When thinking of cutting edge fashion and art, Africa is not a region that many design-lovers would immediately call to mind. But, Aaron Kohn and Phil Sandick are about to change that. They have launched African Lookbook, a category-defying new website that focuses on African creativity and which is currently featured on Fab. The site purveys a unique range of African goods, spanning from top-line designer apparel and furniture to phone cases inspired by African wax-printed textiles and jewelry created by artisans in impoverished villages. While the products vary widely in theme, they are united through a hip, fashion-forward aesthetic that is immediately compelling.
African Lookbook founders Aaron and Phil met in Botswana, where the two Americans found that they shared common interests in art, design, and journalism. When they realized that their favorite African designers and artists had no exposure beyond Africa, they decided to bring the products to the U.S. themselves. The two launched African Lookbook in August 2012, and the site now works with about 20 different brands and designers, many of which had been unavailable to the U.S. market beforehand.
In addition to operating as an online shop, African Lookbook is also in part an oral histories project. The site presents audio interviews with African musicians, designers, artists, and other notable creatives, forming a collection of primary sources that Aaron and Phil describe as “raw, academic in nature, and uneditorialized.”
While browsing their website, it becomes apparent that Aaron and Phil are just as intrigued by the stories behind their products as they are in them as aesthetic objects—even when the stories open up complicated questions, such as, should a cloth be regarded as African if its history is entwined with colonialism? This combination of intellectualism and design makes African Lookbook all the more intriguing, and I was excited to speak with Aaron and learn more about the project.
How did you and Phil Sandick team up?
In 2008, I went to Botswana for a semester of high school. After Phil graduated from Columbia, he moved to Botswana and was working at the same school. In New York, he had worked for a photographer, and he was having exhibits and shows around southern Africa, two of which were at the Botswana National Art Gallery. I had been making documentary films around Africa, and our interest in storytelling meshed really well. We’ve collaborated on projects ever since.
A large part of African Lookbook is the oral histories project. What do you think is significant about oral history versus written history?
Most research that exists on African art comes from critics, art historians, or interviews. There isn’t a space where African creatives get to describe their work, thoughts, lives, etc. in their own words. In a number of instances, this has been a huge problem. Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe wrote a book, The Culture Game, which helped bring some of this to my attention. Phil has a Masters degree in Oral History from Columbia, and I’ve been learning more and more about oral history methodology. It’s our answer to providing primary source materials on African arts in a fair way. Essentially, the subjects of the interviews get to be in full control of what transpires and what they share, and they get to approve what the transcript looks like.
What has been your favorite part of African Lookbook so far?
When a lot of people hear what African Lookbook is doing, they say: “Oh, so it’s fair trade!,” or “Oh, I have some African masks from Kenya.” But then, when they see the products on our website, they take a step back. It’s really exciting when we hear people say, “That’s the sharpest sweater I’ve seen,” and suddenly these goods are not devalued or seen as non-profits, but stand on their own against the best products from around the world.
Aaron Kohn is currently finishing up a degree in African Studies from Columbia University, and Phil Sandick is a law student in Northwestern University’s International Human Rights program. Get more information about Aaron and Phil or see their newest oral history interview with South African photographer David Goldblatt here.
And don’t miss our sale with African Lookbook, which features a great assortment of clothing and design objects.
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