Business is brisk at the African clothing store Kutula in Los Angeles. It’s owned by sisters Kay and Bo Anuluoha. You won’t find your grandmother’s traditional church outfit here; Kutula sells fashion-forward African garments by contemporary designers, as well its own creations.
The sisters took over their mother’s business in 2014, and said Kay, they’ve always catered to a variety of needs.
“We were having a lot of people coming in, they were having African-themed baby showers, and this has been maybe for the past several years. At least once a week, we’d have people coming in with a 'Coming to America' themed party.”
Bo notes that things changed somewhat when Marvel announced that it was making a movie based on the comic book hero, T’Challa, also known as Black Panther.
“Immediately when the trailer was announced, we were receiving phone calls. And the interesting part is that spontaneously and independently people called. It wasn’t as if they had spoken to a friend. They had all made independent decisions that they had seen this trailer and I must get my outfit ready.”
Other Los Angeles-based African clothing stores have experienced a surge, too, said Michelle Dalton Tyree, founder and editor in chief of the online magazine Fashion Trends Daily. Crown Ruby Collections has witnessed “a 25 percent jump in sales from January through now, and that’s from people who’ve been purchasing the items to wear to the premieres.”
Dalton Tyree added that increased sales of film-related clothing and merchandise is typical, especially with the support of a marketing machine.
“In 2016 alone, entertainment and character sales were a $180 billion. So that machine is massive, and we see those things trickle down.” But in the case of "Black Panther," the pattern is different. Fans aren’t just buying clothes inspired by Marvel’s movie; they’re influencing trends, Dalton-Tyree says.
“This is absolutely something that we will see at fast-fashion retailers such as H&M, such as Zara, and we’ve already been seeing everything from the fabrics, whether it’s a Ikot print or tribal necklaces. You see those trickle down into the masses, and of course, it’s fabulous fashion!”
Designer Wunmi Olaiya is the owner of the clothes line Wow Wow by Wunmi. She said African fashion has long been a source of inspiration for Western designers.
"If you’re a stylist who’s trying to bring something new and you’re checking what’s going on, you’re checking the African scene," she said. "Look at the Louis Vitton, where they did the Ghana Must Go bag. Come on, that didn’t come out from nowhere. There’s somebody in house there was definitely very aware of the African scene ... Stella McCartney … everyone has been bitten by the African bug.”
If the African design aesthetic is now part of the established fashion cycle, what could this mean for the independent designers who are at the cutting edge? Bo Anuluoha of Kutula is cautiously optimistic:
“I think African fashion now has a place in fashion, and that cycle is part of the course. We just hope that it continues to turn so that new trends come and new fabrics and designers come out that help people advance the overall spectrum.”