How ‘Black Panther’ became a fashion force
It’s New York Fashion Week in New York City, but it also feels like Black Panther Week.
Walking down the street, it is even more inescapable than the street style bloggers desperate for photographs. Ads are on buses, taxi cabs, billboards, everywhere. On Monday evening, the film even made its own appearance at NYFW at a presentation called “Welcome to Wakanda” that brought out not only some of the films’ major stars — Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o among them — but also fashion inspired by the film.
Months ago, Marvel Studios showed Black Panther to a select few designers from seven brands dedicated to empowerment in the industry — Chromat, Cushnie et Ochs, Fear of God, Ikiré Jones, LaQuan Smith, Sophie Theallet and Tome — and let them create a couture piece interpreting the film as they saw fit.
On Monday, the public was finally allowed to see these seven outfits, which will be auctioned off in support of Save the Children, an international organization that provides children the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. The outfits range from an architectural gown in traditional Nigerian fabric from Chromat to a sleek jacket and jumpsuit from LaQuan Smith.
“When I first got the phone call, I started sketching,” LaQuan Smith said in an interview. “I’m known for these thigh-high daring slits and super provocative sexy silhouettes, so I was taking these Afrocentric prints and doing them in these cocktail silhouettes. Then I saw the film ... I set aside 20 sketches and then did one more sketch, and [I] was like, this is the one.”
“For me it was about female empowerment,” Smith said. “It was about being powerful, being dominating, being strong and sexy and smart. Owning the woman that you are. That’s what I got from the film and the women. They fought for what they believe in.”
For Ikiré Jones designer Walé Oyéjidé, the film reminded him of his own work as a designer. After growing up in Nigeria and West Africa, Oyéjidé has made it a priority to bring his own heritage into his fashion in a stunning way. His work, from pretty much any angle, looks like art.
“I think the film is very much a metaphor for the work we try to do,” Oyéjidé said in an interview. “It’s the same message of using this beautiful facade to uplift people who don’t generally get to have a platform, whether that be ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality. For me, even watching the film, seeing people of color [in] both the villain and hero roles and the love interest roles, it’s the full scope of what people can do. That’s what I do with fashion.
“It’s wonderful that people appreciate the clothing. I’m very grateful for it, but I’m really trying to get people to look at human beings in a more nuanced way.”
What Oyéjidé created for this particular project — other designs of his actually appear in Black Panther — was the one menswear look of the bunch.
Chromat founder Becca McCharen-Tran brought in designer Tolu Aremu to help bring this Black Panther dress to life. For Aremu, who is Nigerian, the person she immediately thought of as inspiration was her mom.
“When Becca came to me and told me about the project, I immediately thought of an African superhero and the first person I thought of was my mom,” Aremu said in an interview. “I’m 100% Nigerian, and growing up with her and wearing her African garbs and ankara and all of these beautiful clothes that are so colorful, it felt very natural to bring in the ankara fabric in this look. And then watching the film, they had a lot of technology, so we added the neoprene and the bonding and made it look a little futuristic.”
The outfit ended up looking like a perfect fusion of Chromat’s trademark cages and architecture with Aremu’s own heritage.
This level of fashion interest and investment in a film is largely unheard of, but there are some good reasons for the fashion industry to take notice of this particular film. Black Panther, backed by Marvel and Disney, is set to be one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Of course fashion would want to worm its way in.
Then there’s the other obvious point: The fashion in Black Panther is stunning on its own. Under famed costume designer Ruth E. Carter, the costumes in the film are meticulous and thoughtful and gorgeous with a capital G. Carter, who has worked on films like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and Selma, brought in nods to African traditions — beading, neck rings, the color purple — along with technology, since Black Panther is set in a technologically advanced world.
“This is the new African diaspora,” Carter told Mic in October. “This is the new way of showing that Africa has a voice and it has a culture that’s very relatable. There was a time when no one wanted to relate to Africa, and its beauty was never expressed in a way that was of today and the future.”
She hopes Black Panther’s imagery changes that.
“It’s a reawakening of a new school of thought,” Carter said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, wake up.’ This isn’t just about a dashiki. I can show you neck rings in all their glory and carved wooden armor in a way that’s for protection and all kinds of stuff. It’s a new day.”
Looking past Black Panther’s opening night, designers are hoping the film’s fashion and level of industry attention ultimately helps shine a brighter light on African and African-American designers.
“For this film to be created in such a grand scale, I hope that this does change the mindset of fashion.” — LaQuan Smith
“We need more projects like this to really reinforce things that are unnoticed, like designers of color who don’t get the opportunities that many other people do,” Smith said. “For this film to be created in such a grand scale, I hope that this does change the mindset of fashion. There’s so many wonderful designers out there that people just don’t know about.
“I think that fashion has been created in such a way where it’s just this social circle. So if you don’t have the right connections and you don’t have the money, where’s your way in? It’s unfortunate. I do hope that a film like this, that brings people together and brings awareness, would turn things around for the better within the arts.”
Aurora James, the designer of Brother Vellies, a shoes and accessory brand that features entirely homemade goods produced sustainably in Africa, also created a Black Panther-inspired collection. And she also thinks — or hopes, at least — that it’ll change things in fashion and whom we’re all paying attention to.
“What my hope is is that this movie is going to break a lot of records and people are going to see that there is an audience for black content,” James said. “Even for me and this evening, thinking about black designers and also thinking about my aesthetic, there weren’t a ton of [designers of color] to choose from that are readily available at showrooms in New York. I think fashion in and of itself is an industry of privilege, and hopefully some of those things will change.”
As Aremu told Mic: “Africa is not next, but now.”