A Brief History of African Inspired Streetwear
Fashion is an expression of moods in garment form. From clothes created for a specific function to the cultural and geographical aspects of needing items to survive different seasons. Fashion is considered an art form that allows individuals to adorn their bodies with apparel to become walking pieces of art.
Fabrics such as kente cloth, Ankara, dashiki, and African print have become representative of Africa. African immigrants have brought their fashion influences to America and with the assimilation and incorporation that happens in streetwear, we get a diverse expression of culture and fashion. Viewing fashion today, the lines between high and low continue to be blurred where it’s less about labels and more about overall style.
Streetwear has its roots in counterculture/subcultures and a desire to have clothing that represents the look, style, and feel of the people who identify with these communities. Streetwear is a 15-18 year thing that is now coming of age. With the evolution of streetwear, let’s take a dive into where African inspired streetwear in America falls in the history of a trend that has now become a mainstay in everyday culture.
Full disclosure: the author of this article created the brands, The African King and Pidgin English Co.
African inspired streetwear in America started in 2007 with Allen and Fifth. Started by Ese Aigbogun out of NYC, Allen and Fifth‘s stand out shirt was the three tribesmen that would later be worn by the Awon Boyz and Naeto C in music videos.
Other brands like The African King popped up around the same time but never maintained their presence in the African diaspora in America.
As streetwear in general grew, more brands popped up seeking to provide clothing for the growing number of first-generation Americans of African descent with disposable incomes. By this time there was a burgeoning market that could sustain startup clothing companies. Giddimint, created by Kelo Okeke, provided a platform where you could purchase some your favorite brands in America and Nigeria all on one site! In 2011, Legitifye, West A Lifestyle, and Boshok Clothing entered the arena of African inspired streetwear.
With more options, we saw the incorporation of African fabrics in different garments. Graphic tees were still a mainstay but the incorporation of fabric sets the stage for what is to come–with streetwear that will crossover to high fashion runways. This crossover was aided by social media and the new form of access young people across the diaspora now had (via the internet) to one another. Gaps across the globe continued to shrink while these clothing companies increased their presence.
2013 was a pinnacle year because we saw the introduction of brands that made a huge impact in the African market in America. We saw the emergence of Modern Pharaoh, LLULO, Street Chief, Dashiki Pride, Tinz Clothing, and Afritribe. Its also marked the emergence of more women into the market including Michelle Olomojobi, creator of Llulo and Mirian Chinyere Ugokwe, MarySonia Chizoba Ugokwe, and Lilian Chioma Ugokwe, the creators of Dashiki Pride.
From a visual standpoint, these clothing companies captured the essence of what it’s like to be African and live in America. Bloggers continued to feature these brands online and with the emergence of street photography, they’re able to reach a wider global audience. Also, with the festival scene growing in magnitude due to events like AfroPunk, SXSW, and more, the desire to express culture and style through clothing became even greater.
This was a significant period in the history of African inspired streetwear due to the visual and business impact we saw from the brands that came out during this time. Six brands emerged in this two-year span with Mizizi, created by Paakow Essandoh, and River is Wild, raising the bar for all other brands. Both moved past graphic tees and provided jerseys, shorts, and jackets. We also saw sister duo, Joan, and Doreen Caven, create Pop Caven. Their ability to effortlessly mix 90’s Pop aesthetics and Nigerian pop culture references provided a fresh take that the market embraced with open arms. We saw the second-coming of Olumide Y. with a new brand, Pidgin English Co. and the rise and fall of Motherland Krooks, all in this period. Showing that individuals want to provide clothing that allows the diverse demographic of Africans in America express their culture and style in everyday wear.
We also saw P.96 enter the arena with a bang. Featuring a presentation during NYFW that raised the bar, yet again, for everyone in terms of creativity and overall presentation.
In 2017, we didn’t see any new brands develop, but we did see a continued push towards growth from many of the established clothing companies mentioned above; we also saw a fade to black for some and the complete end of some brands. West A Lifestyle faded from its previous prominence and other brands bowed out including, The African King, Motherland Krooks, Modern Pharoah, and Afritribe. Meanwhile, Allen and Fifth was rebuilding and just came back in January 2018 with new items.
Nonetheless, African inspired streetwear has seen a dynamic ten years and continues to grow and expand to new heights as the prominence of the African diaspora grows worldwide. With the help of afrobeats artists and other artists of African descent, the cultivation of a global creative African community, and the rise of media geared towards African youth like OneTribe Magazine, the narrative of what it means to be an African in America shines through individuals who have taken it upon themselves to create clothing that allows everyone to represent their culture, tribe, heritage, and more every day!