the market! Wax prints are seen as something “modern” by westerners compared to aso oke. In recent times, I have made some lovely garments with wax print patchwork. But I definitely love kente and mud cloth with a passion. They have so much history and deep philosophy encoded in them. They are timeless and noble. I have also used the Gonja Cloth (Ghana) for bedspreads and table runners and throw pillows and lamp-shades and purses.
Belinda: What do you aim to achieve with your future collections and what do you want your designs to evoke?
Beatrice Arthur: My motto is “It’s good to Bee funky!” It has no Western or African connotation. It’s universal. It simply means – must be gorgeous at all times and try not to adopt an approach to dressing that is too serious. Have fun. Life is bee-youthful. In terms of what I want to evoke in people, I truly want people to feel whenever they see, touch or wear my clothes is all the love and passion that I put into each of my garments. Each outfit has its own soul and individuality. Each garment reflects my respect and admiration for African, Russian, Chinese, Indian and Arab cultures. Everyone should be able to identify something about my outfit that touches his or her heart in an intimate way and feels familiar.
Images: Adisa Abeba/Bee Arthur
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