56. Sophie Zinga
She may be a graduate of Parsons, the prestigious New York Design school, but Senegalese born designer Sophie Zinga considers herself a citizen of the world and her designs a ‘distinctive blend of her artistic experiences and an eclectic cocktail of her voyages’. Grant Fell finds out about lessons learned from Parsons School of Design, settling back in Dakar and why Abyssinia is one of the ‘most underrated civilizations of all time.’ Photos: Fabrice Monteiro, Ibra Ake and Mandela Gregoire
Grant Fell: Sophie, you were born in Senegal. Whereabouts in Senegal and did you grow up there?
Sophie Zinga: I was born in Dakar, Senegal. I left for the US, when I was about 22 months old. I later returned to Dakar for a short period of time before my family and I moved to Kenya for a couple of years. We moved back to Dakar when I was 10 and we ended up moving back to the US by the time I was 13. My high school years were split between Dakar and Tri State area where I’ve been living up until I moved back to Dakar 3 years ago. I still go back to New York quite often. Tell us about your childhood. Can you remember when you first became interested in fashion? I had a really happy childhood. I was the last child and grew up with my two big brothers who were always very protective of me. I was also quite studious and was completely consumed by books and literature. In fact up until now, I always have a book in my bag out of habit. Having said that I was always drawn to beauty and art. I also grew up surrounded by art everywhere, as my parents are avid art collectors. I remember watching in the 90’s, a Naomi Campbell documentary, which gave me a glimpse of the fashion world and I was completely fascinated from then on. You were on course for a career in Public Health before applying to enter Parsons, in New York. The prestigious school has launched the careers of some of fashion’s true visionaries; Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang, Prabal Gurang, Zac Posen and so many more. Talk us through how Parsons has shaped Sophie Zinga, the designer… I grew up being drawn to development work and social issues in Africa because both my parents worked in that. From a very young age, our family discussions/debates were about world politics, Africa and African American history. In fact, while studying economics at The New School, I interned in the UN and worked on a Columbia University-led team on Millennium Development goals related to health in Sub-Saharan Africa. However all throughout this time, I always said “in another world I’d be a fashion designer.” It was not until 2009 that I applied to Parsons and when I got accepted, I knew it was my calling. Parsons was instrumental in shaping the designer I am today. It truly is a world class school. It was highly competitive environment but in a positive way. A regular school day before midterms or finals would end at 3am with students still working on projects. My education there taught me the importance of rigor and dedication. Do you still work or collaborate with anyone from the school? Not as of now, but I still keep in touch with my professors and a couple of classmates. I am actually working on a project to be launched in 2016 in which I’d like to collaborate with Parsons. Did you create a standout piece while you were at Parsons that has informed your work today? If so, please describe the piece… I was always drawn to clean lines and I focused much on perfect tailoring and finishing the inside of a garment. I took this haute couture techniques class and it still very much informs my work. The meticulous finishing that is seen in my pieces stems from the rigorous training I received. Draping classes were one my favorites but curiously enough I haven’t ventured much into draping in my collections, however, my school sketches and final projects always bring back great memories and ideas as well.
Your first line was launched in 2012, what was it called and what was distinctive about the collection?
I did not give a name to my first collection.
Hand dyed Alençon lace dress by SOPHIE ZINGA (S/S 2014 collection)
I remember when I first started working on it, I had just given birth to my daughter and a month later I was running around New York City subways and the garment district. I have always focused on using high quality fabrics and my first collection was no different. I wanted it to have an African touch and rather than using the popular “Ankara” fabric, I used a Senegalese hand woven fabric called “pagne tissé.” I used the fabric to design a cocktail dress and a maxi pleated skirt which eventually got the attention of one of Elle France’s editors. In 2013, you set up production and opened a 1200 ft concept store in Dakar, Senegal’s capital. Why did you decide to return to the country of your birth to establish your brand?
I think even though I grew up abroad I always made a conscious decision to go back to Senegal to either work or create jobs and impact my community. My parents, siblings and I spent most of our summers in Dakar so I always felt a strong connection with the culture and spoke the local languages fluently. For me, when I launched the line it was just a matter of time before I settled back in Dakar. What is the fashion scene like in Dakar? Is there a common thread to the design coming out of the area? The fashion scene in Dakar is growing. I’m so proud of what the latest generation of Senegalese designers are doing. We all have our own distinctive styles. Platforms such as Dakar Fashion Week spearheaded by Adama Paris helps grow and bring awareness to the growing Senegalese fashion scene. We still have a lot of work to do but I’m confident that we will catch up with the rest. Senegalese women are known for being elegant and gracious. When did you first learn of the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative? I first learned of the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative though a talent contest that was launched in 2013. Explain how you work with the ITC EFI now… It has been great collaborating and working with ITC. They have provided me with great feedback during S/S 15 collection and have also facilitated and sponsored my presence in platforms such the Vogue Talents during Milan Fashion Week. I think they have arrived at the right time as African fashion has been booming and having international platforms to get our work known is capital. I love their motto “not charity, just work”. It echoes the “trade not aid” sentiment which more Africans have been pushing for. They are making history. You have shown at a number of fashion weeks now: New York, Paris, Milan, Dubai, MBFWA in Johannesburg and more recently in Lagos at the Lagos Fashion and Design Week... Do you have a favourite show to date?
New York is like home so my S/S 14 collection presentation in New York will always be special to me. Having said that, each city and each fashion week has its own distinctive benefit. For example I love the spontaneity of Dubai, they have that culture of buying off the runway. Lagos’
energy and creativity was unparalleled and I think MBFWA’s prestige and beautiful production still has me nostalgic. I really try to get the the best out of all of my shows and presentations. One of your signature techniques involves the use of a Malian tie-dye technique applied to beautiful French Alencon lace, chiffons and other fabrics. Are you developing other design and production techniques like this, where African artisan processes are applied to European fabrics or design? Yes, I am an avid fan of fusing cultures and aesthetics. In fact, I am currently conducting research on the use of old Senegalese dying and batik techniques. Batik and dying are techniques that have been used all throughout West Africa. For 2015, I plan on developing my own silk printed fabrics while using old age West African techniques. I think it always adds a special element to clothes. Your roots are in West Africa, yet your latest collection is called ‘Abyssinia’ the region in East Africa now known as Ethiopia. Why did you call the collection Abyssinia? My roots are indeed West African but I spent part of my childhood living in East Africa. I think the Ethiopian civilization has been one of the most underrated civilizations of all time. It also helps that my father wrote a book and did extensive research on African writing. I am very much drawn to revisiting historical aspects of Africa to not only raise awareness, but to also get people interested and start conversations. Similarly, talk us through the use of the cross in the collection from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church… As I was conducting more research on Ethiopia I stumbled on the Ethiopian Orthodox cross which is deemed the “African cross” because of its distinctive shape. I also noticed that many of traditional Ethiopian traditional attire feature the cross. In the collection, the cross is embroidered onto some the dresses and jumpsuits. It was my way to pay homage to Abyssinia. What is next for Sophie Zinga? What does the next year hold for you? In 2015, I will be developing an accessories line. A diffusion line is also in the works, which will be launched towards the end of 2015. I am also working on a larger scale project to be launched in 2016. It is a quite ambitious project and will be linked to training and developing the African fashion industry. What music are you listening to at the moment? Nina Simone on repeat - “Aint got no” Your favorite city? New York City. Your favorite book? Too many to choose from. You are having a dinner party and can invite four people from any time or place. Who would they be? Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Malala Yousafzai, Lupita Nyong’o. If you could do one thing to change the world, what would it be? Eradicate poverty.
This page: Sophie wears a Hand dyed Alençon lace dress from her S/S 2014 collection) Opposite: Silk satin top, handembroidered with Swarovski details by SOPHIE ZINGA (S/S 2015 collection)
Opposite:Hand dyed ombré Alençon lace gown by SOPHIE ZINGA (S/S 2015 collection) This page left: Cotton piqué top with dyed and Swarovski incrusted appliqué by SOPHIE ZINGA (S/S 2015 collection) Right:Tstrap hand-beaded chiffon cocktail dress by SOPHIE ZINGA (S/S 2015 collection)