Africa

Out of Africa. White Mischief. The Happy Valley. Novelists, biographers and film-makers have always exploited the exotic - and erotic - aspects of African life. But by confining themselves to white sensibilities, they have missed what is really exciting about Africa: its indigenous culture. In the 19th century, explorers were amazed, and missionaries unsettled, by the statuesque charms of the Hottentot woman, whose magnificently cantilevered derriere was the inspiration for the bustle. But it was the power of African sculpture that excited western artists in the 1900s, leading men like Picasso into experiments with abstract art. The Revue Negre and Josephine Baker followed, as all things African became an artistic catalyst for the western avant-garde. Fashion designers joined in the excitement, but it wasn't until 1967 that fashion fully realised Africa's potential.
That year, Yves Saint Laurent used conch shells, hemp, raffia and wooden beads - consider this retrospective of the 1967 collection staged in 2002 - to produce clothes more uncompromisingly ethnic than anything seen before. He had lit a slow-burning fuse that, over the next 35 years, has never gone out. At Louis Vuitton in 2002, Marc Jacobs gave us safari jackets; two seasons before, Tom Ford reintroduced big-cat prints for kaftans for YSL. In fact, led by Yves, many designers have dipped into the bubbling pot of African creativity. But it has taken a genius of the same level to reinvent the African look for modern times. Thirty years later, Christian Dior's John Galliano rediscovered the nobility of the Masai. It would seem that once a designer is hooked on Africa, he stays that way.
Five years on, Galliano was still listening to the drums of that mysterious continent. His couture collection in June 2002 gave many glimpses of the African spirit, not least the use of raffia underskirts for western dresses. The fuse continues to burn.

(First published September 2002)