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How ‘Black Panther’ Is Bringing African-Inspired Fashion Back To The Mainstream

Times have certainly changed since we witnessed Eddie Murphy in a fur-lined coat in “Coming to America.”

Lupita Nyong'o attends the "Black Panther" world premiere in Hollywood. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

A friend recently shared this story with me — and this happened two weeks after the “Black Panther” premiere in Hollywood: She and a few other people were in an elevator on their way to work when a woman wearing a turquoise boubou (a West African caftan) and gele (a headwrap tied in an intricate design) stepped into the elevator. A different woman gasped and told her how stunning she looked. The “vision in turquoise” smiled and replied, “Thank you. It’s ‘Black Panther.’”

The story made me laugh out loud. I laughed because the “vision in turquoise” credited Marvel’s “Black Panther” for inspiring her to embrace an aspect of African heritage that has often been looked down upon. It also reminded me that it’s rare to see anyone who works for a large corporation going to the office wearing more than a few African-inspired accessories. Remember when Viola Davis wearing her Afro to Oscars in 2012 was seen as revolutionary?

Times have certainly changed since we witnessed Eddie Murphy in a fur-lined coat in “Coming to America.”

Stormzy and John Boyega at the European premiere of “Black Panther.” Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images.

African-inspired fashion is still a relatively unfamiliar concept to people who don’t have an African family member or friend. Many of us have seen kente cloth in 1990s-era hip-hop videos and, more recently, on the members of the Congressional Black Congress who wore it at the 2018 State of the Union address. However, most people probably couldn’t tell you where it originates from: the Akan people of Ghana. That’s partly because for years African people living in the West wore their traditional outfits at home, when they were attending a party or marking a life event, like a naming ceremony, a wedding, or a funeral — all of which were safe spaces.

While African-inspired fashion has been on the rise, the fashion on display at Marvel’s “Black Panther” premiere seemed to take its popularity to another level. Kelechi Anyadiegwu, the founder and CEO of Zuvaa, a global marketplace for African-inspired fashion, credits African fashion designers for creating the current buzz around “Black Panther” and African-inspired fashion.

“I feel like it’s more the African fashion industry that’s been influencing a lot of the hype around this movie,” Anyadiegwu says. “And I think people have been really excited to be able to get their African fashion designs but do it in a way where it’s beyond getting dashikis, right?”

Actors Don Cheadle and John Kani, rapper Snoop Dogg, and actor Atandwa Kani at the Hollywood premiere of “Black Panther.” Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney.

At the premiere, Hollywood actors wore stunning outfits inspired by the fictional African kingdom Wakanda, and it was a sea of bold color and design. Lupita N’yongo was decked in a beautiful gold and aubergine gown, and Angela Bassett brought it in a yellow outfit that felt like an homage to ancient Egypt. Anyadiegwu says the style was inspired by the ubiquity of African fashion today. “For example, I see a lot of jokes around the internet saying like, ‘Don’t show up to the premiere in just a dashiki,’ you know what I mean? Pretty much saying they want people to do more. They have options now. We have access now.”

The fashion industry is taking advantage of this enthusiasm. A charity event called “Welcome to Wakanda” took place during New York Fashion Week and featured bespoke collections by designers like Cushnie et Ochs. According to USA Today, some of the designs “incorporated African fabrics and motifs.” Anyadiegwu says the enthusiasm for African-inspired aesthetic has never been in question. The real question was how to make these clothes accessible.

“African textiles have always been a really integral part of my culture,” Anyadiegwu explains. “So I’ve always loved wearing these prints. They were always something that I loved to share with people. People would always ask me, ‘Where did you get those beautiful prints? Where can I get those prints?’ So, it showed me that there were people who really really wanted access that they just didn’t have it.”

Anyadiegwu decided to solve that problem by creating an online marketplace. Her hunch paid off. She grew a $500 investment into more than $2 million in sales in under two years, and her customer base comes from all over the world, she says.

But finding that one-of-a-kind piece is just one part of the equation. She says she hopes that Zuvaa’s customers will also learn more about “the stories and the background of the designers” while they buy their items. In other words, she wants people to learn a little more about the people from the continent too. The approach might seem lofty at the start, but given the world’s tendency to skew negative every time anything connected with Africa comes up, it’s understandable that Anyadiegwu would want to remind the world about what the continent has contributed, what it has to offer, and to humanize the people who live and have roots there.

There’s another aspect to her business too. She also wants to help the artisans who sell on her site figure out how to connect with her customers in a way that will help them grow their businesses. “It’s how to curate content, how to connect with the consumer, how to provide your customer service, how to provide good pricing, when to do sale events, what kind of fabrics to provide, what kind of style to provide,” Anyadiegwu says. “I think this is [a] connection to the consumer in a way that they didn’t have before.”

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