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West Africans Send Message With Designs

Although many West African women are turning toward Western-style apparel, the majority favor brilliantly colored African fabric designs that are often...

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OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Although many West African women are turning toward Western-style apparel, the majority favor brilliantly colored African fabric designs that are often created to make a statement about social conditions, religion or political events.

“African women are very coquettish, and we love to dress up and we like to transmit a message,” said Franceline Qubida, a journalist and filmmaker in Burkina Faso. “We are sending messages to society and to our husbands, or to the other wives of our husbands.”

This story first appeared in the April 1, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

For example, when a woman wears a dress made from fabric decorated with a stylized foot, called “Your Leg, My Leg,” she is telling the other wives of her husband: “Where my husband goes, I follow,” Qubida said.

In Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo, female fabric designers have cornered the market on the new designs, called pagne in French-speaking West Africa, Qubida said. The fabric is primarily printed in Holland and China, as well as some neighboring African countries.

Tailors are now favoring apparel that features traditional cultural designs, said Nare Fabrice Yanick Israel Rawelque, a 23-year-old student at the University of Ouagadougou.

“When you see fabric with designs of desktop computers or telephones, we are expressing our modernity and our dreams,” Rawelque said. “We are expressing things in our world. We use life as inspiration for our fashion.”

Rawelque said soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a fabric design of the Twin Towers emerged in Burkina Faso.

Binta Mayaki, 28, whose mother is American and whose father is Burkinabe, said the pagne prints are often used as a marketing tool, such as a print showing a telephone company logo, which promotes the firm and symbolizes a more modern society.

“It’s a big part of our culture,” she said. “People like to show what they stand for. It’s a way they voice their opinion.”

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