African Textiles a Hit on European Catwalks

by Michael Scaturro

July 08, 2013


BERLIN — Textiles made from African barks are growing in popularity,especially in Europe.  Bark from Ugandan fig trees - the oldestfabric known to mankind - is now being used in home design, furniture, andlighting fixtures.


On the top floor of a sprawling studio inBerlin's Kreuzberg neighborhood, 26-year-old Nigerian-German fashion designerBobby Kolade is making last-minute preparations for his fashion show later inthe week.  His collection has gotten alot of media attention, primarily because he is the first designer in the Westto use bark from Ugandan fig trees in high fashion.


"This is the coat everyone is talkingabout.  It is an oversized coat,"Kolade said, referring to one of the most talked about pieces from hiscollection.  "It is an interestingfabric.  It is light, but stiff at thesame time.  It looks heavy, but it isquite light.  I have bonded it here withwool, to give it more flexibility."


Kolade grew up in Uganda and Sudan.  He later studied fashion in Berlin. Growing up, he was fascinated by how Ugandan farmers peel off the barkfrom fig trees in a way that does not harm the tree.


"And then the tree is wrapped withbanana leaves, to protect it," the designer explained. "And whathappens then is that the bark cloth is boiled in huge pans, to soften it.  And afterwards, it is hammered using a hammermade from guava tree wood ... until it is 10 times as thin as its originalsize.  That is what the men do; it isvery strenuous.  Afterwards, they lay itin the sun and that is how this color comes about."


The color is that of rich maple wood withslight flecks of almond, but Kolade says the color can vary.


"Usually bark from a tree is verylight, like fresh wood.  And the sun iswhat gives it this color.  It issomething you cannot control," he explained.


"When it is in the sun it becomesdarker," added Mary Barongo, co-founder of Bark Cloth, a company insouthern Germany.  She imports the bark from her native Uganda.


"We take the finished product from thefarmers, the bark-cloth makers, and then we modify it," Barongo explained."So what Bobby Kolade uses has been modified by us.  Its natural color is reddish-brown."


The bark was named to UNESCO's list ofIntangible Cultural Heritage in 2008. Shortly thereafter, Kolade discovered it could be used as an alternativeto leather.


"I am trying to replace leather withbark cloth, because I do not work with leather as a vegetarian," Koladesaid. "It is also an interesting challenge.  It is difficult to work with.  It is actually not meant for coats and thatsort of thing."


Most in the audience of a recent fashionshow where Kolade showed his collection had never seen bark used in this waybefore.


"Never heard about this fabric before,but I think it looks great," one woman said.


 "This is the first time I have seen itbeing used before in fashion," admitted another atendee.  "But a lot of raw materials in Africa orUgandacan be used in versatile and different ways. So it can be used for householdthings, for fashion, for anything pretty much. It depends how use twist it, really."


On July 5, Kolade's collection won firstplace in the German fashion industry's Start Your Fashion Business competitionfor young talent.  The prize consists ofa $32,000 cash grant and support from the city of Berlin. Kolade said he will use the prize money to continue exploring barksilk-screen printing and to make his bark jackets more water resistant.