30 Years of Pan-African Fashion ... Kenya's African Heritage Festival. (Fashion)

By Mbakwe, Tom | New African, December 2001 | Go to article overview

30 Years of Pan-African Fashion ... Kenya's African Heritage Festival. (Fashion)


Mbakwe, Tom, New African


When Alan Donovan, the American designer, first arrived in Kenya in 1970, he found fashion and modelling still areas very much restricted to European imports and Asian sarees. He started recruiting African models and produced the first show in Kenya to use all African models and African textiles in 1972.

The previous year (1971), he had produced the forerunner of Kenya's African Heritage Festival as a street festival in New York City. Because the clothes for the Festival had not arrived from Kenya on time, he was forced to turn to creating new designs out of sheer desperation.

A street in New York had been closed down for the Festival and the mayor of New York was to be the guest of honour! So two nights before the Festival, Alan Donovan took several strips of glorious hand-woven "Shema" cloth from Ethiopia that he had in his suitcase, and, with a tailor from the Lincoln Centre Opera, they worked all night and the following day to create several gowns for the opening show.

Those designs then went on a nationwide tour of the United States in which over 20 million people were reached through shows, TV and the print media.

It is exactly 30 years from that first, desperate, show in 1971.

To celebrate those 30 glorious years, we show, on this and the following pages, some of the exquisite designs that have followed on from that first show in the streets of New York that eventually metamorphosed into Kenya's "African Heritage Festival", a cabaret cum fashion show that has intrigued and delighted audiences around the world.

Last month, the Pan African Gallery based in Nairobi and run by African Heritage Ltd, of which Alan Donovan is managing director, won the Pan-African Broadcasting, Heritage and Achievement Award (PABIA) with its African Heritage show. Donovan flew to Abuja, Nigeria, with his creative manager, Ojay Kahim, to receive the award on 3 November.

African Heritage consists of three major pan-African galleries in Nairobi with restaurants, craft centres and production units, employing 500 people.

During the Gallery's 30-year history, it has played a unique and important role in the cultural and artistic endeavours of Kenya, representing Africa in many events and programmes around the world.

African Heritage is famous for its high quality handicrafts. The World Bank once described it as, "the largest, most organised wholesale and retail craft organisation in Africa, a pioneer, having turned souvenir trinkets to object d'art with world class appeal."

Among the many models to have come from the African Heritage Festival is the Somalian, Iman -- by far the most famous of all African models.

The Festival presents a "textile tour" through Africa, showing fashions created from the continent's spectacular hand-woven and hand-printed textiles along a collection of authentic costumes from all parts of Africa.

Although based firmly on Africa's traditional culture, the Festival presents Africa as a dynamic, creative force in the contemporary world. The costume designed recently by African Heritage for Kenya's entry in the Miss World Tourism contest won first prize among all the world's entries.

African Heritage is not only famous for its textiles and crafts. The African Heritage House, overlooking the Nairobi National Park, has been described by the prestigious Architectural Digest as: "An architecture rising from the sere Kenyan plain like an outcropping of earth, a vision of usefulness informed by the African genius for decoration. Inside the house, on every wall, floor and ceiling is more proof in textiles, wood, masonry, pottery, weaponry and art, of the irreducible modernity of African crafts."

Designed also by Alan Donovan, the house is a combination of the architectural styles from across Africa. Plans are being made to establish the house as a living museum to illustrate how one may live with African art and crafts in a contemporary way. …

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