With its crowded freeways and countless strip malls, Orange County is unlikely territory for fostering fashions that recall the remote villages of Africa.
Yet here amid the urban sprawl, local fashion designers are turning to Africa as the inspiration for their fledgling clothing collections.
Their designs are a melting pot of traditional African fabrics and contemporary American styles. For these designers, using an imported fabric such as colorful Kente cloth woven by tribes on the Ivory Coast is more powerful than any other kind of mass-produced material. It's a source of pride, a tribute to the designers' heritage.
They import their materials directly from Africa--the hand-dyed batik cottons, the woven Kente with its brilliant gold stripes and mud cloth with its nubby texture and deep, coffee-colored, mud-based dye. Some of the materials have been produced in African factories. Others have been made by hand in the African villages, using methods that go back for generations.
Pamela Coffey, owner of an African American boutique called Images in Santa Ana, designs her line of clothing for adults and children from fabrics imported from West Africa. The line, called Image Wear, includes everything from business attire for the office to casual jogging suits.
"Most of it is what I call contemporary fashion with an African flair," Coffey says. "We use African fabrics for all or part" of the garment.
Typical of Image Wear's cultural fusion: a man's vest made of black leather (a favorite of urban dwellers) and mud cloth made by African tribes with hand-painted stripes and dots on an inky background ($88).
Coffey can turn a woman's suit into something exotic but still appropriate for the office by designing the simple A-line jacket and straight skirt out of a gold and maroon wax-finish cotton print with stylized doves soaring among puffy clouds ($129).
Sarong skirts and loose-fitting baby doll dresses for women made of batik, unisex vests in bright geometric cottons and coordinating T-shirts and beach pants in cotton prints for adults and children round out her collection.
Coffey opened her shop in November, 1992, after searching without success for books that featured African American children to give to her daughter.
"In Orange County we're such a small part of the population that the stores say, 'There's not enough of you' " to carry African American merchandise, she says, referring to the county's 2% black population. "I wanted to fill that void." Her shop carries African American books, art, jewelry and gifts as well as apparel.
She began designing clothes as a hobby.
"I started sewing a couple of outfits for myself and got such a response that it kind of grew into a clothing line," she says.
Her customers are primarily African Americans from Orange County, although some buyers come from as far as Los Angeles and San Diego. She also sells her clothes through a mail-order catalogue.
Many wear the African fabrics as a symbol of pride in their heritage. That's why authentic strips of Kente cloth are popular. Traditionally worn by tribal chiefs, Kente strips have become badges of honor that are worn around the neck or shoulders with everything from blue jeans to tuxedos.
"A lot of actors and musicians wear them to awards ceremonies," Coffey says.
Evelyn Komuntale, a former resident of Kenya, creates contemporary and traditional ceremonial clothing using fabrics imported from Africa. She sells her designs from her home in Irvine and at fashion shows held at her church, Main Place Christian Fellowship in Santa Ana.
Komuntale's collection ranges from casual sportswear to evening wear. Among the pieces are ceremonial robes, head wraps, shorts, business suits, reversible jackets and sarongs, all in the bright colors and unusual patterns of Africa ($50 to $200).
"This is a way to bring culture to people, to show them the African designs but make them contemporary," Komuntale says.
Designers sense a growing acceptance among Americans for African styles.
"I'm very happy to see American people develop a taste for African products, because Africans have always liked American goods," says George Siaw Osborne, a native of Ghana now living in Buena Park.
When he arrived in the United States years ago, Osborne quickly learned that his royal clothes would look out of place in his new country.
"My cousins said, 'You can't wear that,' " he says. "People here have a whole different style."
He has incorporated Western style into his eclectic collection of evening wear, sportswear and even bikinis made from African fabrics. Timbuktu in Costa Mesa carries a few select pieces of his clothing, including a parka made of Kente ($145) and a jacket of green and maroon batik with an embroidered front ($125).
"These are modern designs in traditional fabrics," says Joanne Baker, owner of Timbuktu, who was born and raised in South Africa and came to the United States 21 years ago. Timbuktu also carries art, masks, trinkets and jewelry imported from Africa as well as yards of African fabric that can be worn as a sarong or sewn into a vest or other garment.
African jewelry appeals to people of all ethnic backgrounds looking for unique accessories, Baker says.
Timbuktu has bracelets and necklaces of old glass trade beads dating back to the 1700s, amulets, shells, bone, seeds and carved pieces of ostrich eggs. Men in particular like the bracelets made of rows of small ostrich shell beads.
"They're one-of-a-kind," Baker says.