Fashion that celebrates African strength and spirit | Walé Oyéjidé

It is often said that the storiesof history are written by its victors, but if this is true, what becomes of the downtrodden, and how can they ever hopeto aspire for something greater if they are never told the storiesof their own glorious pasts? Ostensibly, I stand before youas a mere maker of clothing, but within the folds of ancient fabricsand modern textiles, I have found a higher calling.

Through my work as a designer, I've discovered the importanceof providing representation for the marginalized membersof our society, and the importance of tellingthe most vulnerable among us that they no longer haveto compromise themselves just so they can fit inwith an uncompromising majority.

It turns out that fashion, a discipline many of usconsider to be trivial, can actually be a powerful toolfor dismantling bias and bolstering the self-imagesof underrepresented populations.

My interest in using designas a vehicle for social change happens to be a personal one.

As a Nigerian American,I know how easily the term "African" can slip from beingan ordinary geographic descriptor to becoming a pejorative.

For those of usfrom this beautiful continent, to be African is to be inspired by culture and to be filled with undyinghope for the future.

So in an attempt to shiftthe misguided perceptions that many have about the place of my birth, I use design as a means to tell stories, stories about joy, stories about triumph, stories about perseveranceall throughout the African diaspora.

I tell these stories as a concerted effortto correct the historical record, because, no matterwhere any of us is from, each of us has been touchedby the complicated histories that brought our familiesto a foreign land.

These histories shapethe way we view the world, and they mold the biaseswe carry around with us.

To combat these biases, my work draws aestheticsfrom different parts of the globe and crafts a narrativeabout the importance of fighting for inclusivity.

By refashioning imagesfrom classic European art and marrying them with African aesthetics, I am able to recast people of colorin roles of prominence, providing them with a degree of dignity they didn't have in earlier times.

This approach subverts the historicallyaccepted narrative of African inferiority, and it serves as inspirationfor people of color who have grown wary of seeingthemselves depicted without sophistication and without grace.

Each of these culture-bending tapestries becomes a tailored garment or a silk scarf, like the one I amvery coincidentally wearing right now.

(Laughter) And even when surroundedin a structure of European classicism, these narratives boldly extollthe merits of African empowerment.

In this way, the tools of the mastersbecome masterworks to celebrate thosewho were once subservient.

This metaphor extendsbeyond the realm of art and out into the real world.

Whether worn by refugeesor world-changing entrepreneurs, when people are allowedthe freedom to present themselves in a manner that celebratestheir own unique identities, a magical thing happens.

We stand taller.

We're more proud and self-aware because we're presentingour true, authentic selves.

And those of us who are around themin turn become more educated, more open and more tolerantof their different points of view.

In this way, the clothes that we wear can be a great illustrationof diplomatic soft power.

The clothes that we wearcan serve as bridges between our seemingly disparate cultures.

And so, yeah, ostensibly I standbefore you as a mere maker of clothing.

But my work has alwaysbeen about more than fashion.

It has become my purposeto rewrite the cultural narratives so that people of color can be seenin a new and nuanced light, and so that we, the proud children of sub-Saharan Africa, can traverse the globe while carrying ourselves with pride.

It was indeed truethat the stories of history were told by its old victors, but I am of a new generation.

My work speaks for those who will no longer let their futuresbe dictated by a troubled past.

Today, we stand readyto tell our own stories without compromise, without apologies.

But the question still remains: are you preparedfor what you are about to hear? I hope you are, becausewe are coming regardless.

(Applause).

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