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'The African Lookbook' is 100 Years' Worth of African Women's Global Influence

Catherine E. McKinley's 'The African Lookbook' documents 100 years of African women in front of and behind the camera as well as Africa's unmistakable, yet often trivialised, influence on fashion as we know it today.

African-American writer and curator Catherine E. McKinley's The African Lookbook is a remarkable repository for African women's rich history, their influence on global fashion and photography spanning 100 years.

Published in January of 2021, the book comprises photographs collected during McKinley's numerous travels across Northern and Western Africa over the years. The African Lookbook is an extensive archive currently documenting the role of mainly West African women in fashion and how both the thriving textile trade from a century ago as well as colonisation, resulted in the fashion landscape we've come to know today.

In what remains an incredibly white-washed fashion industry filled with cultural appropriation, very little credit given to Africans and Black women who have (and continue to) contribute to the industry, The African Lookbook upends that reality within its pages. While popular designers, the likes of Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs and more, have been at the receiving end of public backlash for appropriating Black culture, McKinley's book highlights just how far back many of the runway trends we see today were actually pioneered by African women whose contributions were simply erased over time. Take for instance Stella McCartney's controversial 2017 Spring collection which comprised vibrant ankara prints (from West Africa) but had very few Black women in the show overall.

In addition to fashion, The African Lookbook explores Africans behind the camera. It seeks to name image-makers, to give credit where credit has been so long overdue, and chronicle what McKinley thinks of as the African-Atlantic—the coastal countries that were trade centres reaching into the interiors.

And so we caught up with McKinley to talk about her growing collection of insightful photographs, how the concept originated and what the bigger picture (pun intended) is for the collection itself.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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