Translated for The Civil Society Review by William Holmes, from Andrea de Georgio’s original Italian article in Internazionale.

Editor’s note: This Italian article spotlights an emerging entrepreneurial reality in West African, particularly Burkinabé, society. Young fashion designers are negotiating a new, decolonised identity through garments, and rewriting the rules of the industry. We were particularly interested in the paradox of wax, a fabric that is highly popular in the region but is produced and sold by foreign companies.

From Parisian catwalks to the New York, London and Milan fashion weeks, every elite fashion event has pulled out at least one “African” item of clothing in the last few years. The “made in Africa” fashion fever has spread across the West, above all thanks to wax being able to migrate from its continent’s borders. “Cerato” cotton is a term that has found its way into the English language and is used in thousands of designs and flashy colours. With designers and consumers pushing its spread into the United States and Europe, this material has recently reached new peaks of popularity. 

Wax is widely used in West and Central Africa but is produced in the Netherlands. It is also the springboard for a new generation of stylists who are looking, with difficulty, to bring back more natural, local and refined materials from their own countries’ textile traditions. Popular examples of these trends range from the “Faso Dan Fani”, bazin, batik, bogolan fabrics to the indigo, kita, kente and kôkô dônda fabrics.

A fledgling artistic trend, which is in confrontation with the weight of the (neo)colonial past and is inspired by Pan-African Futurism, is the driving force of creativity in a continent that is searching for its own original identity.

“Our vision of tomorrow”

On the Avenue du Général Lamizana, jammed between a panini café and a deli in the heart of the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, is T Bonty’s showroom. T Bonty is one of the trendiest businesses in Burkina Faso. The creator of the brand, Fatou Traoré, 28, is alone in the shop, busy organising clothes after the fashion show that took place the night before. “Nothing special – just a little improvised event in a friend’s house”, explains the stylist modestly, as she delicately places clothes on the mannequins in the shop window.

In West Africa, carried by the growing regional market, fashion boutiques are popping up everywhere, with fashion training schools, dedicated events and young talented stylists like Fatou. “Unlike previous generations who were trained and established in the West, we are reviving local materials, styles and manufacturing techniques that come from different African traditions. We are returning to our roots to express our personal vision of fashion and of the society of tomorrow”.

Fatou’s look is original: it combines an eyebrow piercing and a headscarf, braids, high-waisted trousers and a brightly coloured top. As she is tidying up her workshop, she shows off some items from her latest collection: shoes, bags and shirts embellished with wax, and traditional garments transformed into eccentric and trendy patterns, stitched with parts of jeans and imported materials. She confesses that she has always had a love-hate relationship with printed cotton in her creative process. “We are all victims of the wax paradox.” The Burkinabé stylist’s ironic remark refers to a heated debate in the world of African fashion, as the authenticity of the wax fabric has been questioned for years. 

Wax and communication

Today, wax is undoubtedly a key part of daily life for millions of Africans. Men and women use it in a variety of different ways. Some use wax to make backpacks to carry their children, whilst skilful local tailors use it to sew tailored dresses and suits cheaply. Special designs are printed for weddings (offered as part of the dowry), baptisms, national holidays, sports events, political anniversaries, election campaigns and to raise social awareness. Women at the market come up with names for every new pattern, based on the shapes and on the stylised images printed on pagne (fabrics, both made of wax or not). For instance, “If you go out, I’m also going out”, “My husband’s got game”, “My rival is watching” and so on. Over the years, these garments have become a form of not only public, but also private, intimate and codified communication. 

From a sociological point of view, wax is “100% African”. However, it is Chinese and Dutch producers that profit the most from its trade, selling “le véritable Wax Hollandais” and forgeries all over the continent.

The frontrunner in the sector, Vlisco, which was founded in 1846, produces 64 million metres of fabric annually in Helmond in the Netherlands. It exports 90% of this to West Africa, for around 300 million euros (in 2014). This region, which is the largest consumer of wax in the world, first discovered pagne in 1836, when Ashanti soldiers (sent by the Dutch to fight in the Asian colonies) disembarked from their ships in what is today Ghana. Here, African businessmen started selling the batik, which had come from Indonesia, quickly profiting from such high demand that subsequently sent prices rocketing up to the same level as gold.

Bringing the “Faso Dan Fani” is an economic, cultural and political challenge to imperialism

Having got whiff of this success, a few years later the Dutch opened the first textiles businesses that specialised in the wax trade in Africa, producing an industrial variation of the batik worn on the Indonesian island of Java. 

Thomas Sankara, who in the 1980s as a young revolutionary President renamed the nation “the country of incorruptible men” (which is what Burkina Faso means), today would call wax a “colonial” product. In his famous speeches, he would repeat: “Imperialism is in the food that we eat and in the clothes that we wear”. In line with his campaign message – “Let’s produce and buy Burkinabé” – during the four years of his government (1983-87) before being assassinated, Sankara strongly encouraged weaving and the use of “Faso Dan Fani” (literally meaning “the woven fabric of the nation”) relaunching cotton – “Burkina’s white gold” – into the regional market. Sankara explained: “Bringing the “Faso Dan Fani” is an economic, cultural and political challenge to imperialism” and subsequently imposed the traditional fabric on all politicians and civil servants by decree. 

In accordance with Sankara’s ideals, the President Roch Kaboré and his ministers – who were democratically elected after Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year dictatorship had collapsed thanks to a popular uprising in October 2014 – along with young “sankarist” artists, like Fatou Traoré, started using the “Faso Dan Fani” again. They turned it back into a symbol of national pride, self-determination and independence of the Burkinabé people from foreign control.

Cynical realism

A few steps away from T Bonty’s workshop is the Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, the heart of the city’s nightlife. This little winding street, which is overlooked by hotels, cafés and restaurants, was attacked by an Al Qaeda-affiliated group from the Muslim Maghreb region on 15th January 2016. Today, Alex Zabsonré is sipping his bissap (a hibiscus tea) in the Italian café Cappuccino, the same place where thirty people were killed by the jihadist frenzy that evening. “I often come here. After it reopened it became the safest place in Ouaga” explains Alex with a certain cynical realism whilst looking at his reflection in the new armoured-glass windows that have been recently installed in the venue. 

He’s a thin guy with glasses wearing an ordinary outfit: he’s sporting a polo shirt, jeans and trainers, a bit like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He’s a successful entrepreneur at the age of 28, director of Alamod Magazine, the first online fashion news outlet in Burkina Faso. He is also the founder and artistic director of Ouaga fashion week. “Events like the second edition of Ouaga fashion week (organised in April with around twenty local stylists taking part, including Traoré) display that Africa is bursting with creative talent. High fashion is no longer a Western monopoly, but it has arrived here too”. 

The Dakar and Abidjan fashion weeks are nearby success stories that inspire Alex. Over the last few years both have succeeded in getting state funding, as well as important international sponsors. This is very different from the situation in Burkina Faso, where the sector is still in its early stages of growth. “Investors have shown interest in our market, but they are not confident enough to inject capital into it, although this would make us grow even more rapidly”, notes the young entrepreneur, who finances the Ouagadougou fashion week out of his own pocket, with the help of just a Dutch beer brand as the only sponsor. “If you look at the progress made in the last five years, you will realise the enormous economic potential that fashion has in West Africa today”, claims Alex.

The art of making people dream

Just like tourists, investors are discouraged from walking the streets of Ouagadougou by the lack of security and instability in the country. Patrols of armoured vehicles and heavily armed soldiers are still relentlessly patrolling the Avenue Kwame Nkrumah day and night. In fact, in recent times the region has become the new frontline for global jihadism, as groups linked to Al Qaeda and to the Islamic State in the great Sahara control the area.

Alex has a clear idea about the role that fashion must take on and, more generally, culture as a whole: “We must not allow extremism to kill our dreams. We cannot stop living, quite the opposite! We must show that they do not make us afraid, that we are stronger than them.” On this point, the young man adds brightly: “Africa is the continent with the most young people in the world. Therefore, I am asking my generation to stand up and fight, and to contribute to the development of our countries with dynamism and entrepreneurship. In order to succeed, however, we need to have the audacity to test ourselves. Only by doing this will we show that young Africans have something to say and give to the entire world.”
Alex finishes his bissap and, before leaving, comments with a smile: “What really is fashion, if not the art of making people dream?”.

Thank-you to Internazionale for giving permission for this translation. The original article, ‘La moda accende il sogno dell’Africa di domani’ was written in Italian by Andrea de Georgio and published online on the 10th January 2020. It can be read here.

Will Holmes is a modern languages undergraduate at the university of Bristol and a future trainee solicitor. He loves languages, translation and writing and has a particular interest in technology and law developing around it. Find his twitter here, and his LinkedIn here.

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