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‘Black Panther’ brings unexpected boost to makers of African inspired clothing

Local businesses see an uptick in sales near release date

In theaters around the country, from Atlanta to Los Angeles, fans flocking to see Marvel’s “Black Panther” are making sure they show up in style -- African style.

The much buzzed about movie based on the 1966 comic book character and starring Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa a.k.a. Black Panther is expected to earn in excess of $180 million when it is released nationwide this weekend.

But already the film is having an unexpected economic impact in the world of fashion as moviegoers purchase African and African-inspired clothing to wear to screenings, parties and other special events surrounding the groundbreaking film. Longtime designers and wearers of African clothing said they hope people will remain encouraged to express themselves through African style. 

Atlanta-based clothing designer Charlene Dunbar saw an uptick in sales of her Suakoko Betty brand this week thanks to the “Black Panther” movie. “I have definitely had a spike,” said Dunbar, a native of Liberia who has been designing her brand of modern African clothing for a decade. “I am excited to see more of an appreciation of African culture whether it is in the fashion industry or beyond.”

With the Atlanta-filmed movie officially hitting theaters on Friday, orders rolled in from anxious moviegoers trying to plan the perfect outfit to wear, she said. Several shoppers asked if they could come to her house to pick up clothing so they would have the outfits in time for the weekend. 

A similar trend emerged at Dupsie’s African Clothing in Smyrna. While there is usually a spike in business during Black History Month this year, that increase has been even more pronounced with the release of “Black Panther,” said shop co-owner James Onabanjo who has been fielding calls from out of state. 

“I think people are more comfortable wearing African clothing. Now more African Americans and black people are, in general trying to show off their heritage,”Onabanjo  said.

Interest in African and African-inspired clothing has been on the rise for several years but having a blockbuster film that puts the beauty of African style on display is something many American moviegoers have never seen. 

In Wakanda, the fictional African country from which Black Panther hails, the prints, colors and cuts of African clothing are woven throughout whether in an action scene, a street scene or a backdrop to other significant moments. 

Atlantan Carl Ulysses Bowen was one of tailors on the “Black Panther” film. Ulysses , who owns a tailoring and custom clothing business in Buckhead, said he added some of his own touches to the clothes designed by Ruth Carter.

“I drew my inspiration from African culture and different African tribes within that culture,” said Bowen, who graduated from Morehouse College in 2005. He perused videos and looked at African history and photography books. He also scoured the internet.

“We wanted to modernize African history and the fashion history within Africa,” he said. “We wanted to be authentic.”

But he didn’t foresee people wanting to dress in African attire to the watch the film. 

“People started to telling me they were going to dress up and it started trending on social media,” he said. They asked him what he was planning to wear to the premiere. So he created a spin off something he made in the film -- a black robe with gold trim and black satin around the collar. “I think this is something Black Panther would wear if he had to attend a formal event in Wakanda,”Bowen said.

For many fans attending screenings, dressing in African attire made them feel as if they were an extension of the characters on screen.

At an advance screening in Atlanta hosted by T.I. and Walmart, TV personality Egypt Sherrod and her husband DJ Fadelf dressed in African-inspired outfits. 

Sherrod wore a combination skirt and dress made from authentic African fabric and designed by her friend Sala J who is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It is beautiful fashion. A lot of the pieces I have are handmade and hand-dyed,” she said. 

The moment, said Sherrod, has become a cultural event and “the movie has become a movement,” she said. 

As a Marvel fan, DJ Fadelf said he wanted to embody the characters in the film. He planned his outfit a week in advance. “I was going to be sitting there engaged, proud and empowered and that is exactly how I felt,” he said. “I felt like I was in character.” 

“We were in Wakanda!” said Sherrod

Atlanta comedian Jessica “It’s All Good” Williams dressed up for a screening at the Fox Theatre in a head wrap and African jewelry. She plans to wear African attire again to see the film with her husband and friends.

“About 20 percent of the audience was in African attire,” she said. “For those who know me well, I’m an extra person anyway, and I come from a theater background. Also black history is one of my favorite times to celebrate.” 

Whenever she saw someone dressed up, she knew they were headed to see “Black Panther.” “I was glad to be in that number,” Williams said.

For a dinner and private screening on Saturday at Cinebistro in Town Brookhaven, the Greater Metropolitan Atlanta Chapter of Jack & Jill asked that attendees wear African-inspired or all black clothing.

“The movie is all about this large group of African super heros and takes place in a fictitious country in Africa. I want our screening to be 100 percent in the moment and be festive and celebrate this fantastic movie that is breaking all kinds of records with a majority black cast,”  said chapter president Shondria Covington.

Related: ‘Black Panther’ an $84 million economic impact blockbuster for Georgia

So much of the wardrobe planning and costume creating for “Black Panther” screenings is rooted in pride, but even with all of the celebration, there is a delicate balance to keep it from becoming a parody. A very real disconnect exists between African Americans and the content of Africa, said Atlanta artist Maurice Evans.

“I think it is wonderful that black people are being inspired to connect to their African-ness because at times I think we have forgotten that. If a takes a movie like this to get people inspired, I’m not knocking it,” he said.

Evans and his wife Grace Kisa will see the film with a group of friends who purchased a block of tickets. When the organizers asked everyone to wear African garb Evans and Kisa, a native of Kenya, were tickled. 

“She said, ‘I don’t have to dress African because I am African,’” said Evans of his wife. But Kisa said she doesn’t have a problem with other people dressing up.

“It may add to your identity and your expression of yourself beyond the conventional,” she said. As visual artists, they understand the impact and the importance of black people seeing themselves represented in positive ways on the big screen. 

Evans spied an outfit in Little Five Points that he plans to wear. He described it as a step up from the standard dashiki. His wife decided to take a different approach. 

Instead of wearing traditional African clothing, Kisa is drawing inspiration from the technological prowess of the Wakandans. “I wanted to dress in the futuristic style to celebrate that,” she said. “Afro-futurism.” 

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.