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Senegal wows with eye-catching fashion

Dakar fashion week shows off Senegal's flair for high style.

DAKAR, Senegal — This capital city is a sunburned, dusty peninsula on the westernmost tip of Africa, pointing across the Atlantic toward the contours of the Caribbean.

Sand clogs rutted streets roamed by goats and swarms of battered black-and-yellow taxis whose drivers imagine slow-motion road rules of their own.

Throngs of ragged children, known as talibes, scamper barefoot between traffic using rusted tins as begging bowls to collect coins for marabouts, the local Islamic leaders who send them onto the streets as part of their informal religious schooling.

Everywhere, drab concrete buildings are in a constant state of semi-construction or apparent collapse — sometimes it’s hard to tell. When it rains, streets flood and main roads are virtually impassable.

Chronic power cuts often bring the city to a standstill. Yet amid Dakar’s perpetual shabbiness — or perhaps because of it — there is an explosive flair for fashion and style.

Vibrant colors abound and the rubbish-strewn roads clash with the elegantly dressed Senegalese, striding men in flowing traditional bubus and tottering women side-stepping open sewers in their high-heels.

“Even maids and grandmothers are fashionable,” said Adama Ndiaye, founder and organizer of Dakar Fashion Week. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you can’t be fashionable and have your own style. In poor countries you have to show off what you have. The way we do that here is in the way we dress and the accessories we wear.”

Indeed, Senegal’s trendy youth aggressively covet the latest designer clothing, bags and mobile phones. The older generations meanwhile take great pride in wearing the finest traditional threads, usually resplendent with color and finished off with elaborate head wraps for the women and pointed leather sandals for men.

These outfits are regularly shown off with panache at family events such as weddings or at community and religious festivals, of which there are many.

Dakar Fashion Week — the eighth edition took place earlier this month — was the latest opportunity for designers, models and the city’s trendiest dressers to strut their stuff.

Held in various restaurants, nightclubs and bars around town, the event drew crowds of admirers, as well as designers from Martinique, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Senegal.

The final show was held at a flashy new hotel with a catwalk over an infinity pool facing out to sea, making it appear as if the models were blown in on an ocean breeze.

The styles on display reflected Senegal’s position at the crossroads of African, Western and Islamic influences. The melange of styles is appropriate as Senegal is a former French colony that is more than 90 percent Muslim and borders the Arab countries of North Africa.