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UPSCALE men and women are making a bold statement with Afrocentric attire and accessories. Attend a festive gala in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, or anywhere in between, and you will see Black professionals decked out in ensembles inspired by Mother Africa alongside those wearing ball gowns and tuxedos. From dinners at the White House and Kennedy Center events to the huge banquet that highlights the annual Congressional Black Caucus to the annual Black Creativity Gala that kicks off Black History Month in Chicago, one can witness handsome Black men and gorgeous Black women adorned in African attire.

Women are dressed in African-inspired gowns while others prefer an Afrocentric accent, such as a colorful scarf or shawl of kente cloth or mud cloth, or dazzling African jewelry. Among celebrity women who attend social gatherings in ethnic attire are Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Judith Jamison, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund. A number of well-known men, such as Andrew Young, Dick Gregory and Marion Barry, are known for their Afrocentric evening attire. They may wear a bow tie, cummerbund or vest of kente cloth, or their tux may be embellished with a kente cloth lapel or other accent. For many years Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes and actor Garrett Morris have donned African robes, and more recently younger male entertainers have adopted the style, including The Artist, Wyclef Jean and Speech.

Professional women also are adopting African influences. In Chicago and New York and other major cities especially, you can see cultural influences among the clothing of business and corporate women who want their ethnicity reflected in their personal style.

Kinshasha Holman Conwill, director emeritus of the Studio Museum in Harlem, says over the years she has seen more and more African- and ethnic-inspired styles among Black professional women. "It has evolved into a wonderful fashion statement that is highly individual," she says. "I have seen some women wearing beautiful long and short coats of mud cloth to stunning effect."

Conwill says she began wearing African fabrics 30 years ago when she dressed almost exclusively in clothing she personally designed. Over the years, she says, her style has changed. "While I no longer wear solely African garb, I never stopped wearing something almost daily--a bracelet, a pair of earrings, a necklace." She goes on to say she usually combines African-inspired touches and fabrics with solid colors, often black. The gold or silver of a pair of earrings or the dramatic colors of Ndebele bracelets are much more dramatic when they aren't competing with other attire, she adds.

"My style is a personal expression and I have always had a deep affinity and a personal affection for African design," says Conwill. "When I wear something from Africa or inspired by the continent, I feel more comfortable in my skin and in myself. I don't consciously think of it as a statement, but I suppose on some level it is. I just know that it feels right, and it looks great!"

C.C. McClendon, senior national director of R&B promotions for Arista Records in New York, expresses similar views concerning her ethnic attire. As she moved up the ranks of the record company, she says her confidence increased as well. "I woke up one day and I liked me," she says, adding that after she started wearing Afrocentric clothing, she decided to change her hair style to dreadlocks. When she attends Arista President/CEO Clive Davis' weekly corporate luncheons, she says: "I'm usually the one who comes in with the loudest suit. I definitely bring some ethnicity."

Regardless of the setting, McClendon says she feels quite comfortable and appropriately attired. "I like my clothes to look strong and say `strength' and to represent the African side of me," says McClendon, who makes many of her own pieces from African fabric she buys in boutiques or from vendors in New York and in her hometown Detroit. "I like to be bold, and I want people to recognize me and to know that I represent my culture. I want to represent my people properly. I think that my ethnic attire accessorizes my strong personality. I want people to know that I'm an African-American who wants to be taken seriously in the business world."

Kinshasha Conwill says she has never had an occasion when Afrocentric attire was not appropriate. "While I may tone down my attire for a particular event, say a memorial service, I think that the variety of ways that I can incorporate jewelry, scarves or full outfits is very flexible. I also think that some of the most elegant accessories and clothing I have are African-inspired."

Many of today's brides and grooms also are choosing wedding attire inspired by Mother Africa. Nigerian designer Dboyega Adewumi of New York does a booming business in ethnic wedding attire as well as evening ensembles for both women and men. "The trend toward ethnic-type wedding gowns continues," says the designer's brother and business partner, Jonathan Adewumi, president of Nigerian Fabrics and Fashions. "Many business women want something sexy but cultural and ethnic to wear to big corporate events and to big social galas. They sometimes want strapless gowns or outfits with double splits."

Adewumi adds that many men also want Afrocentric evening wear. Very popular from his collection is a double-breasted, eight-button tuxedo jacket made of black and gold African fabric. Stevie Wonder ordered the jacket last fall, and the design shop recently outfitted the entertainer's daughter and wedding party for her nuptials. Adewumi adds that many of their wedding and formal ensembles are made of asooke, or "royal cloth," Nigeria's most prestigious wedding fabric. And an increasing number of brides are using some version of the gele, or headtie, as their bridal head gear.

The key to carrying off a regal ethnic look is to not overdo it. Few things are more comical than a garish ensemble of mix-matched African fabrics. Those in the know and those who are experienced in style and fashion say that less may be best in most situations. "My advice to young Sisters is to follow your own style when incorporating African accents," says Kinshasha Conwill. "Think first of what you like, what makes you feel good about how you look. If you love gold, a simple pin and a pair of earrings can do marvels to change a standard business look into something special. Keep it simple. Too much of a good thing is too much and begins to work against you."
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Author:Norment, Lynn
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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