Wednesday, October 16, 2013

FAD Profile: Jody Stephenson on African Fashion and Benefaction

Mali born Seydou Keïta photographed mid century African women and men and contributed to sense of African style

Speaking of fashion, we typically mean Western fashion. But style is universal. For this FAD profile, I interviewed entrepreneur and philanthropist for Africa, Jody Stephenson, who has been traveling to and working in Malawi, Africa for over a decade. She recently started an initiative, Twice Upon a Dress, to take the extra dresses in your closet and send them to Africa to be sold and support young scholars. The focus is on bridal, bridesmaid and formal gowns that are more rare and prized in Africa. Here are her thoughts on Africa, fashion and benefaction.

The 2011 book looked at the new tendencies in African style, more here

What is the typical fashion for women in Malawi, Africa?
Fashion varies depending if you are in a village or an urban area, but what I love most about both is that Malawian women wear colorful patterns- and they wear them well.

In a village, a chitenje wrap made from color material from the region is worn often over another skirt or dress.  Length is important.  It is expected that young women of 12-13 years of age and older wear skirts which reach near their ankles.  The shape of a woman’s thighs is never revealed in her clothing.  In addition, the women often wear a piece of colorful cloth on their head.  Yet another pattern of cloth is often used as a sling to carry a young child.

Jody's photo of a woman in Mtsiliza Village in Malawi

In urban areas, you will see women wearing skirts, dresses and many more wearing trousers (“pants” being underwear in British-English).  The spread of trousers has largely occurred in the past 15 to 20 years.  As recent as the 1990s, a woman could be put in jail for wearing trousers in public.
Nigerian born Duro Olowu has been internationally recognized and now shows in London

Do you perceive an African awareness of American fashion, in terms of its media dominance, styles and labels? With increasing connectivity has come greater exposure, including exposure to Western media sources. Flat screen televisions now hang in a number of small fast-food restaurants and bars in urban areas, revealing the latest and greatest of fashion in Western hip hop. It is shocking how quickly the exposure to certain American fashions has spread through the vast youth population.  In any culture, youth are often first-adopters and uniform in their adoption of “individuality.”  Half of the world’s population is under 25 (that’s 3 billion people) and 87% of them live in developing countries, like Malawi. The outcome in Malawi: saggy jeans, jerseys and flat-billed hats for men and tight, revealing clothing for women.

Elle South Africa featured what was praised as more authentic editorials starting in January 2013 above

Fashion and luxury and bridal dresses seem to be a privilege of the first world. How did you come to the realization to take excess luxury and put it to use in Africa? I come from a family of hard-working Germans who do not waste anything.  We used, reused, handed down, over, across, patched, hemmed, re-hemmed every piece of clothing until it could not, or perhaps, should not be worn again. Still, my family’s established culture of waste-not, want-not was challenged by the creative resourcefulness of the Malawians I met my first year living in Africa.  Torn plastic bags became soccer balls, plastic bottles were reused to sell cooking oil, old tires were made into shoe polish.  The list goes on.  After a year living in Chiwengo Village, I was a convert.  You can imagine my dismay when I heard about a new American wedding photo op referred to as “trash the dress,” where a bride and groom are typically professionally photographed soaking, burning or otherwise destroying a wedding dress after the ceremony.

Jody's photo of an engagement party in Malawi with a tradition of covering the bride

You are requesting American bridal, bridesmaid and formal dresses be sent to be sold in Africa. Is there interest in these styles? Anyone who has the privilege to attend a celebration, wedding or a weekly church service in Malawi knows that men, women and children alike come dressed to define “Sunday best.”  Most American bridesmaid dresses would be completely appropriate for the occasion- even for simply attending the wedding or event.  American dresses are different from Malawian “traditional wear,” for sure.  They are more about shimmer and lace than color and shape.   In the end, it’s about feeling beautiful, and Malawian women don’t hesitate to wear what makes them feel beautiful.

Have you attended a wedding in Africa? What is a typical wedding dress for Malawi? 
I have not only had the honor of attending several Malawian weddings, I have had the honor of being in a Malawian wedding for my dear friends Kabass and Fiskiani Agbermodji.  Like many American weddings, the wedding dress is the main event.  Think African princess – bright white dress, big skirt, tiara, gloves and sparkle. 

A Malawi wedding

What can one person's donated dress really do? How does it work?
What you wear can be an expression of who you are or who you want others to believe you are, but an education can actually help you become who you were created to be.  Donating a dress literally enables a young girl or boy to become more fully the person they were made to be. 

You may have one spare dress in your closet. You simply have to send it to Jody and will change a life forever. Email her at

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