Mimi Plange. Photo by Alioune Seye.

Dr. Kelly Kirby is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, Pa., USA. Her research areas focus on African fashion/apparel/textiles, Visual Anthropology/Film Studies, and African Diasporas. She recently co-produced a short documentary titled Ardmore: Seen and Unseen, which focuses on the history of the Black community in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and the gentrification that is pushing them out. She is currently editing footage for a film she is directing and producing about the life of Senegalese fashion designer and entrepreneur Adama Paris.
Fashion is political. And so is style. Style, a timeless symbiosis between embodiment, clothing, and adornment, has existed throughout humanity. Embodiments are conscious or subconscious daily rituals we encounter between cloth, clothing, and adornments with which we decorate our bodies. [1] We don available cloth and clothing in contexts where choice is privileged or constricted. Bodily adornments transform us into individuals, whether jewelry, make-up, body modifications, or even scents. [2] Confirmed evidence of humans styling their bodies dates as far back as 76,000 years ago, evidenced by bone awl needles discovered in South Africa, eye-sewing needles found in Siberia and China 45,000 years ago (also in Europe dating to 26,000 years ago, and North America dating to 13,000 years ago), along with embroidery needles uncovered by the Inya River in Siberia from 20,000 years ago and in the deserts of China from 10,000 years ago. [3] These excavated data from various places worldwide confirm that aesthetics also mattered to Homo sapiens and that style is an innate attribute of being human.

The concept of “fashion” developed during the Industrial Revolution by those in privileged socio-economic spaces who reaped the benefits of steel-mechanized technologies that relied on palm oil to lubricate machines, fibers to mass-produce cloth, and labor to construct ready-to-wear clothing – all of which are consequences of European colonialism and capitalism. Colonialism and capitalism led to the mass production of woven textiles that usurped hand-woven techniques worldwide. Fashion grew as an ideology grounded in the latest trends in textiles and apparel initiated by the elite. Their looks instigated curiosity, admiration, and, eventually, appropriation from those unable to afford luxuriously expensive and lavish ensembles. [4] Haute couture emerged as a way for the prestigious to differentiate themselves from others. Like the colonizers imposing political rule over the colonized, European fashion grew to influence and sometimes dominate the sartorial practices of politically conquered people living in what is now Senegal. While the French fashion influence impacted apparel traditions in Senegal, numerous aspects of Senegalese styles prevailed throughout pre-colonialism, colonialism, Independence in 1960, and until today.

Adama Amanda Ndiaye is the creator of Dakar Fashion Week, Black Fashion Weeks and Fashion Africa Channel; she is also the owner of her own brand, Adama Paris, as well as of the Adama Paris Boutique in Dakar and of Saargale - a concept boutique in Paris. She is the beacon of Senegalese style, popularly known in Senegal and beyond by her clothing brand name, Adama Paris. She left a banking job, after earning a degree in economics, to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer. In 2002 she created Dakar Fashion Week, with Black Fashion Week following in 2012, because she recognized there was no welcome place for African models and fashion designers to showcase their collections, especially in Europe. In an interview with Pascal Mourier from France 24 on January 4, 2021, she speaks about her attendance at an Yves St. Laurent fashion show with her mother when she was a young child, citing him as “representing multiculturalism” because he included Black models in his show, ultimately inspiring her to create Fashion Weeks in Dakar and abroad. Mourier asks if politics were part of her inspiration for creating the Fashion Weeks, and she responds, “Completely, it was always politically motivated, and yes, my involvement was political. But then again, isn’t all activism political?” [5] This testament is the legacy of someone who challenged discrimination on behalf of all African designers and contributed significantly to Dakar becoming a hub for fashion, style, and art in multiple genres. [6]

Adama Paris. Photo by Réh Leo.

Dakar Fashion Week is one of Africa's first and longest-running fashion weeks. It began as a dream for a young Adama Paris when she was inspired to create a platform for herself and other young African designers to show their collections. Her conceived model was unique, and it was strategic for two reasons. According to Almamy Lo, Adama’s “right-hand man” business partner who has been working with her from the beginning, “She did not have the capital to do a show on her own when she first started, so she invited local designers to participate in a collective show, and she liked the idea of collaboration to represent the diversity of Senegalese, and African, fashion at large.” [7] The collections displayed in these shows over 20 years defy “fashion in the mainstream European sense” by celebrating and embracing historically relevant styles that have stood the test of time. Dakar Fashion Week has served as a venue to honor African designers who create collections sustainably made in Africa.

Another of Adama Paris’s innovative strategies to politicize African fashion was manifest through her creative directorship and founding of Black Fashion Week. The first Black Fashion Week was held in Paris, France, in 2012, and subsequently in Prague, Bahia, Montreal, and Geneva. In a 2019 interview with DW Made for Minds, she said, “If the European fashion scene would give us a place, then this would not be necessary. I dream of the day when we no longer need Black Fashion Week…it’s very hard for African fashion designers to do a show in Europe.” [8] When, in March 2023, I asked her why she started Black Fashion Week, she responded: “I wanted to scream to the world as a Black woman: ‘I exist, and my fashion is relevant. I am proud of my culture as a Black woman – it’s Basquait, it’s rhythm and blues, it’s mbalax [], it’s all of those things.’ Not all Blacks are African, and not all Africans are Black, yet we are united through Black culture; that’s why I created Black Fashion Week.” [9] Youssou N’Dour, world-renowned musician and former Minister of Culture of Senegal, shared a similar sentiment in an interview with France 24 in 2012 when he stated, “Fashion is a very important part of what we do. It is like an art form…I’m also here to support a woman who has done a great deal for Senegal, Adama.  She’s once again organizing this event. It gets bigger year on year.” Following that, the journalist asked, “And why does there need to be a Black Fashion Week?” His response in English was: “It is simple. Black is beautiful.” [10] Today, Black Fashion Week is a politically driven international event where fashion designers from Africa and the African Diaspora show their collections in spaces that defy nationality and celebrate cultural unity.

Mimi Plange. Photos by Alioune Seye.

Black Fashion Week’s success and artistic solidarity were inspired by the success of Dakar Fashion Week and the entrepreneurial woman who created both. In December 2022, Adama Paris celebrated her 20th year as creative director and founder of Dakar Fashion Week. The theme of the shows that year was: “Made in Africa for Africans and for the World.” The monumental three-day event showcased African fashion designers’ creativity, resilience, aesthetics, and political power. Events included a cocktail party hosted by the British Embassy, a press conferences, a fashion show at the Pullman Hotel featuring emerging designers’ fully sustainable looks, a Clothing Swap Shop Event, a Soirée de Clôture, and the main event, the Début Défilé.

The Début Défilé took place on December 3, 2022, with a runway show featuring 20 African designers from across the continent showing their latest collections in a historically political location – Gorée Island. [11] Gorée, 3.5 kilometers from Dakar, served historically as a departure point for Africans to be embarked on the Middle Passage towards lives of enslavement in the Americas and the Caribbean. UNESCO’s website writes, “Ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French, the contrast between the grim slave quarters and the elegant houses of the slave traders characterizes its architecture. Today it continues to serve as a reminder of human exploitation and as a sanctuary for reconciliation.” [12] Musée Historique Gorée was the specific location of the show. There, a fort once occupied by Europeans to fight enemies in their battles to conquest, colonize, and enslave Indigenous people was recaptured in the name of fashion and artistry. This was a moment of exuberance resting in recovery and reconciliation, emblazing the timelessness of African style.

Sustainability has been the metaphorical thread connecting designers’ collections for Dakar Fashion Week over the last few years. For example, during the pandemic, plans for Dakar Fashion Week 18 in 2020 changed drastically when the Pullman Hotel in Dakar canceled one of the shows due to quarantine restrictions. Adama Paris and her team had to improvise with a backup plan, moving quickly to ensure that all invited designers showed their collections in the baobab forest of the Bandia Reserve outside of Dakar. In a 2020 interview with Pascal Mourier for France 24 Adama stated, “It’s about equality, ecology, sustainability for artistry and for art. As a country that was once a French colony, the West taught us to model ourselves on Western ways of doing things. But now we need to find a good balance between who we are and what the rest of the world is.” [13] This sentiment stood firm for Dakar Fashion Week 19 in 2021. In a 2021 interview with Hamera Chaudhary from Al Jazeera Media, Adama stated: “I don’t want to live with fashion as the Europeans dictate us to. I don't want to do that anymore.” [14] Adama Paris’s insight into this shift in sustainability and pride in African style has influenced many African fashion designers to own, nurture, and reestablish their aesthetics, once influenced by Western fashion. Sustainability is not only about reducing, reusing, and recycling: in the context of Dakar Fashion Weeks it is also about cultural and artistic preservation.

Mimi Plange. Photo by Alioune Seye.

Sustainability and art are inseparable for designers participating in Dakar Fashion Week. This can be understood contextually through the interviews I carried out with three designers in December, 2022, all of whom showcased their collections at Dakar Fashion Week 2022. Conçeicão Carvalho, of Guinea Bissau, has owned and designed for Bibas Bissau since 1989. She works primarily with organic cotton, grown and woven locally when possible, and uses natural materials such as vegetables and flowers for dyeing. She employs five local tailors who have worked for her for over 20 years. Her inspirational slogan is “When traditional meets contemporary,” meaning she is invested in providing jobs for locals to build artisanship in her community and incorporate traditional weaving and dyeing practices into her collections. In addition to her pursuits in sustainability (in the choices she makes with local textiles, dyes, and production) she advocates for Guinea-Bissauan clients to buy clothing locally. This is her way of promoting the sustainability of traditional art, keeping it alive locally and, hopefully, as she expressed to me, influencing local clients' perceptions that purchasing clothing produced outside of Guinea Bissau is not necessarily an indication of social status. [15]

Another local designer, who conceives of sustainability as inextricable from art, is Mimi Plange. Born in Ghana and raised in California, Mimi collaborates with her Senegalese husband, Ibrahim Ndoye, born in Paris, to create sportswear inspired by Africa in the name of “unfashion.” Unfashion is an ideology that challenges the status quo in Westernized fashion. An example is Plange’s inspiration for her “Scarred Perfection” collection in 2010, when she created apparel and purses inspired by her mother’s scarification. Her website cites: “My mother has a scar on her cheek. She told me it was a coming-of-age mark she received when she was a little girl. I always loved her stories of rituals and tribal markings from our native Ghana, and wanted to share my own vision of African scarification re-imagined as a textile on leather skins.” [16] Plange’s rendering of sustainability is founded on transforming historically hegemonic, predominantly Eurocentric, views on African traditions into an aesthetic commemorating African heritage with pride. [17]

Tina Lobondi is a Paris-based designer who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her work is influenced by Haute Couture and Afro-centric prints and silhouettes. Lobondi’s collections are infused with African historical culture and impeccable construction, at once accentuating Black beauty and African femininity. Her take on sustainability is twofold. First, she advocates for communities in Congo by producing limited-edition t-shirts that raise awareness of social inequalities worldwide; proceeds from these t-shirts support predominantly African organizations. On the other hand, Lobondi’s collections are constructed in Paris. Having her collections made in Congo would be unsustainable, due to the inaccessibility of local training in sewing, dyeing, embroidery, and machinery, and given her mission of creating meticulously constructed looks. She remains hopeful that collaborations with couture houses will foster opportunities in fashion education for people in Congo and others on the continent. [18]

Tina Lobondi. Photo by Bizenga Biz.
Cultural sustainability sometimes shows up in unexpected ways. The House of Chanel showed its Métiers d’Art Collection - for the first time on the continent of Africa – at the Palais de Justice in Dakar on December 6, 2022, two days after the finale of Dakar Fashion Week’s 20th anniversary. Adama Paris’s international influence on African fashion inspired Virginie Viard, Creative Director of Chanel, to choose Dakar for this historic event because of Senegal’s historically dynamic art and fashion scene and because of Adama Paris’ two-decade international contributions that have made Dakar into a global fashion hub. This project was three years in the making. In my interview with Adama on March 6, 2023, she stated:

    When Chanel reached out to me to do the show in Dakar I was thinking, okay, why Senegal? It’s a beautiful country, a safe country, relatively stable, with this passion for art and this deep passion for fashion. I was really glad they came to me because otherwise I would criticize them (laughing). It showed that my path led to this – a big designer coming to us, seeking our knowledge. I praise them for that. It’s always the South coming to the North trying to seek knowledge and for once they came to us, wanting to share their fashion, the best way possible, by collaborating with people like me. I was really proud to produce this show. I hired 170 people to work on this show. It’s important for me that 170 people had work. It was nice to see my people sharing their knowledge and their artisanship. It was a beautiful experience and I’m so glad I was part of it.

Some of the Dakar Fashion Week 20 designers were skeptical of Chanel choosing Senegal, a former French colony, for the site of its first African Métiers d’Art show, questioning whether it was a political move of imperialism; others remained optimistic about the opportunity for collaboration and acknowledgment of African style by Chanel. Adama Paris confirmed it was the latter. Several Chanel representatives arrived in Dakar days earlier to attend Dakar Fashion Week, and all the designers who showed collections at Dakar Fashion Week were invited to the Métiers d’Art show.

Mimi Plange. Photo by Alioune Seye.
Under-documented, under-studied, and misunderstood outside the European gaze, African style has existed for thousands of years. The African fashion designers participating in Dakar Fashion Weeks have challenged long standing ideologies about the historical meanings of style in African apparel through political reclamations of their heritage, independence in practicing both environmental and cultural sustainability, and by bursting into the global fashion arena as trendsetting inspirations.  Adama Nydiaye had a vision over 20 years ago when she created Dakar Fashion Week and Black Fashion Week internationally. Her entrepreneurial mission challenged the colonial hegemony of African style and fashion, as dressing to be addressed has now come to the forefront of former colonizers seeking collaboration and inspiration from African designers.

Notes: Dakar Fashion Week

[1] Pierre Bourdieau, Outline of a Theory of Practice, (New York: Routeledge, 1977), 4. ; Mauss, Marcel “Techniques of the Body,” Economy and Society 2(1) (1973): 70 -88.

[2] Georg Simmel, Secrecy and Adornment, trans. Kurt H. Wolff (Glencoe, Illinois, The Free Press), 330 – 344.

[3] Jacob Pagano, “Sewing Needles Reveal the Roots of Fashion,” Sapiens, January 26, 2019

[4] Georg Simmel, “Fashion,” The American Journal of Sociology 62(6) (1957): 541 – 558.

[5] Adama Paris, “Adama Ndiaye: Designer and Champion of African Fashion, Interview by Pascal Mourier, France 24, January 4 2021, video, 6:36, https://www.france24.com/en/tv-shows/fashion/20210104-adama-ndiaye-designer-and-champion-of-african-fashion

[6] This article is based on years of ethnographic research focusing on Dakar Fashion Week. First in 2008, when I attended the shows, and interviewed Adam Paris at her home. I attended all events associated with DFW in 2019, and in 2022, and carried out in-depth interviews in March 2023. My research includes participant observation and interviews.

[7] Almamy Lo, Dakar, interviewed by Kelly Kirby, Dakar, March 3 2023, video: 30:33.

[8] Adama Paris, “Adama Paris’ Black Fashion Week,” Interviewer unnamed, DW Made for Minds, September 28, 2019, video: 5:12, https://www.dw.com/en/adama-paris-black-fashion-week/video-50623324

[9] Adama Paris, interviewed by Kelly Kirby, Dakar, March 3, 2023, video: 48:40.

[10] Youssou N’Dour, “Paris Black Fashion Week: Black is Beautiful,” Interviewer unnamed, France 24, January 4, 2015, video: 5:58. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRN6HtWmuLY

[11] The designers were born and/or born and raised in Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Guinea Bissau, and Angola.

[12] “Island of Gorée,” UNESCO World Heritage Convention, accessed May 7, 2023, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/26/

[13] Adama Paris, “Dakar Fashion Week: A Catwalk Among the Baobab Trees,” Interview by Pascal Mourier, France 24, December 18, 2020, video, 6:08, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTbXIQyn8Ps

[14] Adama Paris, “Senegal’s Fashion Week Focuses on Sustainability,” Interview by Hamera Chaudhary, Al Jazeera, December 20, 2021, video, 2:06, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CYgQLl37lA

[15] Conçeicão Carvalho, interviewed by Kelly Kirby, Dakar, December 6, 2022, video: 50:25.

[16] “Mimi Plange,” https://www.mimiplange.com/pages/copy-of-scarred-perfection, accessed on May 4, 2023

[17] Mimi Plange, interviewed by Kelly Kirby, Dakar, December 4, 2022, video: 23:00.

[18] Tina Lobondi, interviewed by Kelly Kirby, Dakar, December 4, 2022, video: 32:03.

[19] Adama Paris, interviewed by Kelly Kirby, Dakar, March 3, 2022, video: 48:40.

Issue 13 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Politics
Issue 12 ︎︎︎ Border Garments: Fashion, Feminisms, & Disobedience

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement
Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016

Issue 11 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Digital Engagement

Issue 10 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Partnership

Issue 9 ︎︎︎ Fall 2021

Issue 8 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Mental Health

Issue 7 ︎︎︎ Fashion & Motherhood

Issue 6 ︎︎︎ Fall 2020

Issue 5 ︎︎︎ The Industry

Issue 4 ︎︎︎ Summer 2017

Issue 3 ︎︎︎ Spring 2017

Issue 2 ︎︎︎ Winter 2016

Issue 1 ︎︎︎ Fall 2016