Khadija Ba Diallo has always felt out of sync with her peers. While her brand, L’Artisane, is famous for its contemporary take on the traditional Senegalese boubou, the garment hasn’t always been fashionable.
“I’ve always made my own clothes, my own necklaces. People usually make fun of me, so I never thought I would make a living from it,” she recalled.
Ba Diallo, who has an MBA in luxury brand management from Paris business school ISTEC, originally wanted to launch a concierge service in Dakar, but decided the local market wasn’t ripe for it.
After stints in marketing and luxury real estate, she started her label in 2009 with accessories and handbags in oversize, flashy styles, like her signature Pingu bag, with a handle shaped like a giant safety pin.
But she found little success at home. “At that time, people didn’t necessarily buy Made in Africa,” she said. “It’s as if it were a form of education to buy African, to buy local.”
Likewise, it took a foreign fashion icon to make her camouflage boubou a hit. “It also didn’t sell for two years. Then Naomi Campbell wore it on a Tuesday, and by Wednesday, it was sold out,” Ba Diallo said. “That’s how the boubou became trendy. Everyone started wearing it whereas seven years ago, no one from my generation wore boubous.”
It was during her studies in France that she came to realize the value of craftsmanship, which is celebrated as luxury in Europe, yet often taken for granted on the African continent, where so much clothing is made by hand, she said.
As a result, her shop, Le Sandaga, is an ode to all things Senegalese. “I want to transmit emotions. When you come into Le Sandaga, I want the tiles to remind you of your grandmother’s home, and the smell to remind you of the clothes she wore,” Ba Diallo said.
The name of the boutique, which opened in 2019, is derived from Dakar’s former central market, and it’s full of colorful items inspired by everyday life, such as T-shirts featuring Senegalese proverbs in the local language, Wolof.
“I’m trying to introduce Senegalese Pop Art, because it doesn’t exist, so I take inspiration from matchboxes or cans of tomatoes, and try to give them a subtle twist,” she explained. “I’m inspired by everything: food, the street, nature.”
In addition to her own designs, she carries a small selection of vintage, in addition to beauty brands like Aesop and Diptyque, which she purchases on her travels. “My dream is to one day have a collaboration, like a Sandaga x Diptyque perfume, that kind of thing. I want to make a bracelet for Hermès and shoelaces for Nike,” she said.
5 bis Rue Victor Hugo, Dakar, Senegal
Open Monday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 2:30 to 6 p.m.
Selly Raby Kane
Selly Raby Kane traces her love of art back to watching horror movies with her father. “That has imprinted in me just a thirst for unusual images, a thirst for dissonant voices,” said the designer and filmmaker, whose showroom in Dakar is a hub for the local cultural scene.
Known for her Afrofuturism-inspired garments with bold prints, woven embellishment and strong colors, she started in 2008 with a small artisanal collection produced with a local tailor. But Raby Kane quickly realized she needed a formal education to achieve her ambitions, so she headed to Paris to study fashion at Mod’spe.
“I knew that the way we did fashion business in Senegal was completely different from anything else,” she explained. “It’s very enclosed, it’s very dominated by traditional fashion as well, so I really wanted to have that business understanding of fashion, and I knew that I was going to be a fashion entrepreneur in Senegal.”
Her brand, launched in 2012, rapidly gained a following at home and abroad. Her profile soared after Beyoncé was spotted wearing one of her kimono jackets, embellished with parrots and swallows, with a rainbow-striped skirt. But Raby Kane wanted more than customers.
“Being essentially digital was very comfortable for me,” she said. “But I felt at some point that I needed a territory per se, we needed to occupy walls and to project that digital information that we had into a physical space where people could just be immersed in it. And once we did it, it completely changed everything.”
Open since 2017, the boutique sells her label in addition to a selection of other clothing and accessory brands. The rooftop of the space regularly hosts exhibitions and installations, often timed to coincide with major events like the Dakar Biennale.
“It’s a hangout spot as well for creatives in the city,” said Raby Kane, a member of the collectives Muus du Tux and Les Petites Pierres. “It’s a space of showcasing alternative talents, because experimental routes, alternative routes, can have a difficulty finding a true platform.”
To coincide with Dakar Fashion Week and Chanel’s Métiers d’Art show, she’s presenting a selection of her short films at the space. Raby Kane welcomed Chanel’s approach, which includes spotlighting local artists.
“It’s a great fashion rendez-vous, and what I like the most is that there is a collaboration that is happening with people from the local scene, which is very important,” she said. “It’s always a good thing for cities to communicate through their art or through their crafts. I think that’s the way to create balanced bonds with other countries.”
Selly Raby Kane
Sacré Cœur 3, SC-103, Villa 10623, Dakar, Senegal
Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
When Sophie Nzinga Sy launched her first label at the age of 23, she imagined it would follow the traditional route of luxury brands. A graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York City, she absorbed the wisdom of the U.S. fashion industry without questioning.
“When I first finished fashion school, I was really obsessed with showcasing in the West. I was like, I need to showcase at Barneys or Neiman Marcus or those brands, because that’s what I knew,” she recalled.
“And now I have a different view of that. I think that it’s important to showcase in fashion weeks on the [African] continent, but also talk to the local customer base, because they’re the first customers who buy,” she added.
Her Sophie Zinga label showed in Milan, New York City, Paris, Dubai, Lagos, Nigeria, and Johannesburg, South Africa, in addition to Dakar, and dressed celebrities including Lupita Nyong’o. But Nzinga Sy eventually realized that African fashion needed its own rule book.
Finding that sourcing fabrics abroad and manufacturing in Senegal was too costly, she paused the Sophie Zinga label in 2017 and came back two years later with Baax, a more accessible brand with a sustainable approach.
It manufactures its own fabrics in Senegal, specializing in a signature linen-like material, and has a store that also carries other local brands like Galadio, Recreyassion and Kalifa. Nzinga Sy is using the boutique as a fashion incubator space for students at the Dakar Design Hub, the training facility she launched last year in a bid to make Senegalese designers and tailors more competitive on the world stage.
“We’re offering opportunities with really talented local fashion designers to collaborate with us on our brand, for example, in accessories or in shoes design,” she said.
Though she plans to take part in a showcase for African designers at London Fashion Week in February, Nzinga Sy no longer produces seasonal collections. Her most recent designs were unveiled at Dakar Fashion Week on Saturday on a preorder basis and will be delivered in around two months.
“We’re doing things very differently. Obviously, it’s slow manufacturing, but also, we want to make sure that we have a new calendar,” she explained. “We’re not following what the Western calendar is doing.”
7 Nord Foire Rte de L’aeroport, Dakar, Senegal
Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday by appointment only