DAKAR, June 21 (Reuters) - When Adama Ndiaye quit banking in Europe for life as a young clothes designer back home in Senegal, there was no show in town at which she could show off her wares. So she decided to put on one of her own.
“We offered a ticket, we were renting boats, we were renting camels,” she said, explaining how she lured other designers to the dusty, vibrant city of Dakar jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. “It was one day of shows and three days of fun.”
But with African fashion growing bigger and bolder at home, and starting to register on the radar of design houses and style magazines abroad, Dakar Fashion Week, 10 years on, a thirteenfold increase in budget and 30 designers coming from across the continent, is now a far more serious affair.
“Now it is just fashion,” Ndiaye added, between fielding calls in preparation for the night’s show. “In the last few years, you can feel that African fashion is getting bigger, stronger and better.”
In an effort to make the extravaganza more accessible, the week kicked off with a catwalk erected on Dakar’s Boulevard Centenaire, more accustomed to parading soldiers celebrating Senegal’s independence from France than sashaying models.
Designers displayed outfits drawing on influences from across Africa and further afield, mixing modern styles with colourful improvisations of traditional dress. Drab residential blocks were lit up with orange, yellow and blue lasers as thumping music drew hundreds out of their houses.
“This is great. We all love fashion. They have never done this before here,” said Mbarka Mbodji, a street vendor doing a swift trade in beef skewers and plastic sachets of chilled water on the street corner overlooking the makeshift catwalk.
Shows wound up at the other end of the spectrum, in front of Dakar’s booted and suited elite gathered on the manicured, palm-fringed gardens of one of the city’s most expensive hotels.
For a slideshow of photos from the week, please click here - here
While there are few accurate figures for the broader industry, like the show itself Ndiaye’s label, Adama Paris, has seen steady growth over the last decade and now sells at shops in Paris, New York, Tokyo and London.
African wax prints and motifs are appearing at international shows with big names like Burberry and Vivian Westwood in recent years putting on collections drawing heavily on African influences.
Later this year, the International Herald Tribune’s annual luxury conference, a leading industry get together, will focus on Africa as a producer and eventual consumer of luxury goods.
“Africa has always been a stylistic influence. But it is only recently that designers are being recognised on their own merit. For the first time, it is not just about a pat on the back but partnerships,” said Helen Jennings, editor of Arise, a leading African style magazine.
While many welcome the idea that modern African fashion designers are getting noticed at fashion fests from Dakar to Lagos and Johannesburg, the industry, like others on the continent, languishes largely in the informal and suffers from the lack of financing, access to markets and, say many, not being taken seriously enough.
“It is not that the talent is not there. But the next step is about pushing up production. If the designer doesn’t have the financing, they won’t get to the next level,” Jennings added.
Ndiaye complains that securing credit is hard enough for ordinary businesses in Senegal so designers, whose jobs are seen by most merely as hobbies, will always struggle. To get her work produced with a quality finish, she has to go to Morocco due to the lack of factories locally, she adds.
State television promised to broadcast the opening night live. But models were left fanning themselves late into Dakar’s humid evening air for several hours before they were eventually given a slot.
Seidnaly Sidhamed, a Nigerien designer better known as Alphadi and described by Jennings as the “grandfather” of African fashion, says African politicians could do more to promote training, financing and production but they don’t as they understand little of the industry.
“Instead of fighting and thinking only of themselves, they must think of culture,” he said.
The rise in prominence of African fashion has not come without its controversies. Some fashion houses have been accused of pilfering ideas from African designers who are not credited when outfits are rolled out at high-profile shows.
Vogue Italia recently devoted an entire issue to “Rebranding Africa” but drew criticism for reverting to old stereotypes and putting United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, on its front cover.
“Fashion is an elitist world that doesn’t like innovation,” said Marie-Jeanne Serbin-Thomas, editor of Brune, another African fashion magazine. “People are using African cloth but not recognising it as they fear it will devalue (their work).”
“The image of Africa is still that of cheap products, badly made that people won’t spend money on. Things are changing but there is still this mentality. (To many), Africa means safari or jungle. But the creativity you see here has nothing to do with this. It is modern, it is international,” she added.
Alphadi, who was born in the northern Malian town of Timbuktu, now controlled by Islamist rebels imposing strict sharia, Islamic law, devoted his collection to the plight of tens of thousands of Malians displaced by months of fighting.
Further down the line, he believes his industry could take its place on the continent as an engine of growth and employment. But he says mindsets will have to change at home, as well as abroad.
“Africans have always wanted to wear Chanel or (Yves) St Laurent. If we tell them that Africa is good too they will wear that,” he said, clutching a Malian flag.