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Tailoring Africa for Paris catwalks

By Veronique Mistiaen
BBC Focus on Africa magazine

Models wearing Sakina M'Sa
Sakina M'Sa is known for her use of "everyday women" as models

In the glamorous, exclusive world of French haute couture, Sakina M'Sa is an unlikely star.

Like her creations, M'Sa is the sum of many parts - a tiny woman from the Comoros, an immigrant from a working-class neighbourhood in Marseille, and a designer who follows her own dreams and embroiders the fashion world with a social conscience.

"My only strength in life is my difference," says M'Sa, dressed all in black and sitting in her workshop and showroom in La Goutte d'Or, a working-class neighbourhood in Paris which is home to a large population of Africans.

"It could have been my weakness but I used it to my advantage.

"It gave me the freedom to invent my own techniques and mark my difference, my singularity."

African roots

Free and defiant, M'Sa has tailored a profession for herself that suits her hybrid identity.

As a "fashion artist", she is someone who builds bridges between different artistic techniques, cultures, influences and generations.

Sakina M'Sa
An African designer doesn't create only boubous, a Japanese designer only kimonos, and a French one only berets
Sakina M'Sa

Indeed, her work is infused with poetry, painting, theatre and cinema, as well as her African roots and far-away memories - "all the things I love and which touch me".

It is obviously a winning formula - people flock to her spectacular fashion shows.

Her work not only attracted the attention of the late philosopher Jean Baudrillard, but also the famous Paris department store Galeries Lafayette.

Buyers have come from as far afield as France, Russia, Japan and the Middle East.

From the basement of her Goutte d'Or workshop, M'Sa develops her creations around the themes of identity, memory, the Earth and roots - mixing cultures and influences.

Her colours are usually sober, and the designs use materials that are either raw or recycled.

Alongside agency models, her catwalks always feature a few "everyday women" - young, short, tall, large and small.

M'Sa says she wants her dresses to reflect "the singularity, difference and beauty of these women, because on the streets you don't just see top models - and it is just as well".

"Fashion is not only about the length of [German model] Claudia Schiffer's skirts. Clothes are not just to be looked at; they also have a message, they are full of symbols, they tell a story."

Jean Baudrillard
M'Sa's fashions caught the eye of philosopher Jean Baudrillard

This explains her regular trips to flea markets to hunt for old dresses.

"I think of the person who has worn this dress. She is not here any longer, but the dress holds her memory."

When she returned to her village in the Comoros in 2000, the first thing she did was run for the trunk where her grandmother kept her clothes.

"I wanted to see her dresses and her imprint in them," she recalls. "She wore them narrow at the waist with ample skirts and large pockets to keep her tobacco."

Sadly, nothing was left.

Inspiration

M'Sa now regularly travels to Africa to lead workshops. She recently worked on a catwalk project in the Republic of Congo.

"Western designers get a lot of inspiration from Africa," she says.

"African designers are so creative and inventive and so close to the contemporary style."

Her advice to them is to aim high and not to become stereotyped as "African" designers.

"Let's talk about fashion, not African fashion. An African designer doesn't create only boubous, a Japanese designer only kimonos, and a French one only berets."

After all, a designer's mission is to create clothes that can be worn by a global public.



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