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Voodoo Zumbies

Samantha McEwen's debut fashion collection explores the mysterious culture behind voodoo, ritual sacrifice, and muti killings in South Africa.

Samantha McEwen's debut collection explores the mysterious culture behind voodoo, ritual sacrifice, and muti killings in South Africa. The Edinburgh Heriot-Watt University grad mixes these macabre topics with bright prints to create a collection that works as a meditation on religion whlie brightening up your spring/summer wardrobe. We sat down with Samantha to find out what makes her so interested in designing stuff that scares and amazes us.   

VICE: So, why voodoo and not frilly dresses with floral prints?
Samantha McEwen:
 It all started when I was traveling around Cuba in 2010. I became obsessed with the roadside vigils and all the people I saw in rural places dressed in freaky clothes. Eventually, I discovered that it had to do with the practice of voodoo. Although there are many Catholics in Cuba, voodoo, or Santería as it's known there, is still the country’s most commonly practiced religion.

I thought that kind of dark magic stuff might have been banned or marginalized by now.
No, not at all. And it was that idea of people being so open about something so frightening and horrific that totally fascinated me. In fact, the minute I got back to the UK I started heavily researching voodoo and found all these amazing fabrics that I ended up buying through West African embassies. The colors were so strong it would have been a crime not to design a collection from the fabrics I sourced and all the imagery I gathered. 

So you were influenced by West African voodoo as well as Cuban?
I started by looking at Santería, and that led to Haitian and African voodoo. I'm desperate to take a trip to Haiti and see it for myself, because 70 percent of people living in Haiti and West Africa consider voodoo their main religion, so I wanted to look at voodoo as something important in modern life. Also, instead of the stereotypes propagated by horror films and the media, I wanted the collection to capture the brighter side of voodoo.I took a lot of inspiration from Phyllis Gallembo’s photographs of different tribes—especially her portraits of sacrificial outfits and high priests and priestesses of the voodoo community.

How did voodoo influence the collection, specifically? 
There were many references taken from my research. But it's hard to pinpoint a few. While I was researching African voodoo, it led me to various other African traditions. I wanted to translate those traditions into the garments, particularly the Nigerian tradition of aso ebi or “dressing alike,” where whole families congregate together at ceremonies wearing matching outfits from the same family cloth. I wanted to communicate that idea of family solidarity to the streetwear market.

How did you balance voodoo with practicality?
I was always very aware that the collection had to be relevant. I started out making garments from braided raffia, which is made from palm trees, and other bizarre objects that would have been used in rituals. Then I realized that nobody would ever want to wear any of it. 

Do you have a message embodied in the collection?
It was definitely important for me to communicate that some of the most barbaric elements of voodoo in West Africa are still taking place today, and muti killings in South Africa are on the rise.

What are some other dark elements in the collection?
Throughout my fashion film treatment I referenced the story of Adam, a boy who was found in the River Thames in 2001. There have been other cases of ritual killings, and the sale of human blood for voodoo purposes is actually on the rise. Instead of focusing too much on that stuff, I decided to do a kind of satire on ritual and sacrifice.

What was it like making the film?
It was very low budget, we just broke into a yard and built a giant altar. The next day I got an email telling me that Diane Pernet had posted it on her site. I was so happy that someone who really knows fashion film could appreciate the humor in our promo.