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Published: 15 Aug 2016

Cultural Guardians: US Afrocentric Style

Afropunk Festival

A number of US Gen Z and Millennial consumers are defining their African heritage by embracing the continent’s kaleidoscopic patterns and applying them to both mainstream and counterculture fashion movements. Stylus takes a look at the key influences driving this. 

Afrocentric dressing that makes a powerful cultural statement is not new to the US. The Dashiki – a West African printed top popularised in the 60s as a symbol of black political struggles – and Afrocentric rap in the late 80s and early 90s were both pivotal African-inspired style moments.  

Current African-influenced dressing is just as socioculturally charged. The black females celebrating Instagram and Twitter hashtags #BlackGirlsBreakTheInternet and #BlackGirlMagicas well as the colourism-fighting #MelaninMondays and #Melaninonfleek, are intrinsically linked to this growing display of heritage pride. For more on this topic see our blog Online Influencers 2016.

  • Print Influencers: The traditional American high school prom is emerging as a crucial platform for the embracing of cultural aesthetics associated with an African heritage.

    As highlighted in our report Women of Colour: Breaking Beauty Barriers, 19-year-old New Jersey-based Kyehma McEntyre rapidly 'broke the Internet' last year with her self-designed, floor-length African-print prom dress paired with a natural Afro.

    The look has garnered her 81,000 followers on Instagram, articles in Vogue, Elle and the New York Times, plus this July Dove made her an ambassador for natural beauty. McEntyre’s natural hair echoed the symbolism of her dress, and she told Teen Vogue, “I wear my hair in an Afro because I think it expresses exactly who I am and exactly where I come from.”
Kyehma McEntyre
Kyehma McEntyre
  • McEntyre’s efforts have inspired a wave of heritage-influenced prom dresses. Many of these one-off creations offer modern takes on traditional West African Ankara patterns, or fabrics used in Dashiki tops. Creating similarly viral applause, this year Cleveland, Ohio teen Makalaya Zanders garnered more than 125,000 likes for her Ankara fabric dress, while Florida student Kisha Cadet’s Dashiki dress hit over 83,000.
Makalaya Zanders
Kisha Cadet
  • Supporting Culture: Supporting the mindset behind this Gen Z-led trend, a 2014 study by global research firm Nielsen found that 62% of African-American women of all ages believe embracing and supporting their ethnic culture is important. Furthermore, 55% of all African-Americans are willing to purchase a product if it is sold by a person of colour or a minority-owned business, versus 20% of the US population overall.
  • Grassroots Brands: Beyond the fantastical prom dresses, a number of home-grown designers are emerging in the mainstream. Leading the pack is Brooklyn-based DemestiksNewYork by designer Reuben Reuel, who gained international attention via Beyoncé. Other brands to watch include Atlanta-based Suakoko Betty, Texas-based Attolle Clothing, New York’s Royal Jelly Harlem, Brooklyn-based Nakimuli, New York-based Busayo and New Jersey-based Midget Giraffe.
Suakoko Betty
  • Pop Culture Influence: Music plays a crucial role in nurturing this trend, which transcends genre. The alternative-rooted Afropunk scene is a multi-genre attitude, with those who attend its eponymous music festivals displaying Afrocentric prints as a core feature of their wardrobes. On the mass international stage, US singer Alicia Keys posed make-up free for her new single, In Common, with her face framed by an African-print head wrap. Singers Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, as well as Erykah Badu, also champion this heritage-laden aesthetic.

For more on Afrocentric fashion see: Afropunk: Style Tribe

Afropunk Festival 2015
Afropunk Festival 2015
Alicia Keys
Beyonce in DemestiksNewYork

For more on the people defining themselves by a life that embraces cultural rituals and customs associated with their race or ethnicity, see Culture Guardians, a part of our Consumer Zodiac. 

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