Leo is the usual author of our blog posts, but I’m inspired to write this one because, well, it’s about Leo.
The core of our business venture is to design clothing we would be proud to wear, and a large part of that is sourcing the perfect fabric. Leo constantly peruses textile shows, [jobber] sites and wholesale fabric sites for fabrics that speak to him on an emotional level. He has to have passion for the design before he turns it into a garment. I do the back-of-house stuff, and part of that is to find out where the fabric is made, if the workers are treated fairly, etc. A while back, I brought up the concept of cultural appropriation regarding indigenous prints. Leo and I talked about how we could direct our company with honesty to our customers and fairness to the originators of the fabric prints we choose, all the while moving forward with the business of making and selling clothing.
The first time I suggested that he might be drawn to fabric prints with an African influence because he was born and spent the first 11 years of life in South Africa, he denied the connection. He didn’t want to take credit for something he wasn’t sure was true, or use his dual-citizenship to excuse any business decision. He came to me a couple weeks later and brought it up again. The conversation started with him telling me that he even liked a fabric print with a desk fan motif that he had recently come across - not your average African-inspired theme - because it incorporated what are commonly considered “African colors and print design.” I use quotations there because the history of how these themes became deemed as “African” is interesting and notable, and I’ll talk just a little about that later in this post. Firstly, my conversation with Leo went like this:
Leo: “I f'ing love the look of the (African print) fabric.”
Sean: "I know you do! Are you willing yet to admit that being born in Africa has something to do with it?”
Leo: “I’m willing to admit it. I was thinking recently about some things I bought when I went back (to South-Africa) last. I bought these tapestries and hung them up in front of my window, and with sunlight shining through them they looked like stained glass. What I love about South Africa is the colors. The greens are really, really green and the red of the ground is really red, and that makes the sky look even more blue… I love the intensity of the hues there. The colors and designs in African fabrics match the landscape. The bold, richness of it all."
I’m a stickler for sensitivity around cultural appropriation. I know that just existing in the world means we leave a carbon footprint, and there’s no way to avoid creating an art piece like clothing without being heavily influenced by cultures other than our own. The nature of buying fabric from a seller and sewing it into clothing has a built-in truth that we are using someone else's print. It’s important to me to name it, take responsibility for our company’s decisions to use print and design from other cultures, and to join in the conversation about fairness, racism, and cultural appropriation.
What I found while doing online research about things currently named “African print” surprised me. Just labeling something “African print” doesn’t necessarily indicate the region, or sometimes even the continent, the pattern comes from. Much like the "[Chinatown bag]", African print (aka Ankara Fabric/ Holland Wax/ Dutch Wax, African Wax, Batik) fabric has been mimicked since before the 19th century. [Javanese batik] fabrics are originally Indonesian fabrics made from hand-drawn motifs on cotton cloth with a technique that involves wax and resist-dye. When the Dutch colonized that area, they industrialized production by mimicking the designs using less expensive techniques. How the fabric landed in Africa and became a common continent-wide clothing choice has a few different [theories].
I read a bunch of articles in search of direction about how we can navigate choosing textiles in the best, most ethical way. I linked some of the articles below if you care to peruse. What we’ve decided is, first, to find out what we are drawn to. Then, if we can trace back the origin of the design or technique that inspired or created the textile, we name it and give credit where credit is due. We will continue to ask ourselves tough ethical questions as a company and as members of a community that has experienced oppression and still does. Most importantly, we will keep our conversation honest and on the table. We will start by taking full responsibility for the choices we make as we make them with the information we work hard to know. We are open to feedback and constructive criticism. It’s a conversation that has been going on long before Leo Roux Clothing was born, and we have just made ourselves a part of it.
Some thought-provoking articles about cultural appropriation in the fashion industry: