The impact of 2017 trends in Malawi


2018 has finally arrived, and as much as I couldn’t wait to get out of 2017, I should admit that it was definitely a year to be alive.

From the blood sucker stories, electricity woes, water struggles (Lilongwe Area 18 hello), birth of Awilo le Tay, the exciting football seasons and entertainment events in general all the way down to social media trends and memes, the country, though struggling, found solidarity and prized moments of laughter and happiness.

Make fashion the center of attention and Malawi will still make headlines in regards to how far this country has come as far as this industry is concerned. Remember there was a time that women couldn’t go around wearing pants? Do you remember not being able to wear spaghettis or shorts to school despite the weather? Remember not being allowed to walk around in public with your sanity still intact if you wore something over the knees (still tabooed, but not as strict)?

I must say despite the mediocrity this country oozes at times, the growth shown by people in this country fashion-wise made me more than proud to be a Malawian, especially last year. Before I go any further, what do I mean when I say “fashion”? Charlie Porter explains below, as quoted in the book, Fashion Journalism:

“The thing about fashion is that it is one of the broadest topics you can write about. There’s so much depth to it that people don’t realize is there. There is the surface attraction of things that are beautifully made, but then there’s the whole sociological side of why we wear clothes, what meaning clothes have and why we make certain choices, both conscious and subconscious. There’s a whole ecological discourse, which comes and goes, and there’s the psychological aspect to understanding what it is that makes us buy clothing. And there’s the corporate side and the business side, which are also incredibly personal because there are such alpha males and females in charge.”

Broad indeed, isn’t it? When a definition as vast as this is brought to my attention, I tend to wonder how exactly Malawians have evolved in terms of fashion and how we view it in general. Is it a means of self-expression, declaration of where we stand in the social class, or just a day-to-day routine we’d pass up given the chance?

Malawi is one of the many countries that have embraced local products and everything natural. A lot of women have given up relaxed hair and weaves and are growing their natural hair, and some have taken an even bigger step and gone for the big chop. We’ve seen men of all ages keeping dreads and getting all sorts of hair color and hair styles.

People have embraced clothes made of Ankara and have embraced afro-inspired accessories, and we have, in not less than five years, seen Malawi introduce local businesses such as SAC, Omie’s Hair Products, and most recently, Doll Mabel.

There has been what I will reluctantly call the ‘battle of the skin shades’, where light skin people trended amid stories of thousands of women and men who used skin lightening creams under the impression that darker skin was not beautiful enough or at all, and those with darker shades came up with hashtags such as #SunKissed, #MelaninKing/Queen and #TheBlackerTheBerryTheSweeterTheJuice (to mention a few) to caption photos they took to prove that black was indeed beautiful. These hashtags trended on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr and could, disputably, be termed as the hashtags of the year 2017. People have definitely taken pride in what is theirs and have become vocal about their opinions.

The big question is, is this an indication of empowerment and awareness for Malawians engrossed in such trends, or is this another passing wave that we shouldn’t pay that much attention to? Fashion designer Vivietta weighs in on the issue:

“I really think that trends have affected people’s self-awareness and empowerment both positively and negatively, but mostly positively. For the negative, everyone is just obsessed with looking better than the other person, being a slay queen, having everything on fleek and it’s gotten to a point where some girls are using means they are not supposed to to get things they cannot afford.

Malawian Hip Hop artist Toast

“However, positively, everyone is now in tune with their bodies. They’re taking better care of themselves and everyone is doing everything possible to ensure that they’re looking good. People are embracing natural hair and giving up relaxed hair. Not that it’s bad, but as you grow older you realize the side effects it has and you’re able to make better choices for yourself.

“People have also started to embrace their skin. This has affected empowerment in that we are able to empower our own culture using the clothes we make. We are wearing a lot of African prints and afro-inspired outfits and this shows that we are not forgetting some of the things that we started to forget as Africans. We started to go to the Westerners more, but now we are starting to embrace more of what’s ours and because of this some people have been financially empowered to start businesses using fashion trends. There are some that are using fashion trends to become entrepreneurs.”

Nicole Kamwendo, a presenter at Capital Radio, was one of the women who were very vocal on social media about their skin tone, their hair and the Ankara. Due to such trends, hashtags such as #nappyhair and #melaningoddess were a staple in most of her social media posts. She shares her opinion of such trends:

“I’m a person who’s really dark and when I was younger I used to get teased about it and then all of a sudden in 2017 I became popular because of it. It came as a surprise, but it did add a boost to my personality and an extra sense of empowerment. I was more flaunty and open with my posts on social media. So I believe 2017 trends definitely went a long way in empowering people, especially dark skin women. I feel like light skin people have always gotten away with things while dark skin women have had to compensate for our skin tone and recently we’ve seen that we really don’t. There have been major brands that have catered to women with darker skin while most of them don’t.”

“Ankara also gained a lot of popularity last year and not just in the African continent, but globally. So many designers are now embracing the African fabric and patterns, the vibrancy, the bright colors and the different things we put together to make them stand out. This went a long way in empowering people because it became more inclusive for people who use such fabric in their day to day lives and can’t really afford much. I also feel that the natural hair trend really taught people how versatile nappy hair can be. It taught a lot of women how to be happy in their own skin. It taught women and men that it can be seen as sexy and it can be tamed, and I am proud to say I am one of the people who made others aware of these facts.”

Kamwendo, who found an entrepreneurship opportunity in these trends, started an expose termed ‘Natural Hair Expo’ alongside fellow naturalista, Naomi Phoya. She says, “We started this expo to gauge people’s minds and see if this natural hair trend was as big as we thought it was and it turned out to be. It was a movement that was just waiting to have a release.”

Walk down the streets of any given city in Malawi right now and you are sure to see a lot of men and women rocking their natural hair and wearing an outfit with some Ankara on it.

Malawian artist Tay Grin

One of the country’s biggest artists, Tay Grin, was on the frontline in the media with his sundry hairdos and afro-inspired outfits. Trendsetter? Maybe. But you will admit that his stunts definitely caused waves as did his music. Tay Grin had an amazing year, dropping chart-topping singles and most recently, a mixtape, and getting airplay and performing on international platforms. He has made Ankara a part of his outfits when making major appearances, but how commercially viable are Malawian designs?

Commenting on this is award-winning videographer Sukez who, through his work, has worked with a lot of designers:

“I would say Malawian products are ready to go international. We have seen a lot of unique designs, especially those with an African touch which makes them stand out. If we take a few examples, brands such as Nyalisa Wear, Adam’s Needle, Lily Alfonso and MT Open Closet are definitely on the right path. We are ready for the world to know about our fashion; our culture. Despite issues with branding and other vital resources, our designers are working hard.”

Should we expect more growth in these trends in 2018, or does this year have a wave of its own? With my eyes all open and ears ready to get in on the latest buzz, I leave you with this question: What was your favorite 2017 trend? Do share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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