Bringing African fashion to the Williams bubble

For the last year and a half, the fashion world and its hottest designers have been turning to Africa for inspiration. From the highly successful magazine campaigns of Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan, which incorporated the spare styling and accessories of the Masai (a nomad people of Kenya) to the Parisian runway hi-jinx of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, and Karl Lagerfeld, “the Motherland” has been invoked again and again by fashion’s mainstream. The new boom has even made African models hot commodities in an industry notorious for its preference of white, blonde, blue-eyed catwalk creatures. The appearance of Alek Welk of Sudan on the cover of November’s Elle and Kiara Kabukuru, a Ugandan, on the July issue of Vogue bear out the corrent fascination with African beauty and style.

Given the new buzz about African fashion and also its intrinsic beauty, imagine the Maven’s excitement when hearing that Williams was playing host to an African fashion show. The show, held this past Sunday in the tasteful and relaxed atmosphere of Currier Ballroom, was a truly fashionable affair. The event, coordinated by B.S.U. president Elizabeth McCray ‘98 and Maxine Lyle ‘00, in conjunction with their Black History Month program, showcased the work of Mrs. P. Reffel Conteh, a designer and the owner of Roots Africainé, a clothing store located in Rochester, NY. Mrs. Conteh’s creations reach a large audience and have gained much popularity due to the fact that JC Penney’s recently picked up her line and distributes it in stores nationwide as well as its catalogs. For all that she has achieved in the fashion and business worlds, Conteh proudly counts her son, T.J. Conteh, a member of the class of 2000, as her greatest accomplishment.

The actual show, which ran from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m., started with the exhibition of a huge red, green and black African flag. It followed the basic pattern of any fashion show: a selection of “Day” and “Casualwear” followed by “Evening Wear” and ending in the “Wedding” scene (Designers earn most of their money making wedding gowns because one usually wants a opne of a kind creation for one’s wedding day). The twist, of course, was the completely African nature of the clothes and accessories presented. Mrs. Conteh loves working with natural fabrics and leathers. Mudcloth, Kente (literally, “the cloth of Kings”) and bazin (a type of African silk) were all used in gorgeous pieces modeled by some of Williams’ most attractive African-American students and several professional models. Mrs. Conteh most often designs in simple and bold strokes; her preferred patterns are butterfly line dresses, dashikis, caftans, and grand boobas. The thing that made these free-flowing, easy designs so stunning and worthy of the title “haute couture” was the detailing. The beauty and intricacy of the beading and embroidery was equal to anything out of Paris or Milan. The creations were also noteworthy for their use of colors. Brilliant blues, royal purples and deep, overdyed reds were featured everywhere from kofès (a traditional cap) to vests. An important part of any unified collection is the strength of the accessories complementing the clothes. Here again, Conteh’s design skills shone through. Headwraps, scarves, shoulderthrows and, of course, jewelry, lent an extra touch to the already fabulous line. My favorite accessories were the ornately carved canes which Conteh sent down the runway with male models such as Azell Archie ‘98. They gave new meaning to Teddy Roosevelt’s adage “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”

Ths show, aside from being a strictly “fashion” even, was a cultural one as well. Music and poetry, some penned by the designer herself, gave the show a feeling of spiritual, as well as aesthetic, beauty. The use of student models also gave the performance a relaxed and familiar vibe, though they certainly worked the catwalk as well as the professionals. Seeing friends and classmates in “model mode” went a long way towards pleasing the audience and adding excitement to the experience of attending a fashion show. And though the current fashion fixation on all things African is probably dying as I write, Conteh’s designs and presentation show that African and African-inspired fashions can be timeless and enduringly beautiful.

P. Reffell Conteh’s shop is located at 115 State St, in Rochester, NY.

(716) 262-3090 or (716) 271-8367

Business hours: M-W 11:00-6:30; Sat. 11:00-5:00.

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