IMPORTERS, RETAILERS CASHING IN ON RISING INTEREST IN AFRICAN CULTURE

IMPORTERS, RETAILERS CASHING IN ON RISING INTEREST IN AFRICAN CULTURE

The shelves in John Bolling III's showrooms are empty. Buyers - including those from J.C. Penney - recently swooped into Dallas and bought every piece of African clothing and art displayed by his import firm, AMT International Ltd.

The bare walls are a manufacturer's dream, said Mr. Bolling, a tall man who tops his dress slacks with a jacket quilted from colorful African fabric.As thousands of African Americans find ways to herald their heritage every day, more retailers such as those at department store chains are taking note. No longer are African-inspired products relegated to community fairs, convention booths and street vendors in urban neighborhoods. Merchants and manufacturers - big and small, African, Asian and everyone in between - are commercializing what began as a cultural and spiritual renaissance with a variety of products.

The Nordstrom chain markets accessories of hand-woven kente cloth that a buyer discovered at a Washington, D.C., church bazaar. And J.C. Penney, based in nearby Plano, Texas, sells Bolling's Afro-centric products in 20 stores across America. There are robes, dresses, pants, jackets, ties, cummerbunds, hats and house decorations - all fashioned from African textiles - and jewelry made from colorful stone beads, glossy cowrie shells, dried grasses and wood.

Retailers won't reveal sales figures, but Jim Ferguson, manager of the Irving (Texas) Mall J.C. Penney store, said its line of African clothing is so popular that only a few items remain. The store is eager, he said, for importers to restock.

And the trend isn't limited to clothing and jewelry. Dallas' Black Images Book Bazaar, one of the nation's oldest stores featuring literature by and about blacks, stocks board games, Barbie dolls, puzzles and children's music - all black-oriented. K mart and Toys "R" Us also sell some of the products.

''No one knows the size of this industry - not yet," said Ken Smikle, president of the African American Marketing and Media Association, a trade group in Chicago. "There's not enough research done on what we do as a consumer segment in the mainstream, let alone niche markets like this. This market is so new, it will take awhile for people to document the sales patterns."

All the manufacturers know is that their products are selling. Fast.

"I couldn't sell a box of kente cloth hats in a month four years ago," said Darryl Thomas, owner of Dallas' Sandaga Market. "Now we easily sell 10 gross a week."

Raymond Odimegwua, a Dallas businessman who owns African Imports, a chain of four boutiques at malls in Houston, Austin, Irving and Dallas, said sales at his stores have increased 500 percent in the last five years.

The popularity of African-inspired products reflects the growing economic and social significance of black culture in America, said W. Marvin Dulaney, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"Retailers recognize that there is something to our culture," Mr. Dulaney said. "Instead of a passing trend, everyone now sees that we (African-Americans) are serious, that we are culturally aware. It's not just a style thing. What we're seeing is people having more depth than before. What they're buying symbolizes that depth."