In the mid-1970s, when Mozella Perry Ademiluyi was studying at Howard University Law School, she invariably found herself spending more hours explaining where she bought the vibrant African print clothing she wore to class than discussing principles of international law.

"Everywhere, women would stop me and ask, 'I love that top -- where did you buy it?' " says Ademiluyi, 36, now an immigration attorney who divides her time between Silver Spring and Lagos, Nigeria.

"Almost invariably," she continues, "most of them would answer their own question -- 'I know you didn't buy it here.' "

Well, now they can. Ademiluyi and her sisters Katherine Perry, 35, and Shirley Perry Michael, 34, are owners of African Eye, a six-month-old boutique on Wisconsin Avenue NW, just above Georgetown, featuring high-fashion clothing in traditional African fabrics. The look: "A blend of African, Asian and European style," says Ademiluyi, "with a distinctly African feel."

This week, as the nation followed the first leg of South African hero Nelson Mandela's historic U.S. tour, people have admired his wife's graceful head wraps and colorful traditional gowns.

But many women who appreciate Winnie Mandela's regal garb -- and who would like to incorporate elements of African fashion into their personal wardrobes -- feel that such clothing might sometimes be considered inappropriate in the U.S.

A growing number of stores -- including African Eye -- are addressing the need. Since the store's opening in December, customers -- including WJLA-TV anchor Renee Poussaint and Secretary of the District of Columbia Teri Y. Doke -- have been enthusiastic, say the Miami-born sisters,who spent their childhood years in Uganda and Kenya. Many are thrilled to discover a new store offering stylish and versatile African-inspired clothing that they can work, play and entertain in. "When I walked in the store, I was in awe," says Linda S. Johnson, a manager for the District's Rehabilitation Services Administration, who has traveled extensively in Africa. "So many versatile pieces ... that embrace the African boldness of colors and the unique textiles. The clothes just grab you when you come in."

Katherine Perry thinks the store and others like it serve a larger purpose: "It's high time people became aware that there are wonderful African designers -- they think everything comes from Paris, New York."

Nationwide, hundreds of stores specializing in clothes, jewelry and accessories imported from Africa or inspired by the continent's exuberant fashion have opened in the past few years. In Washington, the notion of using African and African-inspired prints to create outfits with a distinctly international air has truly blossomed. Street vendors -- who understand and cash in on trends more quickly than anybody -- have for several seasons done a bang-up business in kufi hats, kente cloth belts and fabric swatches (which may be sewn onto jackets or T-shirts) and Egyptian-inspired handbags, which customers wear with distinctly American jeans and shorts.

Popular musicians -- including members of the rap group X-Clan who wear Egyptian ankh necklaces, dreadlock-sporters Tracy Chapman and Soul II Soul lead singer Jazzie B, head-wrapped Queen Latifah and rapper Kool Moe Dee of the trademark kufi pillbox -- have boosted the trend. The drop-crotch "shogato" slacks worn all over Africa have become so associated with one singer that some customers simply ask salespeople if they carry "those Bobby Brown pants."

Unlike some local retailers offering African fashion, the Perry sisters have spent considerable time in "the Motherland." The women, who moved with their parents to Uganda in 1962 when their father, Moses L. Perry, accepted a job as a coordinator for the YMCA in that country, were educated in schools in Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria.

All of the women attended college in the District. Ademiluyi enrolled at Howard in 1971, beginning years of ping-ponging between the continents (her husband, Gboyega, is a refined-oil broker in Nigeria, where the couple live with their two sons). Registered nurse Perry is another Howard grad; Michael, who manages the boutique, has an office administration degree from the University of the District of Columbia. When friends kept marveling at the African-print clothes they all wore -- "people would literally want the clothes off our backs," laughs Perry -- the trio decided it would be smart to actually sell some. The name they settled on: "African Eye."

"I saw it as the lens of a camera that depicted the different facets of African life," explains Ademiluyi of the moniker they chose in 1977, long before they had any idea they'd ever open a store. One key figure in polishing that lens: the late Joyce Obong, a Lagos designer whose blend of elements from several contemporary cultures characterizes African Eye's style. The sisters bought pieces from Obong and several others and staged a hit fashion show in 1986 at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.

They decided to open a boutique, settling on an upper-Georgetown location last November. The store opened in December in a large and sunny town house, with wood floors and a staircase leading to an upstairs gallery featuring African and African-inspired art and selected Nigerian statuary.

But most visitors come for the clothes. Imported from Nigeria, and crafted from fabrics from Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Niger and even London, they're almost exclusively for women, though men have purchased some of the roomy embroidered jackets. Pantsuits, straight- and flounce-skirted business suits, dresses, jumpsuits, evening wear and play clothes create a storm of color in the studio's spare showroom. Though the African influence is subtle in some clothes -- one business suit, sewn of hand-painted block print,features a standard blazer jacket jazzed up by a Yoruba-inspired shawl-like shoulder drape -- none of them look as if they came from the mall.

Ironically, some customers have bypassed certain high-fashion suits or jackets, saying, " 'Oh, that's not African enough,' " says Ademiluyi. "But you cannot get a more authentic fabric than a hand-woven," she continues. "There are dozens of hand-woven and hand-printed African cloths, from akwete, which is woven exclusively by Nigerian women, to adire, in which feather tips are used to draw free-hand on fabrics."

Adds Katherine, "People walk in here expecting only traditional clothes -- the long boubou you wear for a special occasion, long, loose-fitting garments. They're surprised by the variety."

Maybe they shouldn't be. Some observers say a renewed interest in African clothing from black Americans -- the last big boom was in the late 1960s -- was inevitable. "It's very metaphysical -- {the '90s are} a time for rediscovery, new turning toward God in the broadest sense," says Sehar Peerzada, 35, owner of the Saharah boutique on Eighth Street NW. The Washington-born designer has been creating African-inspired clothing since her college days at Howard and the Rhode Island School of Design. "As {people of African descent} become more confident in who we are, we have less of a problem in wearing those things that express it."

Designed and manufactured at Peerzada's studio, fashions at Saharah are influenced by countries from the entire African diaspora, "everywhere Africa has touched -- India, the Caribbean, South America, the Mediterranean," she says.

"I try to design clothes that bring it straight down the center -- clothes people would be perfectly comfortable wearing to work. Things that are so high-fashion anyone can enjoy them," she continues. "Even customers who think they could never wear {ethnic} clothes because they're caught up in the same old suburban look are surprised to know they can add touches of Africa and be comfortable." One Saharah specialty: ankle-length business suits that fit the apparel guidelines of Islam.

"Fashion is a way of rediscovering your history," says historian Tony Browder, author of "From the Browder File: 22 Essays on the African American Experience.".

The more popular African-inspired styles become, suggests Browder, "the more African Americans find themselves connecting with their history and culture through fashion. Ten years ago, many black people -- particularly women -- wouldn't be caught dead wearing these African fashions. Sisters who've worn traditional {African} clothing for many years will tell you that the people who came down hardest on them were other black women."

Ask Januwa Moja, of Infinity Designs, whose self-described "comfortable, colorful and cultural" designs were featured at a March 21 fashion show at the Museum of Natural History sponsored by the Smithsonian's Resident Associates program.

"People used to ask me, 'What organization do you belong to, what's your religion, what country do you come from?' " says Moja, whose clothes may be seen by appointment (call 387-4741 for details).

"For a time, African culture was not considered acceptable or mainstream. But there have always been people on the perimeters who believed in upholding their heritage, who felt that culture should be part of your everyday dress."

Apparently, the notion is spreading. For the first time in her 15 years of tailoring, Washington seamstress Cheryl Lofton of Lofton's Tailoring Shoppe in Northwest says she was asked to make African prom gowns for customers.

"Three of the six gowns I made were African," she says. "The girls just brought in their own African fabric and designs -- they said they felt like it was the right thing for them to wear, they didn't want the standard, traditional prom gown. They were into the heritage. I did cummerbunds and bow ties for their boyfriends; two of the girls wanted the balloon-leg pants, one a long gown... . It surprised me that kids of that age would be thinking along those lines."

But Browder and others are concerned that for some wearers, the move toward African clothing is a fad bereft of any historic or cultural meaning. Just as '60s black power advocates decried the throngs of blacks who sported "Afro hairdos and processed minds," some of the new proponents of African fashion have little use for the variety and richness of the continent that produced it.

"The young kids wearing the African pants are making them fashionable, slowly introducing them to the larger culture," says Browder, 38. "Many of them are taking an interest in reading about the history of the people who created this clothing."

But not everyone wearing the style has incorporated its meaning, he adds. "One illustration from my book showing ... an African American in chains has been used on many T-shirts... . A month ago, my 7-year-old daughter and I were watching the 10 o'clock news and saw a drug bust; they'd arrested a 14-year-old boy for selling crack. He was wearing an African medallion and a T-shirt with the design from my book."

He pauses. "I said to my daughter, 'See, he's wearing the symbol because it's popular, but he doesn't understand what it represents. If he truly loved himself as an African and loved his African history, he would never sell death to his own people,'... .We have got to go beyond symbols, to carrying the history in your mind, even if you don't have the clothing on your body."

Some black designers whose work shows African inspiration didn't set out to create ethnic fashion. When she started designing jewelry four years ago, says jewelry designer Misha McGlown of New York, "I didn't really pay attention to the fact that my look was African. It just happened -- it comes from that part of myself. When others brought it to my attention, I started paying more attention to it consciously."

McGlown's line, Komplementz by Misha McGlown, incorporates cowrie shells, wood and ceramics; it's available at African Eye and Underwraps in Bethesda.

"I think people respond to it because black Americans are becoming more conscious of, and attracted to, all African things -- art, history, our own heritage," says McGlown. "It's been so long denied -- it was inevitable we would come to appreciate what we had so little knowledge of and didn't understand. It was inevitable, that the treasures of Africa would become known and precious."

Mozella Ademiluyi puts it this way: "People are interested in Africa and things African. The clothes, the culture, the history, the peoples. Hand-woven cloth had been around since the 15th century and it's still being done the same way. This deeper interest in Africa means we're seriously looking back, understanding the importance of holding on to our history, and using it now."