n a sandy residential quarter of Yoff in coastal Dakar, Senegal, Alpha Gueye is perusing patterns with a customer. A length of acid-yellow, waxprinted material with a pattern of golden birds billows across the tiny shop crammed with sewing machines, multicoloured bobbins and stacks of magazines.“Fashion?”Alpha smiles.“Une Dakaroise will go without a meal for days to save her last [pennies] for a new dress!”
Dakar has long been known as the Paris of Africa. It’s the home of that legendary “queen of couture”, Oumou Sy, and where Senegalese women stalk the city streets like haughty birds of paradise in decadently patterned marinières (fitted tops and skirts), matching headscarves and high heels. The men are no less chic, sporting trendy jeans or grand boubous (long, loosefitting garments worn by both sexes) in lustrous, colourful fabric. Down through West Africa it’s the same, from the effervescent fashion capitals of Abidjan and Lagos to trendy Accra and stylish little Lomé in Togo, where women in towering heels zip around the dusty capital on mopeds.
Further south, the fashion scene has long taken root in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Dar es Salaam. Completing the continental tour, the fashionista might continue north to Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Cairo or Casablanca.
Designer names emerging from Africa are numerous – Fikirte Addis, House of Marie, Darryl Jagga, Studio One Eighty Nine, Maki Oh, Lisa Folawiyo, Maxhosa by Laduma, and Loincloth and Ashes are all being picked up internationally, first by celebrities, and now by consumers seeking something new.
“West African countries have celebrity appeal; they’re being worn by international icons,” says Adiat Disu, founder of Africa Fashion Week in Berlin, London, Milan, New York, Paris and Tokyo. “Celebrities are wearing designs handcrafted by designers or artisans from African countries. The Made in Africa brand revolution began notably during Barack Obama’s presidency, when Michelle Obama wore a bright pink Mali-inspired top designed by Duro Olowu, a Nigeria-born designer. Other great examples include Alicia Keys wearing Studio One Eighty Nine, Solange Knowles wearing Boxing Kitten and Issa Rae wearing Lisa Folawiyo.”