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Brooklyn Shops Take Unique Twist on 'Tribal' Print Trend

By Sonja Sharp | August 8, 2012 7:58am

CROWN HEIGHTS — Whether Adinkra or Aztec, Nigerian or Navajo, "tribal" patterns are everywhere this season — and the vivid prints show no sign of fading as summer shifts into fall. 

While clothing chains like Forever 21 may be chock-a-block with African-inspired prints in sticky synthetic fabrics, Brooklynites whose tastes hew closer to Humans of New York than H&M can just as easily invest in the August-ready real thing. 

"The ideal $30 to $50 dress is every woman's dream," said Atim Oton, whose boutique, Calabar Imports, opened last week on Franklin Avenue after a fire forced it off of Washington Avenue last year. "They'll buy four or five across the season."

Unlike the flimsy frocks that line the racks at Mandee, Calabar's African dresses are made from 100-percent Nigerian cotton. The boutique carries two lines by the Nigerian-born musician and fashion designer Wunmi, whose wax-print and batik dresses are among the store's most popular items.

"The goal for us is to be Modern Africans," Oton said. "But we're Brooklynites — as much as we want to think we're African, there's an Afro-Bohemian chic." 

But it's not just the patterns that make African clothes a smart choice for summer. 

"Everything's cotton. It's very good for when it's hot outside," said Kadija Tunkara, who owns Badugula Tye Dye African Creation on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

Tunkara's narrow storefront, which she shares with an Nigerian movie distributor, is full to bursting with beaded Masai bangles, Taureg-style woven bracelets and wax-print cotton clothing. Her loose, light-weight tops are eye-catching and effortless with shorts or jeans, while her wrap skirts last longer than synthetic imitations.  

Though a few of the designs may overwhelm the American palate, Tunkara's wares are nothing if not eclectic. A relatively demure red and white skirt and blouse set sells for $40 — a pricey proposition compared to $16.99 for tribal-print dress at nearby Rainbow. But worn individually, both pieces are far better suited to August's balmy weather then their Rayon rivals.

Like Tunkara, Abuoluye Kebe of Kebe's African Fashions carries traditional West African outfits, though he stocks only a few off-the-rack pieces, catering instead to shoppers seeking something one-of-a-kind. 

"I make everything," Kebe said. "It's all by hand." 

For those too shy for a floor-length skirt set, the master tailor stocks bolts of wax print and kente cloth, which, starting at just $5 a yard, make for an affordable tablecloth, picnic spread or beach blanket.

If that's still too much eye-popping pattern, try DS Fashion on Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights, which specializes in custom-made African clothing but carries a variety of handbags that boast the same bright colors that make wax print knockoffs so popular at H&M. 

The busy tailors couldn't stop to say much about their product, but their bright-orange carry-alls do enough talking on their own. 

"People like unique, eclectic stuff," Oton said. "For those who know good African fabrics, this is the best."