IN the years since Yves Saint Laurent showed his iconic 1967 “African” collection, fashion designers have repeatedly tapped the heritage of Africa in search of inspiration. Just last season Burberry and Michael Kors were among several labels that mined the continent as a source of ideas. Yet in the popular imagination, especially in the Western hemisphere, African fashion more often than not means animal prints, mud cloth and cowrie shells. In her new work, “New African Fashion” (Prestel; $35), Helen Jennings, a fashion journalist, hopes to broaden that view. Part coffee-table book, part glossary, it highlights designers — some established, some fledgling — whose work is African made or inspired.
While there is no single way to describe African style, the fashion industry tends to favor characterizations that to many people smack of condescension. “Fashion is full of meaningless terms like ‘tribal’ and ‘urban,’ ” said Ms. Jennings, who is also the editor of Arise, a two-year-old monthly African fashion and culture glossy. “Like the word ‘exotic’ — it makes me cringe.”
The Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu also finds the clichés patronizing. “Africa has always been used as a reference point,” Mr. Olowu said, “but not as a valued source of serious fashion.”
Last week, guests packed a room in the New York Public Library to hear Ms. Jennings and a group of designers discuss their work. “African fashion hasn’t been documented very well,” the author told the audience. She and the panelists were emphatic that African fashion did not have to fit a preconceived notion of what is “African.” “I think a lot of the time when we think of African culture, we think of just fabric,” said Mimi Plange, a designer born in Ghana and raised in San Francisco. “There are other ways to interpret our culture.”
Ms. Plange studied architecture and rarely uses traditional prints or textiles in her garments. Her spring 2012 collection included gowns with intricately stitched bustiers that mimicked the body-scarring designs regarded as adornment in some parts of Africa. “I want to prove to people that African fashion can’t be pigeonholed,” she said. “I can compete globally.” Her craftsmanship got the attention of André Leon Talley, who helped edit her fall 2011 collection. She also collaborated with Manolo Blahnik.
Mr. Olowu, best known for his feverish colors and clashing prints — some traditionally African, some drawn in his studio — has been in business since the 1990s and is among the more established designers included in the book. Michelle Obama has worn his creations, and his work is popular with Solange Knowles, Iris Apfel and Shala Monroque as well. Among the emerging designers in the book are Idyl and Ayaan Mohallim, the Somali-American twin sisters behind the line Mataano, which means twins in Somali. Idyl interned at Betsey Johnson, Ayaan with Jill Stuart.
“We design clothes for the global modern woman who shops in Johannesburg, Milan and Dubai,” Ayaan said at the forum. Shortly after their spring 2009 debut, they appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in a segment about entrepreneurs. Temple Muse, the Neiman Marcus of Lagos, has picked up their dresses, as have other boutiques. Last month, Iman Cosmetics, which sponsored the makeup for their spring 2012 show in New York, announced that the sisters were its new brand ambassadors.
Perhaps the most consequential aspects of Ms. Jennings’s documentation of this generation of designers are the visual presentation and the absence of stereotype in her approach.
“Anyone looking for a few masks or leopard spots will be disappointed,” Mr. Olowu said.