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Senegal wows with eye-catching fashion

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

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.