Africa’s models and designers are strutting and cutting their way to renown, amidst all the difficulties. Alecia D. McKenzie reports from Paris.
People often stop Rama Diouf in the streets to ask if she’s a model. When she says “yes”, they smile as if they knew it had to be so. Diouf, tall, slim and younger looking than her 25 years, easily attracts attention, not only in public but also at fashion shows. Wearing a dress by a Dutch designer during the Fall-Winter 2014-15 couture week in Paris in July, for instance, she instantly stood out on the runway. But that was not difficult: on this particular occasion she was the only model of African descent among the nine mannequins, as they’re called in France.
“This is a very interesting field to be in, but it’s not easy,” Diouf said backstage after the fashion show. “There are lots of possibilities, but really very few opportunities for black models. It’s hard to find work. Sometimes you go to a fashion show and the models going by are all white – not one African or Asian. Some people say it’s scandalous. But it’s more than that, it’s disgraceful.”
It is no understatement to say that African models and designers do not have it easy in Paris, the much-vaunted world capital of fashion. Both Iman and Naomi Campbell, former top models, have slammed what they see as the exclusion of black models and stylists over the past several years. In 2013, they launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issue, and since then, some European designers have made a point of employing more black models for their shows.
However, the continued absence of African designers in the main fashion-week events is notable, to say the least. But none of the stylists that New African interviewed is waiting around for someone to send them an invitation. To paraphrase the Aretha Franklin/Eurythmics’ hit “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves”, Africans designers are doing things their own way, standing in their own two shoes and determined to highlight their role in the multi-billion-dollar global fashion industry.
Adama Ndiaye, the French-Senegalese founder of the Adama Paris brand, is among those at the forefront of this movement, along with Malian designer Mariétou Mariette Dicko and others. “As an entrepreneur, I firmly believe that we need to do things ourselves instead of saying that we don’t have this or that,” says Ndiaye.
A producer of Dakar Fashion Week for more than 10 years, she founded Black Fashion Week in Prague in 2010, testing the terrain in a small city, as she put it. She took the event to Paris the following year, where she presented designers of African origin during the same period as the traditional Paris Fashion Week in Autumn, causing somewhat of a commotion.
With three editions of Black Fashion Week Paris to date, French media have reported on the happening, but often with a tone of puzzlement, as if to say “why is this necessary”. In answer, Ndiaye has a long list of reasons that she is not shy to enunciate.
“There are some issues that need to be addressed in Europe, and especially in France,” she told New African. “Black Fashion Week is only relevant because of the lack of African designers in the main fashion weeks. There wouldn’t be events like mine if black designers were able to join Paris Fashion Week or London Fashion Week.”