January 25, 2018

New Years resolutions with Babatunde

Babantunde, campaign 2014, love this picture!

Last October I had the chance to meet and hang out with entrepreneur and fashion designer Gareth Cowden of the brand Babatunde. I knew his brand very well from the store Lady Africa in Den Haag (NL). The cap, hats, bowties and umbrellas in colourful wax prints brighten up every outfit and make great gifts. When I heard he would be part of the Afrovibes program, I made sure we would meet.

Babatunde is known as a South African brand, but meeting Gareth I learned that the whole ‘African Fashiontrend’ isn’t always that helpful in developing a sustainable, strong brand. In our conversations on Skype and on Dutch soil we talked about what it meant to represent ‘Africa’, how it is in ‘South Africa’ and what is the actual power of fashion.

Gareth started Babatunde in 2009. He was working as a fashion stylist in music videos and fashion editor for magazines. To work in fashion in South Africa you have to be quite versatile. So the focus wasn’t just on menswear or advertisements, but a bit of everything. To create a more stable income, away from freelance, in combination with the wish to work outside South Africa, the idea of Babatunde came to life. With a visit to Gabon, Gareth noticed how different South Africa is from other African countries. Especially in what people wear. People don’t wear nearly as much prints in South Africa. Returning with the inspiration of seeing people wearing all these prints and with his knowledge of who does what around Johannesburg, he started Babatunde.

New Adidas #Adicolor Campaign from Trevor Stuurman with Babatunde umbrella

Openingnight of Afrovibes 2017 with a Babatunde photobooth

What’s in a name?

During the Lady Africa fashion show in Den Haag on 8 October a woman said: “Wauw Babatunde, such a special name.” So I made a note to ask Gareth about this during our conversations on Skype.

Babatunde means The Father Comes Back in Yoruba, a language spoken in West Africa.
First Gareth wanted to call the brand Bamako, after the capital of Mali. A lot of great music comes from there according to Gareth. Yet, he knew the name Babatunde for a long time, and it somehow clicked. It turned out to be the perfect name. He discovered the name through reggae. He started to research the name and discovered it worked for different reasons.
First, because it is a Yoruban name and not a South African name. This way he could pay homage to other African countries.
Also to show at home that there is more North of the Crocodile river. The possibility to share through his brand more about other African countries.
The best thing about the name Babatunde is the direct translation; The father comes back, the father returns. As Gareth explained: “We just need more father figures in Africa. Due to colonisation, due to Apartheid, family structures were destroyed. Now migrant labor, men leaving their communities in order the find work. Again family structures are destroyed. But also The need to take responsibility for your own actions and respecting others around you. It’s about creating awareness, The reason why we have these family structures. Showing a different kind of cool also. Being well mannered for example. Africa needs to grow and prosper. I don’t know how easy it is to get these messages across through a brand, through a cap or an umbrella someone bought in Tokyo or somewhere in Europe, but this is what I’m hoping to achieve with Babatunde.”

The love for wax

Growing up in South Africa, the experience of seeing something so different in Gabon and Mozambique struck with Gareth. It added something to the experience, subconsciously. All these colours.
At first Gareth thought Wax prints were purely African, made and designed. Although this isn’t the whole story of Wax prints, still there was something really representative of Africa in the prints. So he chose to start with making accessories with selected prints.
Long term Babatunde doesn’t have to be strictly Wax prints in Gareth’s eyes. For a brand to be strong, you need to be able to bring out a plain black cap or a plain black hat. Leather, or whatever. In the end it should be more about the name and what it represents, then the fabric it is made of.
On the other hand, it would be amazing if Babatunde was made in textiles specific to each region, even for each country or continent. The aim for Babatunde is to become more then a South African brand, to become a global brand. “I want to be a designer, a brand and a strong one, not only with the label {South} African. Yet I want to be a brand with a responsibility to where I am from”

Lady Africa Fashionshow on 8 October 2017 in Den Haag 
with a lot of wax prints from Julius Holland Wax 
and umbrellas by Babatunde

This responsibility comes with challenges. There are many challenges for working in South Africa. The equality, or better inequality. What local factories are capable of. Also the infrastructure is a challenge. For Gareth it is important to have the factories in South Africa, to make the products there. At the same time it feels like he can not make the products outside of South Africa. People in Europe assume when they see - Made in Uganda/South Africa/Ghana- they think, oh, it's fair trade, but they don’t know anything about how it is actually made, under which conditions it is made. Gareth asks himself if he can truly make a fair and sustainable product in South Africa. What does Fair trade actually mean? On paper it means that the workers are getting paid better, are living in better houses, but in reality what does that look like? If they get paid minimum wage that is considered fair, but is it? Especially if you compare it to the wages people earn in the country where the products are eventually sold. So what is so fair about that? As a brand you don’t want to celebrate your employees can live the most basic life possible. You want a true improvement.
“Keeping the integrity of the brand is very important {for me}. If I keep the brand South African, there are a lot of benefits for the integrity of the brand. It is harder, but it is the future. I’m not trying to be a hero, I’m just trying to run a normal business. Here I can at least see how my products are made. But it isn’t perfect.”

For all the hardship and challenges you face making a brand work, it's little moments that make it worthwhile. Like hanging out with Erykah Badu for an hour, so jealous of that. Solange wearing Babatunde on stage. But also visiting Paris and spotting on the first night there, someone wearing his hat. A surreal and rewarding moment.
In the end its about everyone who chooses to wear my products. It is amazing that someone in Lagos, Miami, Tokyo can even get Babatunde. Thats it's so special.

Gareth’s ideas for the future of his brand are interesting and when I asked when Babatunde would be considered a success in his eyes, he answered “For Babatunde to be successful it needs to be able to employ 20 people. It can chance peoples lives if it gives work. Gives people salaries. But not only short term, it needs to be sustainable. Thats my dream. Thats what I want to do!”

I want to thank Gareth for sharing his thoughts and experience with his brand & I hope he can reach his dreams in the near future!

You can shop Babatunde at Lady Africa on Denneweg 21A in Den Haag 
and on their webshop www.lady-africa.com

For more on Babatunde go to babatunde.co.za 
or follow on Instagram & Facebook 

January 19, 2018

Horn of Plenty II Reap what you sow

Detail from a Batik Tulis made by Maria Paulina Carp 
From Pekalongan, Indonesia around 1900
Collection Tropenmuseum

In my research of patterns used in Batik and other textiles, I come across patterns that will pop up again and again and confront me with their meaning. One of this returning patterns is the Horn of Plenty. This boot or horn-shaped basket filled with fruits and flowers is the image for a rich and successful harvest. Thats why it is often used for Thanksgiving. But what does the Horn of Plenty actually mean?


The Horn of Plenty, or in Latin Cornucopia, originated from Greek mythology. Amalthea, the loving or feeding goddess, was present at the birth of King of Gods Zeus, as a goat. In one of the stories her horn breaks off. Whoever possess the horn gets everything he or she desires Zeus gives the horn to goddess Fortuna, the goddess of, right, abundance in wealth. But the horn is also linked to Dionysos, better known as Bacchus, best described as the god of overconsumption.
With this original interpretation this pattern gets a whole new meaning. It is not just a symbol to celebrate a successful harvest, but it seems also to celebrate the right of that harvest. That the owner deserves this good harvest.

The horns on Batik from 1880-1920

In this context I saw the Horns of Plenty in a new light. I found the symbol a lot on Batiks from between 1880 and 1920. These Batiks were made in Indo-European and Peranakan Chinese Workshops. The cloths were of the highest quality made on demand by one specific group of clients, the Dutch and Indo-European living in the former Dutch East Indies.

Batiks were an important tool to wear, they represent who you are, what your descent is and what wishes you have, but they also show off your status. The pattern choice of the Dutch and Indo-European clientele is kind of sweet in this specific period  - like bouquets, butterflies, birds and once in a while a fairytale figure. So I knew the Horn of Plenty didn't get on the cloths by accident, they were chosen.

As I mentioned before, this pattern kept popping up. After first learning about this pattern in Batiks, already 6 years ago (see previous blogpost 'Horn of Plenty'), the pattern wouldn't let me go. I saw it on other fabrics; in lace, in embroidery on merklappen, on Chintz from India and kraplappen from Spakenburg  I even saw it in sculptures and gates. An entrance at the Zuiderzeemuseum is decorated with two horns of plenty! I spotted them also on handbags, on the handle and stringed in beads, on golden 'ear irons' and other jewelry.

Discovering a pattern

Seeing the symbol so many times, I started to see a pattern. The symbol was used in a period even earlier then the Batiks I discovered it first on. It was used in many materials. Mostly materials and products that aren't naturally found in the Netherlands, but are directly linked to the Netherlands.
I realized this when I visited the exhibition 'Sits, katoen in bloei. The textile, with a colonial history, was exhibited in the Fries Museum and the symbol was on a skirt, underskirt, children's cap and palempore (a kind of bedspread or wall hanging).
The skirt and underskirt were shown together. They lifted one sight so the embroidered pattern in blue on white was visible really well. The Chintz skirt is from India around mid 18th century and the underskirt is embroidered in the Netherlands probably third quarter of the 18th century.

Skirt from Chintz with embroidered underskirt
both with Horn of Plenty symbols on it 
at the exhibition ‘Sits, katoen in bloei’, collection Fries Museum

The wearer

Gieneke Arnolli, curator of the exhibition and former conservator fashion and textile at the Fries Museum, told me the skirt of Chintz was donated in 1936 by Miss Meintje Beucker Andreae. The wearer was presumably Taetske Margaretha (van) Beucker (1710-1772) who married Daniël Hermannus Andreae (1697-1771) in 1733. He was born on the former island Onrust, now Pulau Kapal, before the coast of Jakarta (Java, Indonesia). He was a preacher in Blija and Hogebeintum in the province Friesland. In short, the skirt belonged to a wealthy family.
The underskirt is made of fustein, a European fabric of linen with European hand spun cotton, and was worn by Hykke Jans (1740-1788) from Makkum in Friesland. On 20 June 1762 she married Gerben Aages, presumably a captain.
So the wearers were European with a colonial past, just like the wearers of the Batiks. A past that can be directly linked to collecting an abundance of wealth. And those wealths were products gathered overseas. Like the Batiks and Chintz, but also the gold and silver. And which symbol fits that better then the Horn of Plenty...?

Remarkable discoveries

But the meaning of patterns and symbols aren't fixed. Symbols can gain or lose meaning, change or adapt in time, carrying out new messages, but they will always tell something about the period in which they where used most.
When I was certain of the meaning of Cornucopia, I was surprised twice by a different use of it. I spotted it between butterflies, lobsters, crabs and deer on a Batik made by Peranakan Chinese on the North-coast of Java. The Batik, also intended for Peranakan Chinese, was meant to be used as a door hanger. In shades of red all kinds of luck symbols are put onto the cloth.  During special occasions like Chinese New year, this cloth would give hopefully extra luck in the upcoming year. The Batik is from around beginning of the 20th century and wasn't made in a European-colonial context, but made in a old traditional context with a new symbol for luck added to it.

The second surprise came with an invite for the Keti Koti Talks organized by the Tropenmuseum. In their Facebook event they used a black and white picture of a lady in a beautiful koto, a kotomisi. The picture is from beginning 20th century. Her skirt and top are filled with big Horns of Plenty. I can't see what kind of fabric it is, but I was so happy with the wearer of this fabric and the new meaning she gives to it.

Batik Tulis door decoration
likely from a Peranakan Chinese workshop
From North-coast of Java made begin 20th century 
Collection Rudolf Smend

Read more in the first post about the ‘Horn of Plenty’ on this blog

This article first got published om Modemuze in Dutch on Thanksgiving, 23 November 2017, read it here "De Hoorn des overvloeds. Zoals we zaaien, zullen we oogsten"

All photos  used in this article are made by me, for more examples check out the article on Modemuze "De Hoorn des overvloeds. Zoals we zaaien, zullen we oogsten"