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From Black Panther to Black Is King: An exploration of what African fashion's increasing Hollywood presence means for the industry.

By Vincent Desmond

Sept 2, 2020

In 2018, Marvel Studios released Black Panther, a film based on the comic book character of the same name, to critical acclaim and box office success. The film went on to have the best opening weekend for a Black director and a predominantly Black cast and was the first MCU movie to win an Academy Award. It was also praised for its rich portrayal of the fictional African country of Wakanda with TIME magazine hailing the film as “a movie about what it means to be black in both America and Africa—and, more broadly, in the world.” Overreaching though this statement may be, it espouses just how much of a phenomenon the film was. Further testimony to the entrenchment of the the 2018’s Black Panther in cultural consciousness is the global grief felt with the recent and sudden passing of actor Chadwick Boseman who played the titular role of T’Challa/Black Panther: through his portrayal of the comic book hero, many young Black kids felt positively represented on screen and for the first time and the outpouring of feelings following Boseman’s death often cited what the film and its titular character means to them. The response to Black Panther goes to illustrate how film, in general, is pivotal in shaping culture and cultural understanding: It is this point Miranda Priestly, Meryl Streep’s character in Devil Wears Prada, stresses—fashion is more than a just frivolous business, it is both a mirror that reflects culture and a hammer by which culture can be shaped.

The art of the screen employs many tools in storytelling, and one such not insignificant visual rhetorical device is costuming. Costume design and fashion have always played a key role in the intrigue of western cinema (Hollywood) and television. We are accustomed to seeing Euro-centric sartorial inclinations depicted in mainstream cinema and television, even as the reach of these films, characters, and stories evolved to beyond white protagonists and stories.

Photo: Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in a still from Black Panther. Costume Design by Ruth E. Carter. Via @blackpanther

 From period films like Phantom Thread to the more contemporary shows and movies like Sex and The City, Io Sono L'Amore and The Devil Wears Prada, Hollywood has stirred and maintained an interest in eurocentric costuming for centuries, and served as perhaps the fashion industry’s most powerful form of PR. However, in recent years, as the discourse on representation in mainstream media has evolved beyond the mere presence of Black and non-white people on the screen and fashion has become a major albeit subtle means by which Hollywood has been able to connect with Black and African audiences. Increasingly, we are seeing a variety of examples of western cinematic storytelling that have introduced African fashion into the visual cannon of Hollywood and the small screen.

The first and most obvious example of injection of African fashion into Hollywood is Black Panther. A significant amount of the film’s success has been attributed to the work done by the costume designer Ruth E. Carter who created a unique but familiar style for the movie. To achieve what she did for Black Panther, Carter researched and referenced several fashion styles, techniques, and textiles indigenous to many African countries and ethnic groups. While the movie was accused of homogenizing (sartorially and otherwise) varying African ethnicities and identities in its attempt to create the fictional country of Wakanda, it also deserves (and received) several points for a largely successful attempt to bolster linkage between African and Black watchers and Africa, with a fictional country and its denizens as the vehicle. Evidence of the film’s success in creating impact through its costuming is that when the Black Panther fever was at its peak following the release of the movie, many of the fans did not, in particular, want to dress like the Black Panther the protagonist of the movie (as they do with other superhero characters like Spiderman and Batman), but rather they wanted to dress up like every day Wakandans who had been costumed in African and African-inspired designs.  

Another example of African fashion used as a storytelling tool in mainstream western cinema is 2020’s Disney-released Black Is King, a reimagination of the story of The Lion King produced by American superstar Beyoncé, in which she, with the help of costume designer Zerina Akers, attempts to—by pulling pieces from designers all across the African continent—use fashion to tell her version of an African story, using colors, fabrics, and other clothing elements that feel familiar to Africans. “At the time, I thought it was going to be on a Disney platform, (for) young and old audiences, and I felt it was important to have a global conversation within that space,” Akers is quoted as saying in Dazed magazine, adding “I thought it could have been interesting to get different designers and it all sort of thrived from there and tied into this uniquely African-inspired aesthetic, signifying that everything comes from this one continent really.”

A further example of fashion being used to subtly connect with African and Black audiences via the small screen can be found in Jeff Colby, the character on American television network CW’s reboot of the soap opera Dynasty (which also streams internationally on Netflix), played by Nigerian-American actor Sam Adegoke. On-screen, Jeff is a confident businessman who dominates every room into which he steps and his sartorial choices not only reflect this assertive nature but, also speak to Jeff’s identity both as a Black man in general and as a Nigerian man specifically.    

Photo: Sam Adegoke, as Jeff Colby in a still from CW's Dynasty. Costume Design by Meredith Markworth. Via @samadegoke

‘‘We featured many African designers and even made custom pieces from fabric Sam's mother brought back from Nigeria.’’

Photo: Sam Adegoke, as Jeff Colby in a still from CW's Dynasty. Costume Design by Meredith Markworth.
Via @samadegoke

‘‘This [choice to costume the character as we do] is very deliberate because Jeff Colby is half Nigerian on the show.’’ Meredith Markworth, the costume designer of CW’s Dynasty tells Industrie Africa. ‘‘Sam and the writers made the decision in Season 1 to have his father, Cecil, be from Nigeria. Sam and I then collaborated on sourcing and building his wardrobe with a strong Nigerian influence. We featured many African designers and even made custom pieces from fabric Sam's mother brought back from Nigeria. I was so impressed and excited by the Nigerian fashion scene and I owe that all to Sam.’’

Fashion—African fashion in particular—is a way for Adegoke to truly showcase his character’s identity as half-Nigerian. Where menswear in the West is often rendered in muted colors, in Western Africa, men regularly dress in colorful and even flamboyant pieces as Jeff Colby is seen to do on the show. By using pieces from African designers, Markworth and Adegoke help craft a truly authentic male character of Nigerian descent.  

So what then is the place of African fashion in Hollywood? What does this relationship between African fashion and Hollywood mean for the African fashion industry and existing business models? Should this even be encouraged or should players of the African fashion industry approach this cautiously knowing the history of the West with regard to most things African? 

Photo: Angela Basset as Queen Ramonda and Letitia Wright as Shuri in a still from Black Panther. Costume Design by Ruth E. Carter. Via @blackpanther

Most players in the African industry are of the opinion that the increased presence of African fashion on mainstream screens, as well as the global attention caused by that increased presence, is a largely good thing; that the regular appearance of pieces by African designers on red carpets in Hollywood as well as on screen helps these designers build their profile and establishes them as forces to reckon with around the world.

“It's a humbling feat.’’ Oluwatosin Ogundadegbe, one of Nigeria’s biggest celebrity stylists, tells Industrie Africa, ‘‘It is also evidence that African designers are great at their craftsmanship. It pushes our narratives and voices and helps capture a more global audience. I would say it is largely good business-wise but it is also [means] more work for the designers who have to leverage these opportunities from a business angle.’’ Ogundadegbe also adds that although Western attention garnered from one’s work being featured in Western media is helpful business-wise, he discourages African designers from craving Western attention as it feels too much like craving Western validation.  

Due to the success of Black Panther and how much of that success is owed to the cameos of African fashion, there has been an upswing in the presence of such fashion in film and television and the trend is likely to become a mainstay in Hollywood. Markworth agrees and points to how Black Panther revolutionized how Hollywood thinks of and approaches African fashion, as evidenced by shows like the new Dynasty. ‘‘I think there will only be more and more exposure of African fashion in film and TV.’’ She says, ‘‘Black Panther definitely paved the way for many and we will be seeing it more and more on TV and editorials as well.’’ 

As African fashion becomes a regular element on Western TV and the Silver Screen, as well as on red carpets in Hollywood, it is worth noting that this proliferation is sometimes polemic. 

Black Panther drew (deserved) criticism for merging fashion techniques from multiple cultures in its effort to create Wakanda; Beyoncé drew the ire of some observers—though less for her the African fashion in and of itself—the overall creation of an arguably reductionist African fairy tale of sorts with Black Is King. While these cinematic efforts deserve the adulation they have received, the criticism of how they portray Africa as homogenous—as opposed to truly understanding the individual cultures and contexts—must not be glossed over. The West will get it wrong repeatedly in their attempts to use and represent African fashion: that is to be expected with any new endeavor. But, one can hope that they get it right more often than they get it wrong, and that the presence of African fashion in Hollywood films and beyond grows into a phenomenon that is unremarkable because it is common.  

Photo: Beyoncé wearing Tongoro in a still from Black is King. Styled by Zerina Akers. Via @tongorostudio

Photo: Beyoncé wearing Adama Paris in a still from Black is King. Styled by Zerina Akers. Via Beyonce

Photo: Beyoncé wearing Loza Maleombho in a still from Black is King. Styled by Zerina Akers. Via @ndaanemedia