African-Print Fashion Volume 41.2

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS  in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.  Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA .

PATRICIA WAOTA, DESIGNER FOR K-YÉLÉ: TIFFANY EVENING DRESS in Vlisco wax print, made for 2015 Vlisco Fashion Show, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. All photographs courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA.

WOMAN WEARING DRESS printed with portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Union flags, black and white photograph, circa 1977. Photograph by Jacques Toussele, © Jacques Toussele.

In 2015 Nigerian designer Lisa Folawiyo expressed her affinity for African-print cloth, stating, “This is our cloth. Our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers have worn this cloth for too many years for it not to be ours.” Her passionate words suggest the fervor with which African-print cloth is linked to African identity as well as an awareness of its transnational history and present. Its story begins in the late nineteenth century, when the (mostly female) traders in what is now Ghana, on Africa’s west coast, encountered European merchants arriving with a new kind of fabric—vividly-patterned wax prints. These women, from communities that had for generations revered well-made textiles and appreciated imported goods, recognized the potential of the colorful wares and suggested to the merchants motifs and hues that would appeal to their customers.

One merchant in particular, Scotland’s Ebenezer Brown Fleming, who was working with a company in the Netherlands, listened to the feedback his agent received, and, around 1890, began offering printed cloths that—though manufactured by machines in Europe and inspired by handmade batik fabrics from Indonesia—became entirely African. Scholar Helen Elands states concisely that, “It was African interaction in design choices that enabled African aesthetics and cultural values to pervade these products, allowing them to carry connotations of tradition and authenticity.” Many contemporary fashion designers, both in Africa and the diaspora, continue to embrace African-print cloth, which is now manufactured in Europe, Africa and Asia, as a declaration of their connection to Africa. Though these fabrics are delicately entangled in the complexities of Colonialism, technology, consumerism, and style, they are, at heart, African and in innumerable ways, global. 

ALEXIS TEMOMANIN, DESIGNER FOR DENT DE MAN. LES TOILES D’ARAIGNÉE: MAN’S SUIT in wax print by Vlisco, the Netherlands, 2016. Courtesy of Dent de Man, London, UK. Photograph by Marc Hibbert.

Several recent exhibitions have focused on African design and fashion, including “Making Africa—A Continent of Contemporary Design” organized by the Vitra Design Museum in 2015-2019; “South of the Sahara: Accelerated Urbanism in Africa” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2016; “Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2016-2017; and “African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” in 2017-2019. This last exhibition, conceived by the Fowler Museum at UCLA in 2014 just before an explosion in popularity of African-print fashion, focused on the cloth and fashion of West and Central Africa, addressing their history and contemporary iterations while conveying the multifaceted networks of international trade that shaped them and the intricate expressions of identity that they embody. Its lavishly illustrated catalogue, with essays by numerous scholars, including the four co-curators: Suzanne Gott, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine, stands as a permanent record of a dazzling exhibition.

The terminology used to describe and the technology used to create African-print cloth vary between countries and over time. In the standard hierarchy of African prints, though, “wax prints” generally are the most desirable and are produced with a resist-dye process employing engraved metal rollers that results in fabric printed on both sides and showing characteristic undyed areas of crackles and bubbles; additional layers of color are applied through a variety of methods. “Fancy prints” are printed on one side of the fabric through numerous methods, but do not use the resist-dye process, while “imi-wax prints,” or imitation wax prints, are a kind of fancy print designed to imitate the effect of the resist-dye process. All of these boldly-patterned and brightly-colored fabrics are considered African prints.

MEMBERS OF A GROUP wearing the classic God’s Eye pattern for the Cape Coast Fetu Afahye Festival, Ghana, 2012. Photograph by Betsy D. Quick.

The motifs on African-print cloth range from alphabets to handbags, iPods to chickens, radiating spirals to elaborate hair braid styles. Some early designs derive from Indonesian images, like Tree of Life or Bunch of Bananas (also called Shell), which initially represented the wing of the legendary Garuda bird of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology. Others reflect patterns from traditional African textiles, such as Sun Ray or Target, a design based on tie-dyed fabrics, or Angelina, also called Dashiki and based on Ethiopian tunics with embroidered neck yokes and borders. Especially popular motifs include a hand with coins, a human eye, and fingers, and these often relate to familiar proverbs like “The palm of the hand is sweeter than the back of the hand,” and “I am left with only my eyes to watch you.” Some designs reflect significant current events, like Ghana’s independence from colonial rule on March 6, 1957, Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the visit of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009, or International Women’s Day. Others are produced for specific occasions such as weddings or funerals.

IN A VILLAGE NEAR BROBO, CÔTE D’IVOIRE, an unidentified woman wears a wax-print featuring the distinctive skyline of Abidjan, 1992. The three-piece complet, made from six meters of printed cloth, is considered by many to be traditional Ivorian dress and is associated with propriety, discretion, moral fortitude, and a high regard for tradition. Photograph by Kathleen Bickford Berzock.

Though the earliest African-print cloth was manufactured in Europe, companies began producing prints in Africa during the independence era (late 1950s-1970s), and by the early twenty-first century, countries in Asia, especially China, made their own versions of African-print cloth. In many African countries the “original” wax prints from the Netherlands are revered as the most prestigious, while at times the pride of local manufacture has taken precedent. The purchasing power of Africans declined radically following the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the late 1980s and 1990s, creating an opening for less costly products from Asia. The recent influx of inexpensive Asian imports has both strengthened devotion to higher-end products and spurred popular interest in and use of African-print cloths as it has made them more accessible. Anthropologist Nina Silvanus describes the cloth as “full of irony,” and “a true hybrid—at once Javanese, Dutch, English, African, and now increasingly Chinese,” adding, “the archive of wax cloth complicates claims about origin, originality, and authenticity.”

Regardless of where the cloths are printed, they acquire their names in Africa. In her essay, Kathleen Bickford Berzock explains that “the long-standing practice of the naming of wax-print patterns by the consumers who purchase, wear, and collect them is part of its enculturation into local frames of meaning and value,” adding that the popularity of a print increases once it receives a name. 

A cloth’s name, motif or related proverb speaks clearly to its wearer’s peers. One popular print for mothers, midwifes, or women desiring children is Children are Better than Money, while a particular fancy print from the early 1990s incorporates the proverb En attendant mon grotto (“Waiting for my grotto”—an Ivorian slang term similar to “sugar daddy”) below an image with a young woman pointing to the desirable possessions of a Mercedes-Benz and a single-family home, against a pattern of coins. 

Berzock quotes folklorist Susan Domowitz on how, among the communities she studied in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, prints based on proverbs sometimes offered “an acceptable public voice to those who are constrained to silence.” 

KEN TRAORÉ, DESIGNER. KENYA’S STYLE: Pagne et marinière of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.

African fashion was, and in many places still is, primarily custom rather than ready-to-wear, and Suzanne Gott, in one of her contributions to the catalogue, describes the process as “an ever-changing, grassroots phenomenon.” The first, and most crucial step, is for the woman to select the cloth. The woman then takes her special fabric to a seamstress or tailor to be made into a traditional form, like the ntoma (the equivalent of “cloth”) ensemble in Ghana with a sewn blouse, wrapper or sewn skirt, and an unsewn cloth (an outfit typically requiring six yards of cloth) or the taille basse in Senegal (a fitted top with a peplum worn over a wrapper), or into something contemporary. Examples of these garments featured in the African-Print Fashion Now! catalogue include Senegalese designer Ken Traoré’s taille basse and head scarf from 2016 in bright yellow with orange flowers and olive-colored leaves, and Ivorian designer/seamstress Delphine Kouassi’s trois-pagnes (the Ivorian national dress) in a brilliant print of greens, turquoise and brown with sparkling metallic trim edging the ruffles—the sparkles surprised Saundra Lang, who commissioned this as a daytime dress, but when she expressed that, Koaussi replied, “This is how we dress in the daytime!”

Portraits from the 1960s and 1970s—described as “West and Central Africa’s ‘golden age’ of black and white photography”—emphasize the role these fabrics and garments have played in communicating identity, status, wealth, style, and ideas. Images by Francis K. Honny, working in coastal urban Ghana, show relatives posed in formal settings wearing matching prints to visually emphasize their familial ties, while ones by Mory Bamba, an itinerant photographer from Mali, depict young subjects outdoors in elaborate, chic ensembles. The photographs give faces, emotions, settings, and accessories to the African prints, and bear witness to the Ghanian proverb, “A beautiful cloth does not wear itself.”

BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS: Portrait of man and woman by Francis K. Honny, Elmina, Ghana, circa 1975. Courtesy of Tobias Wendl. Portrait of young Peulh women and men by Mory Bamba, Sikasso region of southeastern Mali, circa 1978. Courtesy of Adama Bamba, © Mory Bamba. Portrait of woman and child by Jacques Toussele, 1970s. © Jacques Toussele. Photography spread quickly in the 1960s and 1970s with people in rural villages inviting traveling photographers to their communities to take their pictures.

One of the key manufacturers of African-print cloth is Vlisco, which formed in 1970 with the merger of two much older Dutch companies, P. F. Fentener van Vlissingen & Co. and Deventer Katoen Maatschappij voorheen Ankersmit & Co. (DKM). In 2006, Vlisco changed its approach from “a production-focused to a brand-driven fashion textile manufacturer,” and through its dynamic advertising campaigns, established itself as a significant fashion force. Vlisco created numerous outstanding garments considered “communication fashion,” described in the catalogue as “one-of-a-kind outfits created solely to ‘inspire’ Vlisco’s targeted consumers—well-educated elite and upper middle-class African women.” A 2013 example of this type of garment is a dress ensemble, in red, yellow and green, by Dutch designer Inge van Lierop (who was looking to nineteenth-century tailoring for inspiration), which features a fitted, long-sleeve top with a high collar and puffed shoulders of one pattern and an extravagantly voluminous skirt of a second pattern depicting traditional icons of African-print design, like fans, hands with coins and Bunch of Bananas, on pedestals—regally celebrating the cyclical nature of African-print fashion.

Today many African fashion designers, regardless of whether they are trained and based in Africa or the diaspora, embrace African-print fashion, according to Kristyne S. Loughran, who notes that, “Its aesthetic creates a direct and immediate visual link to Africa.” Lisa Folawiyo created a short dress in 2016 that combines two prints with detailed hand-embellishment—small beads sewn on the wedge of leaf-patterned fabric in the skirt and in the white dots above the waist, while Ituen Bassey, an award-winning designer from Nigeria who is partly based in London, designed a short dress in 2009 with glowing rainbow bands of African-print cloth that reference a tradition of patchwork. A standout example of this transnational connection is a dress designed by a teenager in New Jersey in 2015 to wear to prom; Kyemah McEntyre captured the attention of social media with her long-sleeved, décolletage, full-skirted gown of the Angelina pattern, quickly becoming a fashion sensation and sparking a vogue for African-print prom dresses.

BÉATRICE MANOVAN, DESIGNER. DRESS, Abidjan, 2016. SALOME LENANA wears a two-piece West African-style taille basse outfit, locally made in Nairobi, Kenya, 1994. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine. NICOLE AMIEN, DESIGNER. TWO-PIECE ENSEMBLE, wax print, Uniwax, Côte d’Ivoire, 2016.

WALÉ OYÉJIDÉ, DESIGNER FOR IKIRÉ JONES. MAN’S JACKET, trousers and scarf of African-print cloth, Untold Renaissance collection, 2014.

Alex Temomanin, from Côte d’Ivoire, who established his Dent de Man brand in London, handpicks each print used in his garments based on its emotional resonance to his own experiences and its universal storytelling capacity. His trimly tailored man’s suit of a Vlisco spiderweb print, Les Toiles D’araignée conveys how as a teenager he felt trapped in a web—trying to figure out his identity, dealing with the fragility of poverty—and how he found comfort in fabrics, which were often his only toys as a child.

A man’s black-tie ensemble, designed by Nigerian-born Walé Oyéjidé for Ikiré Jones, the Philadelphia-based label he established with his partner Sam Hubler in 2013, features a red-printed jacket, black pants and a silk scarf. The scarf, from the Untold Renaissance collection, depicts an African man in eighteenth-century European garb against a collage of conventional European imagery. The textile raises issues related to immigration and, according to the label’s website, “the absence of persons of color in Medieval and Renaissance-era European art,” while relying on “the sampling method used in hip hop culture.” (A related Ikiré Jones scarf appeared in the recent blockbuster movie and fashion tour-de-force Black Panther.)

Diablos (Maguette Traore), a graffiti artist and designer from Senegal, explains, “I use African elements, like le wax. You just have to delve into your parental values, your ancestral values,” and Leslie W. Rabine writes that, “like other Dakar streetwear designers, he makes African print a deeply symbolic component of Senegalese hip-hop.” One of his outfits comprises a handpainted T-shirt with shrimp-printed chaya (traditional baggy, low-crotched pants).

DEEP DAKART, DESIGNER FOR MIZÉRABLES GRAFFF. HOODIE AND T-SHIRT of African-print cloth, 2016. Photograph by Leslie W. Rabine.


In this increasingly interconnected world, African-print fashion is an appropriate rallying point for African cultural identity. The catalogue for African-Print Fashion Now!, as did the recent exhibition, allows room for and even celebrates the complexity of its subject. The project brought together work by award-winning couturiers, unidentified seamstresses and many young designers, augmenting it with selections of accessories wrapped in prints, photography and contemporary art to convey the range of production and the cultural permeation of African-print cloth. Hassan Hajjaj’s stunning Afrikan Boy from 2012, a large photograph in a frame of sardine tins, combines art with fashion, showing a well-dressed man with an umbrella and a myriad of patterns. Essayist Hansi Momodu-Gordon writes of “the empowered individuality of [Hajjaj’s] subjects, who are not bound by singular definitions but appear as citizens of a global exchange of ideas,” words that could apply to all who wear African-print fashion.

 
 

HASSAN HAJJAJ. Afrikan Boy, 2012, My Rock Stars Volume 2 series; Metallic Lambda print on 3mm Dibond in wood frame with Geisha maquereau tins, 136 x 93 centimeters. Private Collection.

 
 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The quotations cited are drawn from essays written for the catalogue African Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style.

SUGGESTED READING
Gott, Suzanne, Kristyne S. Loughran, Betsy D. Quick, and Leslie W. Rabine.
African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2017. 
African-Print Fashion Now! Videos from the Fowler Museum: https://www.fowler.ucla.edu/exhibitions/african-print-fashion-now

“African-Print Fashion Now! A Story of Taste, Globalization, and Style” showed at the Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, North Carolina, October 7, 2018 - April 28, 2019; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee, February 24 - August 12, 2018; Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, March 26 - July 30, 2017.

 

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Get Inspired!


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Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts and craft. She has written books and curated exhibitions on sisters Ilonka and Mariska Karasz, Hungarian-born modern designers based in New York, and Henry Eugene Thomas, a Colonial Revival furniture craftsman from Athens. In 2015, the University of Georgia Press published her book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion. This issue, she writes about the use of Dutch Vlisco wax print fabrics by African designers, in an article entitled “African-Print Fashion: Transnational Flair.”

Stepping Out Volume 40.3

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SQUARE TOE, SQUARE HEEL, TWINED CHILD’S SANDAL WITH BOLSTER TOE (Ancestral Pueblo) of yucca, leather, ochre, B.C. 500–A.D. 500. The wearer’s second and third toe slipped under the leather strap below the “fringe” that decorates the toe-end of the sandal. A doubled cord then went over the top of the foot and was tied to the ankle and heel straps on either side of the ankle. This sandal is decorated with a red stripe below the leather bolster. Others were more elaborately decorated with red and black geometric designs. Photographs by Chris Dorantes, courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, except where noted.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Northern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, 1875-80. The small and somewhat irregular white beads on these moccasins help date them.

Most of us are acquainted with moccasins: think of kids’ Halloween costumes or old movies; “driving mocs” for the car; high-tech mocs for rock climbing. The eye-opening exhibit “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West,” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe through December 31, 2018, tells a much bigger story, that dramatically shifts how to see and appreciate traditional handmade Native American footwear. Gorgeous examples, helped by the museum’s especially strong American Southwest and Plains holdings, look as bright and as prepossessing as the day they were made. Excellent wall texts, three full outfits and three videos that demonstrate construction and beading techniques and discuss heritage and innovation, combine to explain the depths of meanings and identity associated with moccasins. Displayed in four regional groups corresponding to historic tribal homelands, they represent millennia of artistry, design and complex cultural significance. “Stepping Out” offers a rich and satisfying understanding of their role in the lives of indigenous people, past and present.

BOY’S MOCCASINS by Santiago Romero (Jemez) of leather, sinew, vegetal dye, 1950s.

      A chronological arrangement begins with prehistoric sandals made of yucca leaves and fibers, and sweeps around the gallery to today. The dry climate of the American Southwest preserved the three-thousand-year-old sandals found in rock shelters far and wide. In a video, archaeologist Mary Weahkee (Comanche/Santa Clara) makes a Mogollon-style pair of yucca sandals, which are surprisingly tough and sturdy. Although simple at first glance, sandals served as exposés. Just like moccasins, they were intended to announce as much about the wearer as about their world. Made by myriad different finger-weave techniques of plaiting, twining or wrapping, some had tiny painted decorative details; in one unworn example, an impossibly intricate raised pattern covers the soles. They all testify to identity and belonging. If you saw a sandal’s imprint in the dust, you not only knew someone had passed by, but you also knew their culture. Whether friend or foe, they also told you whose territory you were in—virtually a GPS system for navigating.

Sandals disappeared in the Southwest around seven hundred years ago, and moccasins appeared. Then as now, moccasins are built of brain-tanned deer, buffalo, elk or moose hides, with thicker rawhide soles, depending on the tribe. Men’s moccasins are usually around ankle height, while women’s rise to the knee. Tall women’s moccasins from Taos Pueblo look almost demure: plain leather falls in soft folds, covered in matte white kaolin clay and fastened with a single concha-style button. In the old days moccasins were sewn by a relative or close friend, and given as a gift; everything anyone wore was acquired one piece at a time. A more recent trend toward designing and making everything as a set at once is seen in a magnificent full outfit made by Jerry Ingram (Blackfeet) around 1991-92, using brain-tanned, smoked elk and deerskin lavishly decorated with porcupine quills, glass beads, feathers, ermine skins, and sinew. 

MAN’S MOCCASINS (Mescalero Apache) of buckskin, rawhide, dye, glass beads, tin tinklers, early 1900s. The heel and vamp fringes on this pair of moccasins share a similar style to men’s moccasins from southern Great Plains tribes.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Shoshone Bannock) of brain tanned elk hide, rawhide, glass beads, brass buttons, sinew, cotton thread, commercial ribbon, 1920–1940. The floral patterns on these Great Basin moccasins were inspired by designs on European and European-styled goods. The Shoshone became famous for their beautifully executed beaded flowers, especially roses.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Comanche) of brain tanned buckskin, rawhide, pollen pigment, glass beads, nickel-plated brass buttons, early 1900s. These tall moccasins protected the wearer’s legs while riding horseback.

      Once European traders arrived with glass beads, the distinctiveness of many tribes’ moccasins grew even more pronounced. Moccasins can be dated by their beads, because the cut, size and colors available changed over time. A mounted board shows the range of bead sizes, starting with miniscule #15 seed beads seen in Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho moccasins. Northwest tribes fell for extravagant beaded florals, like the famous “Shoshone rose,” of which there are several different ones on view. Big, exuberant blossoms could not be sewn using the common lane or hump stitch, in which short lengths of beads are laid down side-by-side to create a solid surface. Instead, as renowned beadwork artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) shows in a nearby video, the two-needle stitch technique was invented to tack down beads in curves. One of the stellar accomplishments of the exhibit is how it helps distinguish between, say, Sioux and Blackfeet—in the designs, the materials and in how they were built. Others are more recognizable: White Mountain Apache moccasins feature a stubby, fuzzy “cactus-kicker” toe; the Shawnee, Kiowa and Comanche favored embellishments of rows of tin cones, or lush heel and side fringes, which happen to cascade gracefully riding on horseback (and made a nice status symbol, too, letting everyone know you owned horses).

MOCCASINS (Hidatsa and Cree) of buckskin, rawhide, quills, glass beads, sinew, brass beads, circa 1880. The quillwork technique on this pair of moccasins is indicative of Hidatsa origins, but the beadwork looks Cree. These may have been made by someone whose background included both tribal traditions or made for someone who descended from both tribes.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Southern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, paint, late 1800s. The narrow sole on these shoes is a hallmark of Cheyenne moccasins made for Cheyenne use. The heel and side fringes are often seen on men’s moccasins from the southern Plains.

BEADED CONVERSE ALL-STARS SNEAKERS by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 1999.

      A properly made moccasin had the patterns and colors signifying the tribe. Bead workers carried over much older geometric, abstract designs that symbolized sacred landscape elements, or important animals, or reminded the wearer of the shared stories and beliefs of the tribe. Among the Plains tribes, beadwork was mixed with quillwork, made from flattened, dyed and sewn porcupine quills, which continued in use for a long time. In a pair of circa 1910 Sioux moccasins, branching, narrow-leaf shapes in quillwork meander across a red field on the vamps (tops). But the wearer, looking down, sees the ears and antlers of a deer’s head: the connotations were personal and spiritual. In the later nineteenth century, when tribes were forced together onto reservations, there was much swapping of designs and techniques, like in the circa 1870-1880s moccasins joining Hidatsa and Cree elements. At dance competitions today at inter-tribal pow-wows, hand-beaded regalia often looks like a mashup of designs from several tribes, prized for its showy elaborateness as much as for the fine quality of the work. 

MOCCASINS WITH BEADED SOLES (Sioux) of cowhide, glass beads, sinew, tin tinklers, cow tail hair, prior to 1890. Commonly thought to be for use in burials, moccasins with beaded soles were in actuality a way to honor living people. They were used in ceremonies, to recognize individual achievement and to show status. Some have wear on the soles, confirming that they were worn to walk on.

      Modesty was not an issue out on the Plains. Possibly the moccasins of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho are the most flamboyant in the exhibit. Certainly showstoppers, they are absolutely blazing with bold colors and exquisitely beaded designs. A side text happily blows up a popular myth about fully beaded soles, shown in a handsome pair of Sioux moccasins with two neat rows of yellow hoof prints crossing the bottoms. They were never intended only for burials, as is commonly thought: beaded-sole moccasins were conduits of honor and respect. Old photographs display them worn on horseback for ceremonials, and now they are essential for a celebration or special event.

Moccasins are vital to Native American life. In 2012, Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye of Laguna Pueblo launched “Rock Your Mocs” day as a way of affirming Native identity. Held the week of November 15, it has grown into a movement across the country (see facebook.com/RockYourMocs). Following in the steps of all Native footwear, where you use whatever materials you have available, some contemporary Native artists have brilliantly integrated mainstream cultural artifacts with beadwork traditions. A pair of Steve Madden high-heel sneakers stands in mid-stride near a child’s high-tops, both fully beaded by Teri Greeves. She explains in an accompanying video that sneakers are “familiar across the planet,” and perfect for telling the story of the Kiowa. Christian Louboutin stiletto heels beaded by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Sioux) look ravishing and recognizably Native. Native Americans are finding more ways to say who they are. “Stepping Out” jubilantly declares, in the words of the Navajo prayer: “In beauty all day I walk.”

BEADED STEVE MADDEN SHOES by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 2017. Among the Kiowa, the men were traditionally the pictorial artists. In contrast, Kiowa women created abstract patterns to encode their knowledge of the world. These shoes celebrate those female artists. Each pair of images shows an abstract pattern drawn from Kiowa parfleches (hide containers) or from the beadwork on moccasins, cradleboards, and other items, and pairs that design with the woman who may have created that pattern and its meaning. Photograph by Stephen Lang.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Leslie Clark, a writer and editor with a mad affinity for textiles, is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was captivated by the exhibition of Native American moccasins at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, not least because of its presentation. “Curator Maxine McBrinn draws you in with stories and commentary that bring alive the personal meanings of moccasins. Tribal cultures and traditions are not trapped in the past; instead the lore and legacy of moccasins seem to make them walk beside us now. Showing through December 2018, it’s a do-not-miss exhibit.”

Chris Francis Volume 38.3

CHRIS FRANCIS: TINKER, TAILOR, SHOEMAKER

Photograph by Vanessa Gonzalez.

Photograph by Vanessa Gonzalez.

With every dawning day, that rockstar glamour emerges from a robust shower of hair. Creator Chris Francis bears the resemblance of a raucous musician, of treble-decibel proportions. Deliciously satisfying to meet in person, the shine does not wear off even upon discovering that he is actually a shoemaker.

      Born in Kokomo, Indiana, Francis has forged a trail through life, managing that seemingly-impossible task of remaining one hundred percent on. Having migrated from job to job, from working on film sets to skyscraper abseiler, Francis has made his way in the world led by an attitude of embracing the experience and the present moment.

He is no less passionately engaged in his current occupation of shoemaker as his other walks of life. In four years, he has plunged wholesale into a demanding craft, and found room for personal expression that literally overflows like water burbling out the sides of a boiling soup pot.

Francis has been showing in “Chris Francis: Shoe Designer” at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, and in an agreement with the museum he transported his entire studio into its front window. This arrangement allowed guests direct access to the maker himself as he crafts his shoes. A friend came with me to the museum to meet with Francis for an interview and a lively discussion and debate ensued. Originally from May 24 through September 5, the exhibition, while downsized, has been extended through January 3, 2016, with his studio in the museum window still receiving visitors.

With a background as a carpenter and a clothing maker, among his other occupations, these experiences of working with his hands were integral steps before his current stint in creating shoes. There is a high degree of competence in their construction that no fresh amateur could achieve. It is the seasoning of life experience that provided the grounding to move on to this new stage.

 Francis’s journey has been a story of going with the flow in a conscious, and conscientious, direction. One of his comments refers to his making a curriculum for himself, a curriculum of life. 

Francis attended the Art Institute of Maryland for over a year, but he found prevailing attitudes about types of art and their value in relation to each other stifling. Francis values learning, whatever the source, and he attributes the class in color theory at the Art Institute as being foundational for his sense of shoe design.

Catching the freight train express, Francis traveled, worked and lived across the country for five years. The diverse occupations he took on all played a role in broadening his skillset—“I worked as a tree topper which taught me perseverance,” he reports. “I was a street side shoe shiner in Chicago and in New York, which proved to be a street level business course that taught me humility, and sparked my fascination for shoes. I worked on fishing ships in the Atlantic and the Pacific where I learned knot work and developed a deep understanding for life.” Seeing the vast nets of fish being reeled in, with hundreds to thousands of gasping, dying animals, made Francis consider the world more carefully and compassionately.

 
LAMINATE HEELS of leather, found plywood, paper, canvas, rubber, screws, washers, 2015.   Photographs by Noel Bass except where noted; courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

LAMINATE HEELS of leather, found plywood, paper, canvas, rubber, screws, washers, 2015. Photographs by Noel Bass except where noted; courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

 

      When he made the decision to become a shoemaker, Francis threw himself into the effort with both feet first. He went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising’s bookstore and studied all the pattern making books until he memorized the formulas. Francis is a dog lover. With his terrier Schnoopy (a beloved family member, source of inspiration and continuoustrickster), he would go to the dog park to sew his first shoes. Lacking a leather sewing machine, Francis had to do all the work by hand, and in the beginning there were no proper shoe lasts, so he carved them himself on the dog park bench. He picked up tools where he could, often from other makers in the Hollywood area. “They all have a great deal of attached history,” he murmurs fondly. His big find came in an attic two blocks away from Salvatore Ferragamo’s first shop in Hollywood. The majority of the lasts he now owns came from that discovery.

CLOG of found wood, found canvas, leather, 2014. This shoe was made almost entirely from materials Francis recovered from the dumpster behind the Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood. Only the leather insole was found elsewhere. MOBILE STREET COBBLER set up during the time that the artist was making shoes on the streetside.  Photographs by Chris Francis.  CHRIS FRANCIS in the “Second floor underground,” his first workshop.  Photograph by Betsy Winchell.

CLOG of found wood, found canvas, leather, 2014. This shoe was made almost entirely from materials Francis recovered from the dumpster behind the Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood. Only the leather insole was found elsewhere. MOBILE STREET COBBLER set up during the time that the artist was making shoes on the streetside. Photographs by Chris Francis. CHRIS FRANCIS in the “Second floor underground,” his first workshop. Photograph by Betsy Winchell.

      This road of self-choice has not been easy. Francis has had to surmount many obstacles, from technical issues to lack of tools, equipment and materials. However, knowing this was the road he wanted to tread made matters rather simple. When asked about how he managed, Francis responds, “I just think it was determination. Just not giving in at all. I was told, so many times, what you’re doing is absolutely crazy. One guy told me I’m building a Spruce Goose—he’s like, ‘Quit, you’re building a Spruce Goose doing that.’ See I’ve always had this running joke with Howard Hughes, you know, over that, and all I can say is, ‘The Spruce Goose flew man! And it went to a museum!’ ”

HOMESICK of wood, cotton batting, steel, rubber, leather, paint, 2015. Both Homesick and Comfortable Shoe, Size 7 were made during Francis’s residency at CAFAM.

HOMESICK of wood, cotton batting, steel, rubber, leather, paint, 2015. Both Homesick and Comfortable Shoe, Size 7 were made during Francis’s residency at CAFAM.

      Francis comes from Kokomo, a small town in Indiana, a factory town, with white steam billowing from the ghostly forest of chimneys. It is the inspiration behind one of his shoes, a logical anomaly where the shoes’ sole is a fluffy white cloud, and the heel and platform the factory buildings, multicolored in greenish-blue hues, with slanted roofs, backed by the exhaust pipe exhaling its deep, vaporous breath. In fact, it is a shoe sitting on a shoe, or rather, clouds floating above the factories. Their name is Homesick, and they are composed of cotton, wood, batting, steel, rubber, leather, and paint.

Like Detroit, which thrived and fell on the rise and fall of the car industry, Kokomo was home to many steel and car manufacturing plants. The 1980s rendered those factories into an industrial mausoleum, and Francis grew up in this steel and concrete graveyard. “As a kid I played in the abandoned factories, the interiors of blast furnaces became time machines or other imaginary scenarios. I was fascinated by these giant machines. My environment shaped me, and gave me a social conscience at a very early age,” he relates. As he became older, his uncle introduced the young Francis to punk, taking him to shows in Chicago and Kokomo, and this  
musical movement provided a social refuge.

Music plays a fundamental role in Francis’s life. Sounds literally are colors in his mind’s eye; listening to music is as putting paintbrush to canvas. Music becomes visions, visions become paintings, and that ethereal conduit from energy to physicality takes place because of sonic inspiration. One wonders if, despite punk influences, jazz blazes in his soul. The quick paintings that Francis creates as his model for a pair of shoes is like the abstract play between trumpet blare and saxophone flair. They are what happens when musical notes become visual notes. Protoforms lurk within the curves and sharp angles of Francis’s paintings, an effort, as he describes it, to portray the blueprint for transforming something from the first dimension to the third dimension.

FIRST ATTEMPT OF TATLIN’S TOWER BOOT, handpainted and handmade, hanging among sketches.

FIRST ATTEMPT OF TATLIN’S TOWER BOOT, handpainted and handmade, hanging among sketches.

      Francis’s perspective of the multiple dimensions, as is his knowledge regarding a number of different subjects, is homegrown—he is a person who tries to figure out the world for himself. “I guess the way I thought we defined one dimension was when it’s just a line like this, and a line that has no shading, no illusion of depth, is what I always considered the first dimension, in the sense of drawing. Then once you shade it and add a point of light, and that sort of depth reference, that’s the second dimension, and then once you bring that to the next level, to the ‘third’ dimension, you expand it into the reality. That’s just how I’ve always broken it down.”

This way of viewing the world extends to his method of making as well. “I basically start by attempting to break as many rules as I can possibly get away with. Every shoe is different and involves new sets of probabilities, each with unique structural challenges and material variables. If the shoe is for a client I am usually pretty hand-tied to tradition and I have to follow more of the known techniques of shoemaking,” he explains.

And what shoes does he make? If you were to take someone who absorbed influences from all over the world, and provided him a vast canvas to methodically paint interpretations, variations and experiments, this is what his oeuvre would be. Francis seeks to stretch us beyond labels, and his shoes, although eventually identifiable, do their best in one way or another to undermine our concept of what a shoe should be or is. At least, the successful ones are. He ruefully acknowledges there are a lot of failures among his “babies.”

 
SHOE of woven textile, vegetable-tanned leather, wood, hand-brogued leather, linen, cheesecloth, leather, nails, natural glue, 2014.

SHOE of woven textile, vegetable-tanned leather, wood, hand-brogued leather, linen, cheesecloth, leather, nails, natural glue, 2014.

 

      How to describe one? A Pinocchio’s nose elongated Thousand and One Nights/Scheherazade style into footwear? Or perhaps something fit for an Arabian Jack and the Beanstalk? Reusing textile samples from carpets and wall hangings, the interior is sumptuous gold, with some glittering golden faux snake leather adorning the heel. The divergence between observer and maker can be quite pronounced, however, as we find that Francis’s muse for this piece is the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759-1767). The characters residing within have various“hobby horses” in their lives, bringing color and that peculiarity of behavior which lead to individuality in their personalities. Francis felt himself relating to the concept of an activity or occupation that helped define one’s identity, and from there these fairy tale shoes took shape. However, it is this diversity of response from his audience which titillates him.

DADA TEPEPA of cotton mud cloth from Mali, hand-dyed silk, printed fabric, linen, muslin, canvas, wood, leather, 2015.  Photograph by Chris Francis.

DADA TEPEPA of cotton mud cloth from Mali, hand-dyed silk, printed fabric, linen, muslin, canvas, wood, leather, 2015. Photograph by Chris Francis.

Two rather stately and bold ivory-white, purple, yellow, and red high heels come accented with a deep blue-gray platform that keeps the eye winding from contrast to contrast, all the way up the shoe. Its spiralling sinuous shape wends its way towards the heavens. They belong to the clean, sleek world of modern royalty. However, in a democratized fashion, anyone who can afford them could wear these graceful pumps. There are no court artisans here.

When he really succeeds at breaking “as many rules as he can possibly get away with,” the results barely look like footwear. “So this one, is called Dada Tepepa, and this one’s kind of far out. This was me being very bored with shoemaking, and not wanting to play by the rules of shoemaking. That thought was really absurd, but I started feeling absurd being a shoemaker in the modern world. When I’m making these objects, but you can just go to the store and buy them for twenty dollars, why make these things at all? So I thought, if I’m going to be that absurd, why not make really absurd objects altogether?

“I was watching this spaghetti Western movie called Tepepa, and it was about this Mexican revolutionary single-handedly fighting the government, and I thought that was fantastic. I sort of felt I was like that with shoemaking a bit. I don’t want to make brogues, I didn’t make brogues yesterday, I didn’t wake up making them today and I’ve got no plans to make them tomorrow, and I’m going to make teepees.” He gesticulates towards them—they are like giant, primeval tents encasing the foot. He says with obvious pride, and a slight touch of awe: “They’re wearable. They’re all handstitched. I sat there and handstitched them for hours. That was sort of the insanity of it all. And then doing it twice, that was the ultimate act of insanity. Making a ridiculous object twice.”

COMFORTABLE SHOE, SIZE 7 of wood, foam, cotton, upholstery fabric, 2015. Francis sourced the fabric for this pair from a chair he found on a Hollywood street.  Photograph by Chris Francis.

COMFORTABLE SHOE, SIZE 7 of wood, foam, cotton, upholstery fabric, 2015. Francis sourced the fabric for this pair from a chair he found on a Hollywood street. Photograph by Chris Francis.

However, there are rather wonderful reasons why Francis makes ridiculous objects. “I make the objects I make because they are in the most reasonable format I’ve found to express myself in the world. They have become a true extension of myself and my personality, sharing my awkwardness and whimsical outlook. I often exist more comfortably in my own imagination—most of my creations make sense there. Sometimes I make designs only because they make me laugh and I’m okay with them being laughed at when they arrive in reality—it becomes the function of the object!”

On his ride through time, with multiple stops along the road, Francis has pretty well exemplified his own preachings. Now that he has become a shoemaker, he explains why this particular occupation is fulfilling. “The shoe challenges me and inspires my imagination more than anything else. I see the shoe as a sculptural object capable of infinite possibility, an outlet for invention and a way to be a structural engineer and architect on a small scale. The shoe has also become my means of expression and my format for relaying my interpretations of life, history, sound, and social commentary. Every shoe is a unique situation with changing variables, the odds for failure make for an exciting gamble.”

Although Francis would perhaps revel in being called an iconoclast, he is in fact accepting of all types, from the corporate marketing world to blue collar workers to the urbanites of Los Angeles. What he dislikes is the result of a corporate system: its environmental and cultural impact, and its effect on us as individuals and human beings rather than consumers. His work, and
his dedication to the handmade, is a manifestation of his philosophies and principles in action. “A tactile and interactive life is just the most peaceful way I’ve found to exist, so I prefer it. The best way to propagate anything is by example and by offering positive solutions. My positive solution is to be the person you want to be in the world, and live a life that doesn’t abuse others. Live your art or whatever your dreams may be and create a world that you love. Be yourself and let others be themselves and invent your own way of life.”

PUMPS of artist’s pants, broom bristles, Sex Pistols button, found fabric, dental floss, roofing tar, 2014. The broom bristles used for this piece come from Francis’s shop.  Photograph by Chris Francis.

PUMPS of artist’s pants, broom bristles, Sex Pistols button, found fabric, dental floss, roofing tar, 2014. The broom bristles used for this piece come from Francis’s shop. Photograph by Chris Francis.

 

Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. This issue, he is delighted to debut Chris Francis, shoemaker extraordinaire, currently parked in the front window of the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. He found in Francis a patient and curious person who revels in the self-expression and exploration the artist achieves through crafting shoes. In addition to this report, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest craft News, where you can find out what is happening with art-to-wear in your local corner of the world.