Lately, the fashion world has been testing the limits of bold fashion statements. With vibrant colors and loud prints gaining popularity, it’s no wonder designers have fallen back in love with ethnic and tribal-inspired prints. This year the runways were filled with ethnic prints — the hottest being Navajo prints, with African tribal coming in as a close second. And designers are incorporating other trends along with these prints. By using a brighter color scheme with the prints on dramatic maxi dresses and sweeper skirts, the latest tribal and ethnic print styles are more attention grabbing than ever before.
Ethnic and tribal influences have persisted in fashion for decades, but now fashion lines are using the styles in more literal ways. Designers are falling for the Navajo aesthetic. The prints are mainly made up of triangles, blocks and other geometric shapes, often punctuated with stripes in between the shapes. The traditional way to wear these prints is either on thick woven wool or suede, accented with fringe. A traditional-looking wool Navajo poncho is a popular look right now, and fashion lines are taking the style one step further with Navajo patterns printed on the pieces. Navajo-printed, poncho-inspired dresses also hit the runways recently, complete with fringe trim. Isabel Marant showcased a stunning Navajo-inspired fall collection. From fringe-trimmed, white suede mini-dresses (and matching over-the-knee suede fringe boots) to oatmeal-colored Navajo-print wool sweaters to shearling denim jackets, the line gives traditional Navajo styles the high fashion treatment.
The rich, complex patterns of African mud cloth have piqued the interest of designers as well. Traditionally, mud cloth is a hand-woven, hand-painted fabric, mostly in a palette of deep earth tones. The patterns are a variety of symbols comprised of dots, lines, circles and crosses. In the past, there have been interpretations of African mud cloth in tops and short skirts and dresses. But with the popularity of maxi dresses, sweeper skirts and head scarves, the use of African mud cloth in those pieces more literally resemble the garments of its tribal origin.
Both the Navajo- and African-inspired garments are beautiful, dramatic pieces that can be dressed up or down. Annie Ladino, chief stylist for ShopItToMe.com, recommends simple styling when wearing these garments. She suggests pairing a Navajo poncho simply with jeans or with skinny leather pants. The Navajo-inspired dresses could be worn with a pair of ankle boots or understated pumps. A maxi African mud-cloth dress worn with wedge sandals and a chunky necklace is perfect for a summer barbecue. And for colder months, throw on a cropped jacket and motorcycle boots for a chic, bold ensemble.
Ethnic-patterned clothes aren’t the only way to wear this trend. Ethnic-inspired accessories are making a mark in fashion right now as well. “This is the way that someone not as daring enough to rock an African print jacket or head wrap can still participate in the trend,” Adriane Jamison, director of operations for the bicoastal fashion boutique Curve, said. Ruth Sonnenshein, stylist, wardrobe consultant and co-founder of the styling company A Clothes Call, recommends going for accessories as well for two reasons — it’s a great way to stay on-trend when you’re on a budget, and bold accessories can be worn no matter what your body type. “It doesn’t exclude anybody … most every woman can wear a stack of bangles or a bold necklace,” she said.
And from African-inspired beaded necklaces to thick wooden bangles to feather earrings, there is a variety to choose from when adding some flair to your ensemble. Navajo-print purses are one fun option — mostly in canvas, the purse can serve as an excellent accent piece to a more classic, casual outfit. If you’re looking for a statement piece, Sonnenshein recommends a bold African-inspired metal necklace or neck cuff. Another great affordable option is an ethnic-printed head scarf. As they are such a popular trend right now, this is a fun way of hitting two trends in one piece, while rocking a colorful, playful print. You can then tie the scarf into a turband, a scarf tied something like a turban, which is yet another play on global-influenced fashion.
Other designers have taken a bolder, avant-garde approach to ethnic prints. Ruth Sonnenshein, stylist, wardrobe consultant and co-founder of the styling company A Clothes Call, says that the distinction this year is a brighter color palette. “What’s different now about the ethnic and tribal influences is that it’s a play on the bold trend as well,” said Sonnenshein. “The style is really vibrant, colorful, energetic. Much more in your face than in the past.”
Proenza Schouler showcased a set of vibrant Navajo prints on the runways recently. While in the past designers have worked in a more muted, neutral palette for Navajo prints, Proenza’s colors were bold — using burnt oranges, mustard yellows, emeralds and sapphires. The patterns were printed on silk and looked as though they had been zoomed in and pixelated. Adriane Jamison, director of operations for the bicoastal fashion boutique Curve, loves the Burberry Prorsum Resort collection, which includes tribal-patterned trim dresses and similarly patterned trench coats, high-waisted skirts and dresses. The more tailored garments seen in recent collections — cocktail dresses, trousers, cropped jackets and silk blouses — are perfect for work wear or fancier ensembles. An African tribal-printed button-up blouse could pair with a pencil skirt and pumps for the office, while a Navajo-printed cocktail dress, matched with black tights and stilettos, can be a fantastic look for a night out on the town.
Mixing and Matching
An ethnic-printed garment can be a piece around which you style a whole ensemble. But when doing so, be careful not to go too theme-y with the outfit. “If you wear Navajo pants with a fringe jacket, you’ll just look like you’re in costume. You might as well add a headdress,” Ladino said. Just like most bold fashion trends, striking a balance is key. Opt for classics to pair with the pieces — jeans with a printed top or a white button-down with printed pants, for example. Add a leather jacket or trench coat if it’s cold, and you’re sure to look chic.
And while pattern play — mixing and matching patterns — is a big trend nowadays, sometimes more complex ethnic prints can be hard to match. “I love pattern play, but that’s more runway than it is real-way,” Sonnenshein said. Jamison agrees. “It takes a well-trained eye to mix two [patterns] that are complementary,” she said.
If you are daring enough to match a loud African tribal-print skirt with, say, a striped T-shirt, Ladino suggests a few guidelines: Stick to a color scheme. If you’re wearing a black-and-white printed pant, match it with a mostly black-and-white printed top. Or for colored prints, make sure a few of the colors are similar in the two garments. Choose one big print and one small print. Two big prints is a bit too loud, while pairing two small prints may make you look like a living page from the Magic Eye books. Jamison also suggests that if you are so bold as to match an ethnic print with another print, you can tone it down with a blazer or motorcycle jacket.