Imagining Tropical Chic

Imagining Tropical Chic


For Those Who Are Neither Here Nor There

  • “Tropical Chic” is an aesthetic sensibility and lifestyle, or an imagination, among other possibilities, encapsulating the intersectionality of African, European, Latin, and eventually Arab diasporas. At its core, it is an anthropological and sociological phenomenon, though it is most accessible through visual, material, and audio cultures.


  • The cultural overlap between these diasporic groups chiefly stems from their shared colonial histories and the new identities forged from them. These identities are inherently multicultural and further characterized by specific migration patterns, including but not limited to the following: first-generation multi-ethnic or interracial people of either African, European, or Latin descent living in the West or the Global South.


  • A tropical chic diasporic migration to the West: often, this would involve an African or South American family or individual, having built their fortune in their home country, who seeks to expand their social circle or business enterprise. Their voyage north is a silent but indelible marker of their success, suggesting a net worth and network that supersedes bureaucratic hurdles and geopolitical tensions: an ascension, tapping into a social currency universally accepted—equivalent to the US dollar’s dominance circa 1985—idolized by none more than their peers and admirers back home. For this same reason, it is common for their offspring to attend elite institutions abroad, even if the family stays behind. Another subset within this category encompasses those with lesser means, moving in hopes of finding economic opportunities. If successful, their compatriots would regard them in the same light as the previous, as having “made it.” However, this perception is flawed or, at least, exaggerated as the level of affluence between the two is incomparable, pressuring the latter to increase their position by any means to preserve this favorable image. 


  • A tropical chic diasporic migration to the Global South, specifically Africa and South America: Europeans or Westerners, survivors of the colonial period, who either never left and have now lived in the country for generations, mixing in with the local population, or whose family maintained economic ties with the region, usually related to agriculture or resource extraction, and who are returning to pursue them. Both occupy an elevated rank in these societies due to their distinct history, proximity to the West, or Whiteness. Others may have immigrated during the Great European Wave in Brazil and Argentina, or are simply expatriates.


  • Regardless of the current from whence they came, these factions come together to tell the story of a rich, unified, and layered people with a syncretic lens directly correlated to their international lifestyle: they maintain ties with both their native and foreign homelands through travel, cultural assimilation and, consequently, imprinting, and familial and social relationships. Tropical Chic is, first and foremost, a product of globalization. 


  • Tropical Chic manifests primarily in art, music, fashion, interior design, and food—though identifying a single thing or aspect as belonging to the aesthetic is often inaccurate. Instead, the nuance, or juxtaposition, and the interplay of these elements fulfill the genre. Here is a list of examples (personalities, media, architecture, etc.) that embody the phenomenon:

American architect John Lautner’s Arango Marbrisa House in Acapulco, Mexico

American socialite and co-founder of Moda Operandi, Lauren Santo Domingo, and her Colombian husband, Andrés Santo Domingo

Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (1959), a live album by Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte

Brazilian architect specializing in modern architecture, Oscar Niemeyer 

Brazilian artist Joao Incerti

French socialite and daughter of Congolese rumba star Koffi Olomide, Didi Stone

Ghanaian-British editor-in-chief of British Vogue, Edward Enninful OBE

German designer Karl Lagerfeld’s 2017 Cuban-inspired Chanel resort collection

Getz/Gilberto (1964), a bossa nova album by American saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto

Hacienda de San Antonio in Colima, Mexico

Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, France

Italian designer Maria Grazia Chiuri’s 2020 Dior cruise collection, featuring African wax print

Italian entrepreneur Gian Franco Brignone, founder of Careyes, a boutique hotel in Costa Careyes, Mexico

Koop, a Swedish electronic jazz duo

“Lujon” (1961) by American composer Henri Mancini

Online fashion retailer Industrie Africa

Palmeras en la Nieve (2015), a film by Spanish director Fernando González Molina

Paraiba Tourmaline gemstones

Pedro Baessa, the first Black governor of the Portuguese colonial era in Mozambique


Swiss-raised Venezuelan film producer and socialite, daughter of banking scion Alfredo Beracasa, Fabiola Beracasa Beckman

Yellow diamonds

Yuca or cassava root


  • Such a list might lead one to confuse this aesthetic as yearning for the superficial or the vain, naive to capitalistic evils and power dynamics, concerning itself only with the who’s who of insert buzzing metropolis or illustrious crowd. While far more pertinent than that—as I’ll discuss later—Tropical Chic does imply a level of luxury and sophistication; it’s in the name.


  • But why does the “tropical” need the “chic”? If I admit predictably the former as describing Africa and South America and the latter the West, is there an inference in your mind that the Global South is somehow lacking in this regard, meaning refinement and poise, or simply chic? That thought—that—is coloniality: the sticky residue that tarnishes the world’s carpet, marking it with shame. So yes, the “tropical” needs the “chic,” not because its contributions are less valuable or culturally significant, but because what Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory defined as the core—dominant, industrialized countries, emphasizing capital-intensive output, that sit at the top of the global hierarchy—can only hear and understand the periphery when it speaks the language of the empire. Were it not for this southern-western liaison and the hybrid and affluent class birthed from it, I fear the “tropical” might never have been genuinely explored. Decolonialists opt for the toughest solvents to clean up this mess, purging our attitudes and ways of knowing. For all its validity, their stance fails to discern that it punishes the child, the postcolonial diasporas, for the duality of its nature, leaving bleach splatters in their wake. I believe there is a twisted beauty in embracing these muddled fibers, the immutable Catholic marriage between the “tropical” and the “chic,” accepting them as an entirely new and different material. 


  • In many ways, Tropical Chic reflects the veritable economic contexts, colonization and globalization, and subsequent clashes and constraints, namely, enforced social hierarchy, respectability politics, and colorism, out of which it was born. As an ideology, it prizes wealth, status (but loathes fame and, for the most part, endeavors for inconspicuousness because, as per the core’s mission statement, true wealth whispers), cosmopolitanism, cultural or national pride, even perhaps religion, and, above all, family—a contradictory set of values. At the same time, its material and visual cultures, silent communicators, conveying this gauche subtext, express a profound longing, or saudade, for a romanticized past: a glamorized, if not aspirational, retelling, celebrating a people, their origins, troubling though they may be, and their potential for the future. Effectively, this alternate universe does not know any separation between “us” and “them”; the once alien imperial structures now appear intrinsic to the landscape. Colloquialisms redefined formal syntax and grammar, creating new languages altogether—Spanglish, Portuñol, Cape Verdean Creole, and other dialects—and the music, initially considered a perversion of its predecessors, pulsates through the community’s veins. Tropical Chic requires one to revere the very systems that fueled their oppression, recognizing them not as a stain or an affliction but as an integral part of the narrative and adopting them as their own to rise from their ashes.


  • Proponents of this lifestyle are masters of respectability politics. Initially, they tone down their accents and downplay their difference to ensure access to the right schools, jobs, and networks. Still, this does not mean they are timid, just selective with their presentation. One mustn’t mistake Tropical Chic’s seeming passiveness, resisting conventional revolutionary inclinations, for submission. Instead, it employs a more calculated and cunning form of assimilation to realize its ambitions. 


  • This distinction is made more evident by studying their home decor, which proudly reflects their vibrant heritage, cultivating beauty within utilitarian objects like Dogon ladders and hand-carved wooden coasters. This attention to detail is ingrained in their fashion as well. Tropical Chic espouses, like the late American fashion journalist André Leon Talley—a valued member of this canon—that one has a moral imperative to dress well. Not only is it an expression of self-respect, good manners, and discipline that carries throughout all other facets of life, but it is also an act of rebellion in and of itself. It threatens the stigmas, assumptions, and projections placed onto a diasporic person based on their perceived rank within the social hierarchy, creating unease within the authors of this prejudice. Building on this notion, I would say that color, whether worn or embodied, is also an act of rebellion. In his early 2000s work, Chromophobia, Scottish artist and writer David Batchelor describes Western culture as having a long history of anxiety about color and the capacity for color to disrupt, corrupt, or contaminate the purity of white. This commentary aligns with recent trends of “quiet luxury” and “old money” aesthetics, rooted in Whiteness, even as our world becomes more diverse. In a waspy environment, where the esteemed trait of elegance is synonymous with restraint, the muted, the beige, and the ability to say “no,” Tropical Chic, in its final form, wants you to shout “yes,” to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish.


  • Maria Grazia Chiuri’s 2020 cruise show for the French fashion house Dior is one of the clearest and fullest expressions of Tropical Chic I’ve ever seen. The designs center around the rich traditions of African savoir-faire, namely, their wax print technique. The story of this fabric begins some hundred and fifty years ago, far away from the continent, in 1846, when Dutch industrialist Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen first purchased a textile factory in Helmond, Netherlands. Aiming to sell upholstery fabric, bedspreads, and handkerchiefs abroad, Van Vlissingen began imitating batik fabric from Indonesia using new roller printing technology to replicate their indigo-resist method. Despite flaws, the Dutch Gold Coast (now Ghana) became an unexpected market for faux batik, thanks to Ghanaian soldiers who acquired a taste for it during their service in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, undergoing its own tropical chic migration. The sale of Dutch-made faux batik in the Gold Coast continued to thrive, eventually spreading to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, where local designers adopted the trade, imbuing the textile with regional flavors: culturally, spiritually, and socially significant symbols and patterns. Dior’s cruise collection is the lovechild of a close collaboration between Chiuri herself and Burkinabe fashion legend and wax print specialist Monsieur Pathé’O—the continent’s most prominent designer, renowned for his styling of Nelson Mandela. She traveled to the artist’s atelier in Abidjan, Ivory Coast; together, they worked to depart from the patronizing “African collections” and the reductionist caricatures of the “African style” that plagued the runways in the late aughts. Instead, they developed a cultural exchange between the codes of Dior and this pan-African craftsmanship, translating traditional French and Italian techniques, like the house’s iconic Toile de Jouy and chiné, into the luxurious and textured hues of the wax print style—the fabric of a cultural melting pot. Pathé’O described this partnership, in the same vein as Tropical Chic, as an unparalleled opportunity to share relatively unknown pan-African fashion and skills with the world on such a massive stage. As a consumer and fellow tropical-chic-ist, I felt, for the first time, that my specific cultural experience was no longer a lucid dream but tangible, represented in all its complexity and grandeur: the wax print capulanas my mother wore around the house, tailored in the European silhouettes I’d so admired.


  • By indulging the Western upper-class criteria for education, careers, and social connections while fulfilling its own ideas of economic and cultural success, Tropical Chic operates as a Trojan horse of sorts, establishing itself as a distinct group and not a subset of the previous—similar to Haiti’s eighteenth century mulatto bourgeoisie—one that is more forthright and less repressive, equally enchanting, if not more desirable. The culture’s pervasiveness in mainstream discourse, particularly in music, cuisine, art, travel, and sports, its generosity, introducing its codes to new audiences and encouraging outside participation, and inclusivity reinforce its allure, increasing the clout of its existing members. Tropical Chic’s cosmopolitan nature offers a wider range of representation, leading more people to aspire towards it.


  • Moreover, the pursuit of Tropical Chic cannot happen in a vacuum. Its exploration has powerful reverberations that slowly but deliberately work to shape and influence its surroundings. The aesthetic’s defining quality lies in its capacity for creation, to mold a zeitgeist and then another in perpetuity—like the Bossa Nova wave of the late 1950s and now the advent of the Afro-House musical movement, sweeping raves from Tulum to Cairo. As a sociological framework, Tropical Chic can also lend itself to the investigation of cultural fusions beyond those outlined in this essay or even imagine more niche pairings, such as the Chinoy (Chinese Filipino)-Spanish and British-Malay-Singaporean crossovers. Tropical Chic is a pioneering force rooted in possibility, constantly evolving. Its followers do not strive to remain relevant; their voices are salient contributors architecting the “contemporary.”
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