The runway show has become paradigmatic of late twentieth-century spectacle; it has the potential to project imaginary worlds and aesthetic ideals, to set standards of taste and of distinction, and to simultaneously incite desire and controversy to various degrees. The term catwalk often calls to mind the extravagant productions associated with the semiannual fashion weeks of New York, Paris, London, and Milan. In these settings, the runway show is arguably inextricable from the commercial realm and functions as a tool with which designers seek the favorable attention of buyers, editors, trendsetters, and bloggers, all toward a common underlying goal: to sell clothing. In this essay, however, I aim to address how the deployment of the fashion show in a different context can involve a multiplicity of ambitions and outcomes. Specifically, I look at the politics of value that underlie the commodification of culture vis-à-vis a fashion show I attended in Windhoek, the capital city of postapartheid Namibia.
In 2010, the year marking Namibia's twentieth as a nation independent from South Africa, the Franco Namibian Cultural Center (FNCC) and the National Arts Council of Namibia (NACN) sponsored a fashion and photography event titled Himba in the Mix. The main attraction was a fashion show featuring the work of seven young female Namibian designers, who created eighteen explicitly contemporary ensembles inspired by the culture of the Ovahimba people, who are one of at least ten recognized ethnic groups in Namibia today. A local newspaper described the event as the first of its kind in the country. Its kind refers to the somewhat paradoxical fact that its organizers chose the definitively "modern" mediums of fashion and the catwalk to celebrate "traditional" culture (Kapitako 2010). [End Page 150]
The present-day Himba are the descendants of Herero pastoralists who remained in northwest Namibia while others migrated southward in the eighteenth century. They have maintained relations with "external" (that is, non-native African) influences at least since the middle of the nineteenth century, when the first hunters and traders from Cape Town arrived in northern Namibia. It is believed that the Herero had originally migrated to what is now southern Angola and northern Namibia in the sixteenth century (Katjavivi 1988). Those who continued southward encountered European settlers and began working in their homes. Converted to Christianity and taught to sew by German settlers, Herero women adopted Victorian-style dresses made from local cloth, which are today worn with pride as the "traditional" clothing of the Herero people. Still, the Herero maintained contact with the Himba through the centuries, either through marriage, for example, or by providing aid with cattle grazing (Warnlof 2000, 182). For the most part, the Himba of Namibia remained in the northwestern part of the country, which came to be called Kaokoland, under the apartheid legislation that designated it the "homeland" of the Himba.
In all the press leading up to Himba in the Mix, as well as that which followed and praised its success, a clear purpose for its production was articulated, one that—on the surface at least—had little to do with commercial pursuits. Those who organized the event intended for it "to counter the consistent life threatening pressure" exerted by forces of globalization on the Ovahimba people (Franco Namibia Cultural Center). A cultural officer in the Ministry of Youth, National Service, Sport, and Culture claimed, "I can't agree more with the fact that the inevitable exposure to Western identity and lifestyle gives young Namibians leeway to detach themselves from their own local culture, to such an extent that even association with activities of this nature become less significant" (Kapitako 2010). He therefore found the endeavor to be a much-needed corrective to popular attitudes toward Namibia's indigenous groups. Meanwhile, a representative from the FNCC announced its intention, which was to "resurrect" indigenous fashion and make it "part and parcel" of modern-day fashion, claiming, "The overall objective of this project is to re-instate that indigenous people's culture and fashion are not as dull and boring as they are perceived to be, but instead rich, fascinating, and admirable...