How Next-Gen Textile Designers Are Re-envisioning African Prints

Words by Eyram Rafael

Bold, colorful, and intricate textile work has always been the mainstay of African fashion. For ages, indigenous textiles such as the Ghanaian handwoven kente, the Malian mud cloth, and Nigeria’s Adire and aso oke, have played a vital role in setting African fashion a cut above others in the global fashion space. The well-known African print called Ankara, or Kintege in East Africa, was originally introduced by the Dutch to the Dutch West Indies colony (present-day Indonesia). When the print was rejected by locals, West African soldiers returning from their deployment brought these fabrics as gifts for their wives and eventually the women reclaimed the prints to tell their own stories in bright patterns and symbolic designs. Their version of the prints grew so much in popularity that they eventually became synonymous with African clothing.

With the African fashion industry sparking global attention, a new wave of homegrown talents are pushing forward, reimagining African prints both in fabrication and design. Textile artists and designers are drawing from their culture, adding modern shapes, new stories, and techniques to rethink the idea of African prints and capturing the spirit of today’s African zeitgeist. From psychedelic prints informed by Rich Mnisi’s Tsonga heritage and Ghanaian brand Atto Tetteh’s monochromatic line art to Salt and Sunscreen’s neo-floral prints, it is clear that the African prints of yesteryear are not the prints of today.

Below, we spotlight forward-thinking surface pattern designers, their design inspirations and how they are expanding Africa’s wealth of textile work.

Adebusola Ekoko’s love for African prints stems from her childhood days in her home country Nigeria. “I grew up with prints around us, from dresses to artworks in our living room. We had a lot of parties so I grew up seeing a lot of African prints,” she recounts. “I remember seeing my mum with different aso ebi and geles and it was always fascinating.”

It is not surprising that Ekoko found herself leaning towards creating her own prints while in art school abroad. “Surface pattern design was one of the fields I really did well in so I decided to explore it more,” she says. After doing a lot of research and realizing the market gap in surface pattern design, Ekoko moved back to Nigeria from the UK and started her print design studio Grapes Pattern Bank. Like many of Africa’s new creatives, she draws inspiration from her culture. “ I am Yoruba, and we are very expressive in our dressing and parties. We love our aso ebi so my work is also very expressive, out of the box, and outstanding.

“My go-to colors will always be bright colors and I use a lot of textures without losing that touch of simplicity. My prints are not for myself but for people with different styles and tastes,” she adds.

Though Ekoko is inspired by her culture, she also finds herself borrowing from trends in a creative process that she admits is “very experimental.”

“I am not a fan of rules like ‘orange has to go with this particular color’. I start with a mood board of things that are not only in vogue but culturally relevant to the people and the season. I do freehand drawings and put colors together. I continue to play around with it until I get a pattern that works.”

Her eye-catching prints and artistic patterns have landed her clients such as Orange Culture, Tokyo James, Kai Collective, and Salt and Sunscreen. While Ekoko enjoys making new prints, she is ever conscious of the environment.” We use eco-friendly base fabrics in our printing and we always create prints that are not only timeless but transcend the fast fashion cycles.” she explains.

Becoming a designer was the last thing on Kyere Kwaku Awiti’s mind when he enrolled at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology to study Industrial arts. “I was studying for a degree in Industrial Arts. Surface pattern designing was one of the subjects I ended up loving. I love it because it allows me to explore my creativity,” he says.

Despite falling in love with print designing, it was not something Kwaku Awiti took seriously until the pandemic struck. “I only began to focus on making prints when Covid started. I had a MacBook so I started drawing some prints and patterns.”

Within the short span of two years after founding Metakay, Kwaku Awiti has carved a unique niche for himself as a prints designer who finds beauty in the odd. His prints are quirky at the core yet imbued with so much meaning. “I like drawing inspiration from weird and odd places. I recently worked on a print inspired by the different stages of pregnancy. I want my work to stand out. When people see it, they know that it’s a Metakay print even without the label,” he explains.

Using a creative process of “exploding, distorting and stretching objects” to form his base designs, Kwaku Awiti’s prints are the new storytellers in the Ghanaian society telling both personal and universal narratives. “I always want to share a message or portray a narrative with my prints so I draw or trace out my initial inspiration to reflect this idea. Colors are central to my work because I really love colors. It is what attracts people to my prints and through color, I also get to make my storytelling more interesting.”

Like other creatives on the continent, Kwaku Awiti is committed to working with conscious brands and he had developed prints for Atto Tetteh and Ivorian designer Ibrahim Fernandez, and was recently commissioned by Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Accra to design a print for fashion week.

When PingHwa Okorie started her swimwear brand Salt and Sunscreen in 2019, she wanted to create beach-ready pieces she couldn’t find as a child. “Growing up in Lagos, it was hard to find swimwear that I loved and felt comfortable in. I wanted to create something that was soft on the skin, that was high quality and sophisticated,” she recalls.

Today, Salt and Sunscreen swimwear designs are pieces that fit right into the wardrobe of fashion-forward Black women who love the beach and jet-setting. During the pandemic, however, Salt and Sunscreen decided to pivot away from its cult-favorite colorful monochromatic designs to swimwear that features creative prints – think colorful marbles, abstract lines and blooming florals. Combining her love for African prints and swimwear, Okorie took a leap of faith with her SS21 collection. Working with Grapes Pattern Bank, she created Salt and Sunscreen’s first signature print to celebrate summer and the return to the outdoors. “I wanted it to be about a season of blooming back into society.  It is also about freshness and growth. Life is coming into full bloom that’s why you see a lot of abstracts and flowery colors.”

Aside from creating prints to tell stories, they also mean Okorie gets to celebrate her people through fashion. “I created it to compliment darker to light skin tones. My focus is Black women and African women. They are the kind of people who still want vibrant stuff and also want original prints,” she says.

While Okorie found success, she admits taking the step didn’t come easy. “Swimwear is tricky. Unlike clothing, not everyone wants to wear prints. Even if they do, they want something like seashells, fishes and the typical beach stuff,” she explains. With this in mind, Salt and Sunscreen’s designs focus on simplicity, appealing mainly to “people who want to wear prints but not all the time.”

This is also one of the reasons why Ifeoma Amadi, a Nigerian-based creative director and style influencer, keeps falling back to brands that use modern African prints. With a personal style that she describes as “easy and chic,” Amadi found a hard time incorporating traditional African prints into her closet despite loving them. “It has always been hard for me to merge African prints into my own personal style. It felt a bit very over the top even though I adore Ankara.”

She reveals that with patterns being reimagined, she is able to express her style without compromising her love for African prints. “ The new prints that brands such as Salt and Sunscreen and Kai Collective are using feel very modern and not too in your face. And for someone like me who is very minimalist and subtle, I can easily fit these prints into my wardrobe.”

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