Magazine article New African

Senegal's Queen of Fashion

Magazine article New African

Senegal's Queen of Fashion

Article excerpt

Oumou Sy is one of Africa's most important contemporary fashion designers. Yet she is much more than a couturiere--she is a poet, a playwright, an activist, and a cyber pioneer who opened West Africa's first internet cafe, in the Senegalese capital Dakar. While she has enjoyed great commercial success with boutiques in Paris and Geneva, she has never neglected her African roots. New African's Stephen Williams met with her and was given the opportunity to photograph her haute couture collection.

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It was Oumou Sy's husband and business manager, Michel Mavros, who first suggested I meet with Senegal's most famous designer. But on arriving in Dakar, I discovered that Mavros had been called to Paris. That was a worry. Many designers can be difficult to work with--would Oumou meet with me without her right-hand man?

A quick phone call to Mavros in Paris reassured me, Oumou would certainly see me. "Just go to her Metissacana cafe in the heart of Dakar's central market," I was told. "Someone will guide you to her studio."

The Metissacana is the famous cyber cafe in Rue de Thiong, opened by Oumou in 1997 to provide the public with internet access. It is said to be the very first cyber-cafe to open in West Africa. Oumou had quickly spotted the opportunities that the world wide web offered, not only to her design business but the public in general, as a powerful research and communication tool.

The cafe itself is in a pleasant courtyard garden where they serve meals and cold drinks. There is a ready-to-wear boutique on the ground floor where Oumou's Made in Africa labelled clothes are for sale, and an haute couture (high fashion) showroom on the top floor, with a vast tented roof space area where she can hold fashion shows.

Introducing myself at the reception area, I was quickly met by one of Oumou's young assistants, Sophie, who took me to a nearby taxi rank and joined me on the 20-minute journey to the Atelier Leydi in Dakar's Medina area. This area is mainly residential, but it is where Oumou chose to set up her workshop.

The modest exterior of the workshop-studio building belies the cool and spacious interior space where perhaps two dozen assistants, secretaries, models, seamstresses, make-up artists and hairdressers were preparing for Oumou's next fashion show. It had an atmosphere of disciplined energy, everyone working flat-out to prepare for the show in a remarkably calm and collected manner.

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Little believing that Oumou would be able to spare more than a few minutes with a visiting journalist, I was shown into her private room. She greeted me warmly, invited me to sit on one of the small stools around the room and asked an assistant for tea to be served.

I noticed various collar amulets and neck-pieces lying on the floor. Around the walls of the room were photographs of Oumou being presented with many of the international prizes she has won over the years, including the 1998 Prince Claus Award for the Art of African fashion, an RFI (French television) Africa award, and images of the annual Semaine de la Mode (Dakar fashion week) which she initiated.

The Dakar fashion week provides an opportunity for fashion designers from all over Africa to network and show their work to the many international buyers who come especially to Senegal for the occasion.

As we talked, Oumou continued to work at the large table in the centre of the room where she was sorting through piles of different textiles. At regular intervals, models would appear for Oumou to give them her finishing touches and approval. She seemed to instinctively know the look she wanted and how to achieve it, working at a relaxed pace--unhurried yet supremely assured--as she piled a raffia headpiece on one model, adjusted the flow of a gown on another, or created a taped motive around the body of another.

Barefoot, Oumou herself seemed less the international celebrity--more a dedicated artist at home in her studio and, incredibly enough, happy to speak to yet another journalist seeking an interview as she assembled her latest fashion creations. …

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