Adama Paris Speaks on Dakar Fashion Week

A interview By Tanya Bandra (Freelance Documentary Photographer) With Designer Adama Paris

Ten years ago, Senegalese designer Adama Paris created Dakar Fashion Week in an effort to highlight local designs and celebrate Senegalese fashion, art, and self-expression. Although its beginnings were humble, it has now become a major platform for Senegalese and other international designers to showcase their talents. This year featured designers from over 15 countries including Morocco, Pakistan, Haiti, Mali, Egypt and Ivory Coast, and was made open to the public.
I spoke to Adama Paris (née Adama Amanda Ndiaye), about her opinion on the representation of African designs and designers in the fashion industry.
Why did you start Dakar Fashion Week?
I wanted to create a platform for African designers that wanted to show their work in Africa and to showcase their designs to African buyers and viewers. During the past 10 years, it’s been getting bigger and better. We’re getting lots of interest from designers all over the continent, which is great. We’re aiming to be a big fashion week like Paris or London – to really be able to showcase any designer who wants to sell and show their designs in Africa.
You mentioned that designers sometimes have difficulty in finding local and international markets to distribute their creations.
Yes, it’s getting better but really slowly. It definitely affects designers’ work. If you spend months to create a collection and you’re not able to sell it afterwards…it’s really the worst thing that can happen to a designer. We’re doing it first for the fashion but we’re also doing it because it’s our job. I don’t do anything else. I’m a designer. It’s not like I design on the side and I work in the bank. If you can’t pay your rent doing whatever you do, it’s really hard.
I don’t think it’s affecting the creativity of the designers but I think it’s changing the pace of creation. If you have money or someone that’s buying your stuff, you can make a lot, but if you don’t have that much, you can’t even make two collections a year. So of course it affects us a lot.

In addition to creating Dakar Fashion Week to support designers and the African fashion industry at large, you also introduced the first Black Fashion Week last year in Prague. While it’s primarily an effort to represent black designers and the diaspora, it also features black models at a time when the majority of models used in the largest fashion weeks around the world are still white. I think some 90% of the models used in last year’s New York Fashion week were white.
It’s more. It’s 6% non-Caucasian models. So that 6% is made up of Africans, Asians, anybody not white…not only black people. So yes, the fashion industry is white.
And those are just the models.
Everybody is white in this industry…the designers, the buyers, the audience. And it’s just weird because you have the feeling in fashion that we’re so open. And we’re not. We’re definitely not. That’s why I thought about having a show that can showcase minorities. Of course when I first started to go see sponsors and partners, they were like oh yeah Black Fashion Week is really communitarian, like we just want to stay within ourselves. But that’s not actually the meaning of Black Fashion Week. We wanted to showcase black designers, not necessarily African — but anyway it’s not only about the color. We also had white people from South Africa.
I want them to be part of a black movement that can showcase black or African designers that don’t have the opportunity to show in the big fashion weeks, Paris or London or elsewhere. How many black designers are there in Paris Fashion Week? None. And New York is the same. London is the same. So those people who said to me, “Oh well why not create a White Fashion Week if you’re going to have a Black Fashion Week”…well, we don’t need a White Fashion Week because it’s already white. If we’re naming ourselves Black Fashion Week it’s because there’s a real need for it, it’s not just because we want to throw a show. It’s much more than a show, it about educating people on what black fashion is.
You read that crap in Vogue Italia. That proves that we don’t have very many journalists specializing in black fashion. Another girl can write on Michelle Obama and call that black fashion…because now black fashion means black bourgeoisie fashion? That’s nonsense. So I wanted to create Black Fashion Week to work against those systems that categorize black fashion as only one thing, especially in Europe where there is a lack of black fashion. Whatever is done in the fashion industry and termed as “ethnic” or “black” is done by white people.
That reminds me of the Vogue Italia “black” issue published a few years back, by the same Sozzani, which presumably was also edited and conceived of by white people. The industry’s fascination with “ethnic fashion” also brings to mind the countless advertisements that market “ethnicity” as a sort of sexual experience, intense and mysterious, yet also slightly barbaric and backwards.
Absolutely. I don’t like the name of “ethnic” fashion. It’s just degrading to me. We talked to several partners who wanted us to call the show “Ethnic Fashion Week” and asked us to change the name. I said no, it’s Black Fashion Week. It’s about much more than color, but it is important to name it.
It was difficult at first, but we found funding in Prague, which was cool. Now we’re going to do it in Paris, in October. We found a sponsor in Angola. So it means we have our place. When we do it in France, this will prove that we have a lot of black designers in France and we’re getting help from Africa to showcase our designs in Europe. So there’s a lot of people involved in this process and I’m glad we’ll get that sponsorship from Angola.
We’re also going to do it in Bahia, Brazil. They called me because they were impressed with what we did in Prague. After the show in Prague, which was not big, people realized the need to showcase our design outside of Africa. Especially since this is the year of Négritude, and Bahia is a black city in Brazil where all the minorities are, it’s great. They invited me for 10 days and we’re going to do 3 cities.
It seems like a great opportunity to celebrate the art of fashion, while making it more accessible by expanding dominant notions of beauty.
Exactly. To me it’s not just about business. I mean of course we want to sell. We invite buyers because we want to sell. But first it’s about our struggle. We’re always fighting to be recognized.
Are you seeing more interest in your designs abroad?
Oh yes, and it makes me smile because there are European designers who are now using wax in their designs, although we’ve been doing it for years and nobody took any interest in it. And in some ways it’s sad. I once saw designs in a magazine from Gwen Stefani and Burberry and next to it was another picture of a dress labeled “African designer”. They didn’t give any credit. It was just awful. But that’s the way the fashion industry in Europe works.
Any last comments?
I want to thank the press because honestly we’ve had lots of help from press, they stick out for us. Especially when I started out, I was small, and they were here. We have overseas press coming, Le Monde, BBC, so it’s cool to know that there is some interest.
And I’m really happy with where we’re standing now because people know that we’re not only doing it for fashion. I’m a woman of color and I’m sensitive and I do want to fight. Not because I’m black, but for entrepreneurs in Africa, because we need to develop these countries. And we women are a big part of what’s going on in the continent, so this is my part. I love fashion, that’s what I do. That’s why I come back here to Senegal, to help and support, to put Dakar in the spotlight. I think people need to give credit to African women. They’re strong and they stand really tall to pull up their countries and this continent.