What is African Fabric?

Liputa, up close. Photo: Denis Tsoi

Vibrant reds, yellow and ochres. Zig zags in a multitude of colours. The words “highline” and “huit mars–journée internationale de la femme” in repeated tessellation across a colourful backdrop. This could only be African fabric; or kitenge, ankara or liputa, depending on who you ask.

Art Women started making garments in mid 2018 with fabric from Democratic Republic of Congo. Traditional Congolese attire is centred around liputa, a unisex fabric worn by men and women in the nation, both as clothing and corresponding head wear.

Liputa can be in a whole range of patterns and at times may be to pay tribute to popular figures or sports, as well as International Human Rights days (such as International Women’s Day).

Traditional Congolese styling of liputa. Photo: Lisa Clark

African prints hold a long history that reflects globalisation, in fact they did not originate in Africa at all.

The early fabrics were first introduced by Dutch colonialists who were trying to produce a cheaper version of Indonesian batik to disrupt the market for traditional artisans.

These fabrics were unable to dethrone the reigning batik fabrics in South East Asia but soon found a market on the shores of West Africa (the “Gold Coast”).

Despite the globalised origins of liputa, kitenge and ankara – one thing remains true: “What makes these fabrics African is not who produces them but how they are used and who gives them social value”.

The best fabrics are coloursafe, no matter how vibrant, and despite being produced in Europe, great importance and power lie with African importers who determine which designs will be popular in each nation state.

These colourful cloths, over more than two hundred years, have been woven into the fabric of many African societies.

The founder of Art Women, with discerning taste for liputa, saw a lack of high quality African fabric readily available in Hong Kong. The group also saw a lack of garments made with African fabric in the city and saw a niche to reinvent the raw fabric into new, unique garments. Art Women source many of their fabrics from around the continent but in particular from Democratic Republic of Congo.

Art Women are happy to share this tradition with a wider audience and reimagine these textiles with designs from other cultures to create something modern, unique and ultimately timeless.