Senegal wows with eye-catching fashion

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.

Ivorian designer Anderson D presented one creation that looked like a six-foot tall banana, while others offered variations of lace and turbans.

Backstage was abuzz with the flurry of preening, excitement and anxiety.

The strikingly long and lean physiques of the Senegalese means that many of the models would look at home on the better-known catwalks of the world’s capitals.

“Senegalese women are noted for their grace, self-care, and elegance. They are arrestingly beautiful  — tall and dark-skinned,” according to social anthropologist Hudita Mustafa, who turned her Harvard PhD thesis into a manuscript titled “Practicing Beauty,” about fashion and gender in Dakar.

“The question of the relationship between exterior, physical beauty and inner, moral beauty comes up all the time in ordinary conversation,” she said in an article published in Harvard Magazine. “Fashion is the way social rivalry is expressed.”

Fashion has also been a source of empowerment for Senegalese women who traditionally don’t work outside the home.

Economic hardship in the early 1990s meant that many Senegalese men went unemployed, spurring their wives to become entrepreneurs. Scores turned to designing garments for wealthier female clients. Now there’s scarcely a street in Dakar without at least one boutique selling women’s wares or accessories.

Hair salons are another cottage industry generating income for many Senegalese women and providing them with greater economic independence.

Dakar Fashion Week founder Ndiaye is a typical example of such entrepreneurship and the resistance faced by women in Senegal’s male-dominated society. She initially struggled to gain much support from investors, advertisers and sponsors, but after early success and continued growth, interest has blossomed.

“At first I had to do everything myself, nobody thought that a young Senegalese woman could make something like this happen,” said Ndiaye. “But now they see how well it’s going and everyone wants to be involved.”

Dakar Fashion Week has been broadcast live on state broadcaster Radio Television Senegal for the past three years. The station is carried by satellite to New York and Paris, allowing Senegal’s large expat communities to tune in.

The exposure also makes participants feel like they’re being noticed on a global stage.

“Fashion and how you dress makes you part of something, a bigger world beyond our country,” said Ndiaye. “And being involved in Dakar Fashion Week feels like something more than just Africa.”

On a glamorous closing night, colored stage lights glowed and leggy models strutted to the thumping rhythms of Western and African music. It was easy to forget for a moment the cracked and dusty streets outside.