South Africans Of All Races Pick Up On Tribal Chic

Tradition is in for clothes, interior design

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When South Africa's Parliament opened its latest session here recently, the talk of the town was as much about who was wearing what than the burning political issues of jobs and housing.

Describing the new "corridors of chic," the influential Sunday Times (published in Johannesburg) advised its readers to forget the races. "If you want fashion, Parliament's the place."

What was clear in every Sunday newspaper that covered the event was that being well dressed in itself was not enough for South Africa's new black rulers. Besides burying the apartheid politics of repression, new ministers and legislators have in their three years of power introduced a revolution in style.

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If you want to be seen properly kitted out, rid the closet of those boring gray suits for which the former white minority government was known.

Inject instead an Africanist emphasis with dazzling colors, kaftans, turbans and headdresses.

Traditional is in - and the more beaded, geometric, and tribal the clothes, the better.

The leading trendsetter in dress codes is none other than President Nelson Mandela, whose trademark colorful printed shirts are worn to any occasion untucked. The effect created is comfortable, relaxed - and very African.

At any important function in the new South Africa, hosts write "traditional dress" side by side with black tie when advising guests what to wear. This can mean a gown from far away as West Africa, as long as it looks sufficiently ethnic.

Although the new fashion icons tend to be politicians like Mandela, this new emphasis on the traditional goes beyond politics - and wardrobes.

As home decorators will recount, the latest African chic extends to home interiors, giving tribal correctness a place inside houses and offices.

The emphasis today is more on traditional objets d'art such as masks, weavings, sculptures, and pottery. Kudu horns serve as legs for glass-top tables. Ostrich eggs are used for lamps. Giraffe patterns abound.

If you want to be on top of the latest trend, pack away those velvet cushions and dig up the rose gardens. You'd be best advised to paint your walls the color of the red-brown earth, plant indigenous cacti, and put a fertility figure on the living room shelf.

Hang wire sculptures fashioned by streets artists on the walls. Cook with Ethiopian earthenware pots (and while you're at it, throw some palm oil and piri-piri peppers in the stew).

"African motifs have come to the fore," says Nikola Hatfield, the director of Decorex, southern Africa's premier interior design event.

"As a country we have gotten together and realized that our talent can be utilized with a more African flavor. We're using our animals and typical African natural products to create a distinctive African look. This is more in keeping with where the country is today."

Decorex's most recent exhibition featured a heavy African accent in its publicity photograph of a model living room.

The woven rug and metal modernist chairs had zebra skin motifs. Zairian woven pillowcases were strewn on the sofa.

Elephant statues and gourds adorned the shelves.

"We wanted to make a statement, a very strong statement," explains Ms. Hatfield.

The African art market is changing from the turf of tourists and academics. Now local decorators and collectors can be seen stalking the proliferating flea markets in Johannesburg, looking for that perfect carved chair or mask which a client asked for.

The demand is not just for South African goods, vendors say. As long as it's African, it's in.

According to a saleswoman at African Image, a popular shop in Cape Town that specializes in African crafts, favorite items include indigo cloth from Nigeria, intricate silver Ethiopian Coptic crosses, Ghanaian barber shop signs with wacky hand-painted models, model airplanes, and the mocking wooden carved colonial figures from the Ivory Coast.

"Turnover is so quick that our buyers are continually on the road," she says. "I wouldn't know how to measure exactly the growth in business over the past year. All I can say is that it's been huge."

Hatfield said that despite the growing view that ethnic is artistically correct, much of the business continues to be foreign-driven, especially from European designers and collectors who have long "snooped around" at Decorex exhibitions looking for inspiration and exports.

The appreciation for African style is still very much relegated to a certain circle, which tends to be youngish, fairly affluent, and open to new ideas. Corporate offices have especially been at the vanguard of the new trend, she says.

Nonetheless, she sees changes, with more "ordinary people," who still favor a largely Europeanized dcor.

"They might encase a solitary mask in glass and hang it in the dining room, but it stops there," she says. She pauses, as she thinks. "Then again, that's a start."

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