When designer Adama Paris returned to her native Senegal from Europe 14 years ago to set up Dakar Fashion Week, there was no event of its kind on the continent.
What started as a one-day-only affair has since become an eight-day celebration of local style that’s held at several venues across the city in early June and supported by some of Africa’s biggest names, including world music stars Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal. “I remember the very first time we did this here, I was just 21; it was tough for people to take me seriously,” says Paris who splits her time between France and West Africa. “Now when Fashion Week happens everybody in the city knows it—we own Dakar.”
Take a peek backstage and much of what you’ll find is not far removed from shows in New York or Paris: the frenzy of hair and makeup is a familiar scene, and that heightened sense of drama before the lights go up on the catwalk is just as palpable.
What’s different here though, is that the runway is also a vehicle for bringing the community at large together—the week’s festivities are usually capped off with an extravagant show held on the streets of Dakar that’s literally open to all, and attended by thousands of people from all corners of the capital; a public conference for budding fashion entrepreneurs has also become a fixture on the schedule.
“I see Fashion Week as a platform for much broader issues,” says Paris who has become something of local celebrity and hosts a TV show dedicated to fashion made in Africa. “It’s not just about clothes, it’s about expanding existing notions of African beauty and shining the spotlight on the African textile industry. What you wear here tells a story—it’s your identity, it’s your tribe. And that’s what I love about it the most.”