Black Fashion Week

Fashion history is wrought with imagery defying our perspective of what is beautiful: tall, slim, blonde, blue eyes…characteristics you’d normally attach to a white person. Fashion has always made it harder for the darker skinned girls, despite the few that triumphed such as Naomi Campbell, Chanel Iman and Joan Smalls. There just isn’t enough demand, and brands especially are scared. In the words of Carole White, head of Premier model agency, “they think, ‘if I take that risk, will she sell my products?’ So they go with the tried-and-tested white girls. It’s driven by what sells and, in general, white blonde girls sell, that’s the mindset. It is safer to go with a white girl, and in a recession people are very conservative.”’ The same goes for black fashion.

This is where Senegalese-born French fashion designer, Adama Ndiaye (aka Adama Paris) counteracts that very statement, celebrating and showcasing African culture to a worldwide audience, through launching the first ever ‘Black Fashion Week’ in Paris. It’s an especially controversial location to hold such an event, being the fashion capital for the past century. Ndiaye expands further, “Five years ago, any event with the moniker ‘Black’ preceding it would have been hushed away in Paris. But now, after a successful Miss Black France, the introduction of new urban television networks and dozens of new blogs, Black has become the new crème du jour. For me, it has all this time, just been something normal.”

It wasn’t held just anywhere. They chose to lay the foundations of their African catwalk in the Pavillon Cambon Capucines, previously home to iconic French designer Chanel, right in the midst of Paris. On this point, Adama muses, “I think the people who come to the show will be very surprised: surprised at the level of quality and high-end couture they will see, rather than the usual clichés associated with African fashion.” And surprised, they were.

Adama Paris’ mission statement affirms, “The Adama Paris style is much more than a matter of clothing. It also reflects what’s on the minds of young contemporary women. Whether black, of mixed ancestry, or Arabic, many of these women refuse to be restricted by an image often forced upon them by a single label, by one culture.” The statement, in its entirety, is a bold one, and very true. Bringing this sentiment and Black Fashion Week into this context, some people could go to the extent of proclaiming the importance of this event as playing a part in history. It might not quite match those of the civil rights movement or the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, but in the fashion world, one led predominantly by white people, it is making a statement that is perhaps the fashion equivalent.

“Why not a White Fashion Week?” many have questioned and challenged Adama, to which she replies, “Paris Fashion Week is already white.” She’s aware of Africa’s place in the fashion market, being the underdog and not perceived as an industry of its own. “We wanted to simply promote beyond African borders, designers who are well-known in Africa or in their country but who don’t have access to the global market.” Involved in the fashion industry for years now, and having organized the Dakur Fashion Week for the past ten years, she knows exactly what she’s doing. Not only has she showcased Black talent in Paris and Prague, but she’s also expanding the market further to places such as Montreal in November and Brazil’s Salvador de Bahia next March – with undoubtedly more to take place over the years to come.

Adama Ndiaye is an inspiration to everyone, and not only people of the same heritage. The principles of what she’s achieving is something to be admired, pushing the boundaries of things that people once thought were set in stone. It’s quite the challenge too, with Black fashion never being portrayed in the best light and usually featuring simplistic bold prints and predictable designs.  This recent Black Fashion Week easily challenged Paris Fashion Week with its couture, feminine designs catered from silk, satin and embroidered cotton. An air of royalty and metallic trends occurred throughout many of the designs with corsets created from Dutch wax fabrics. Over fifteen black designers presented their collections in the prestigious location where Coco Chanel once set foot. “It’s a mix of everything. Our designers originating from Egypt, Martinique, Senegal, the United States. That’s what I like about fashion.”

Many of the designs that braced the catwalk were experimental, perhaps most prominent of those being that of New York designer, LaQuan Smith. His latest presentation saw models parade in see- through, bold-colored plastic skirts with netted tops and sheer neon bodysuits. The 24-year-old designer’s vision exceeds that of what one would usually encounter down a catwalk, not a far cry from resembling what Jamaican fashion would be like, if Martians took over.

In an ironic twist, Adama Ndiaya’s collection for Parisian Black Fashion Week was just that, black. The dresses and jumpsuits carefully caressed and complemented the models’ figures, with further character created within her pieces through golden and faded orange woven circles with an African fabric called Bazan. “It’s made with cotton, and I work with women in the village to make it shine and look like leather, almost. I use earrings from my ethnic group [Fulani] that we’d usually use in weddings.”

“These designs are not made by blacks for blacks,” she protests, as previously mentioned in her mission statement. But this was an opportunity for the models as well as the designers. “For the models, the majority of them black, it’s also an occasion to get on the catwalk since most of the shows look for more expensive white models – some of whom dropped out of Black Fashion Week to do better-paying gigs.” The fashion world has been looking for ways to evolve and change. Perhaps this is it’s chance. With a strong interest in Africa’s oil, mines and minerals, it’s only a matter of time until the interest shifts towards African fashion and becomes another one  of their in-demand resources.

Text by Katia Ganfield