JDresses hang on one wall of Bada Seck’s single-room workshop in the Ngor district of Dakar, Senegal, dresses are lined up along another. Half-made garments sit on top of an unused sewing machine, and cloth bags cover the floor.
Seck’s atelier, in this former fishing village on the western edge of the Senegalese capital, may be modest, but its customers come from as far away as France.
“If there are means, I do European styles with African fabrics,” he says, pulling a brightly patterned suit jacket off the wall to look at. Festivals are a particularly busy time for him. “With Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr there is a lot of work, a lot, a lot. More than we can go on. Even if we work all night, until 5 in the morning. It’s difficult, because everyone dresses up and our work is not fast.”
Seck primarily creates custom-made fashion. Customers bring fabrics bought from market stalls to tailors like him to be turned into anything from caftans, flowy boubous and dresses to Western-style suits and windbreakers.
Seck is one of many tailors who make up Senegal’s domestic fashion industry, which has helped attract big names to the country: Tommy Hilfiger and Levi’s stores recently opened in the capital. As Seck cuts and sews in his workshop along one of the town’s sandy streets, organizers in the capital are eagerly preparing for the 20th Dakar Fashion Week on the first weekend of December. On Tuesday, Chanel hosted its Métiers d’Art show, which highlights the work of specialist artisans, for the first time in Africa.
Adama Ndiaye, founder of Dakar Fashion Week, together with Moroccan designers Karim Tassi; Nigerian brand Emmy Kasbit; and Mimi Plange from Ghana – showed their collections along the catwalks of Gorée Island. Despite being “burdened with such a sad history”, Gorée, once a center of the international slave trade, is a place where you can see a “cultural mix”, Ndiaye told a press conference.
“Senegal – and Dakar in particular – is a country with a strong cultural presence,” says Roméo Moukagny, a Gabonese designer who works in Dakar’s Liberté 6 district. “Even in something modern, there is a traditional touch that remains there. Every 10 meters you have a workshop. Even if you’re a foreigner, you have your chance like everyone else… If you want to enter a competition, you don’t have to be a [Senegalese] national You can apply. You can open a business. There’s really an accessibility.”
Moukagny’s atelier is occupied by Aton Tsiba, a fashion designer from the Republic of Congo who presented his collection at a fashion week show for up-and-coming designers.
“My [collection] celebrate everyone who has contributed to the advancement of culture,” says Tsiba, as a tailor in the next room puts the finishing touches on the suits about to be modelled.
“There is more accessibility [in Dakar]”, he says. “The material, the fabrics are more accessible. There is also the diversity that you can see in the number of designers. It’s a bit more fashion-forward. It’s an environment that suits me.”
Senegalese designer Selly Raby Kane, who presented a capsule collection showcasing her looks from the past decade, says Senegalese and West African style is a force to be reckoned with.
“Senegal has a very, very serious culture of fashion, textiles, embroidery, hand embroidery. know how. It’s precious to us,” she says. “Nigeria also has a strong fashion scene…Senegal is getting a bit of a foothold [from] Lakes in terms of traditional clothing, mainly. So there’s a dialogue going on in West Africa.”
In fact, every day is a fashion show in Dakar. Anseme René Carvalho sips tea at a lunch stand across the street from a mosque as worshipers file in. She wears a mustard yellow kaftan that almost reaches her feet. But he is not there to pray. “I’m not Muslim,” says Carvalho, part of the country’s small Christian minority. But “on Fridays we dress like this. It’s the traditional dress.”
Most of Senegal’s domestic fashion industry exists independently of designer stores or events like Dakar Fashion Week. “I believe in my head,” says Seck, who says he hasn’t heard of fashion week. Tickets for shows cost around 50,000 CFA (£65), beyond most budgets in a country where GDP per capita is around £1,300.
Ngor market vendor Mamadieng Diallo says he goes to his tailor every three months for new clothes.
“If I see some material and it’s nice to me, I buy it and take it to the tailor,” he says. “Even if it isn’t [Eid]in three months I’ll buy something, sometimes two months.”
Mame Diary Diouf, who runs a workshop next door to the Moukagny workshop, says Dakar has a rich environment for clothing.
“We have all kinds of customers. Every month, we try to create new designs to propose to our customers. At the same time, customers can bring fabric directly,” he says.
“The embroidery is done by hand. It’s our style. It is tradi-modern”, adds Diouf. “Our style can be used by everyone.”