DAKAR, Senegal — Chanel made history as the first European luxury brand to stage a fashion show in sub-Saharan Africa, unveiling its Métiers d’Art collection here on Tuesday as part of a three-day program of cultural events in the capital of Senegal.
Guests including Pharrell Williams, Naomi Campbell, Whitney Peak, Nile Rodgers, Princess Caroline of Monaco and her daughter Charlotte Casiraghi attended the show, which was held at the Brutalist-style former Palace of Justice, which in recent years has hosted the Dakar Biennale.
Models paraded in ‘70s-inspired pantsuits topped with beaded vests and skirts in geometric motifs that nodded to the flamboyant Congolese style subculture of the sapeurs. Flared jeans, platform shoes and tiered skirts cast a retro glow over the lineup, which drew a roar of approval from the 850 guests.
It was a potentially perilous exercise for the French luxury brand, which sought to deflect any accusations of cultural appropriation by inviting a host of local creatives to cooperate on the event, and revealing a series of long-term initiatives to promote craftsmanship and sustainable farming, including the first overseas exhibition to be held by its 19M specialty workshop hub in Paris.
By her own admission, creative director Virginie Viard had never traveled to the African continent before, but said she was drawn to Dakar after hearing about it from friends and collaborators who frequently visit the city, which in recent years has gained a reputation as a thriving hub for art.
“I thought it would be sweet and fun to do something that wasn’t tied to a store opening,” Viard told WWD. “I wanted a creative exchange and I thought that would work well with the Métiers d’Art collection.”
Viard, who has made collaborations a hallmark of her tenure at Chanel, drafted choreographer Dimitri Chamblas to work with Senegalese dance pioneer Germaine Acogny’s École des Sables school on the performance that opened the show, alongside local singer Obree Daman.
“Collections are all very well, but I need to be moved. It has to be alive, it has to connect to other disciplines,” Viard explained.
The look book was shot by Senegalese photographer Malick Bodian, while Kourtrajmé, a film school founded by French director Ladj Ly that has a branch in Dakar, produced a series of videos around the collection. Viard said the intention was to foster long-term relationships. “I know that all the people here will be working with us again,” she said.
Anticipating potential criticism, Acogny argued that Chanel had been respectful in its approach. “I don’t think Chanel came here to force anything upon us,” she said at a talk for students held the following day. “We cannot accept anyone coming to colonize us again, let this be clear.”
Williams, who’s been a Chanel brand ambassador since 2015, underlined the symbolic significance of the event. The performer, who was visiting West Africa for the first time, took in the House of Slaves and its Door of No Return on Gorée Island, which commemorates what used to be a holding center for enslaved African people to be exported.
“Knowing that this country was once occupied by not only the French, but the Portuguese and the Dutch, to come here with a French maison that really understands this history, to come back and work with the culture, not promising some false facade of equality, but actual equity in the process, is something beautiful,” Williams said at the talk.
“That’s just like a great exercise for other houses to look at and say, ‘OK, what are we doing to be a part of this conversation for humanity?’ because right now, the world is just rife with so much division,” the “Happy” singer told WWD after the show. “What I love about this is that they’re bringing amazing instincts and bringing amazing standards and raising the bar for what can be done.”
Peak, who joined as brand ambassador last year, said it was only her second Chanel show. “I was very excited and honored to be a part of this because I was born in Uganda, I consider Africa my home,” she said.
“It makes me happy that this is happening, and that we’re bringing back to the community and not just having a show here, but also involving the community and appreciating the culture and making sure that everybody understands where we are in the history and everything good and bad that’s been on this ground,” the “Gossip Girl” star added.
Peak said she was careful in choosing which fashion brands to work with. “I’m somebody that responds very strongly to energy,” she explained. “Chanel was the brand that I spent the most time with that really just felt non-transactional; it felt like a family and felt like I was heard and I was seen and I was allowed to say no. It didn’t feel like a lot of pressure.”
Launched by Chanel’s late creative director Karl Lagerfeld 20 years ago to spotlight the work of its in-house workshops, the Métiers d’Art collection has traditionally been a traveling show that has alighted in locations including Shanghai; Edinburgh, Scotland; Salzburg, Austria, and Havana, Cuba.
Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion and president of Chanel SAS, said the brand was conscious that it needed to come with a new approach, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which put destination shows on hold for several years.
“We can’t go to the other end of the earth just for a 20-minute show. That doesn’t work anymore,” he said.
That’s why Chanel will return to Dakar with the 19M exhibition, set to run from Jan. 12 to March 31 at the Théodore Monod African Art Museum before switching to Paris. “It’s open to everyone, but particularly targeted at students and apprentices of craftsmanship,” he said, noting that Chanel was in the process of inking partnerships with several schools.
Likewise, the brand plans to work with local organic cotton producers as part of its global efforts to secure raw materials as it shifts to an increasingly sustainable offering. Similar initiatives are already in place in India, Egypt and Peru.
“There is a tradition of cotton production here, but the quality needs to improve to meet our requirements,” Pavlovsky said. “Within the next three to five years, our aim is to cover part of our needs with cotton from Senegal produced in good conditions at a fair price.”
In contrast to Chanel shows in Paris, where guests tend to wear the label head-to-toe, the local crowd dazzled by combining the brand’s signature quilted handbags with a mix of traditional occasionwear and contemporary African fashion design.
“I’ve gone to many Chanel fashion shows. It’s been almost 10 years so I haven’t seen it all, but I thought I had, and I’ve got to tell you, this by far has had the most amazing fashion sense in terms of attendance, the best-dressed audience,” Williams declared.
The collection also stood out as one of the most eclectic since Viard succeeded Lagerfeld at the helm of the brand in 2019. Checkered tweed and Lurex pantsuits were layered with beaded vests and wrap skirts, and topped with oodles of chains, including gold pendants in the shape of the African continent, and jewel-encrusted lion heads.
Created in close collaboration with in-house suppliers like embroiderer Lesage and flower-maker Lemarié, the collection featured plenty of embellishment, from the rhinestones sparkling on a lozenge-patterned sweater, to the DIY-style patchwork camellias and heart-shaped patches scattered across a black vest.
Maximalists might opt for the knits with patterns melding oversize leopard spots with flowers and distorted double-C logos, paired with leather vests or pants in electric peach and muted plum. For nostalgists, there was a bohemian-style white lace dress topped with a belted blue cardigan, à la Talitha Getty.
Viard also made sure to include plenty of denim, though she hit a dud note by pairing lozenge-patterned jeans with frumpy tunics. More compelling was a workwear-style Canadian tuxedo flecked with tiny sequins in broken stripes.
While the collection was produced entirely in Paris, the cast featured 19 African models, including a dozen from Senegal. But even though Chanel has plenty of customers from West Africa, Pavlovsky said it would be “premature” for the brand to open a store in the region.
“There is still an important gap between the average standard of living in these big [African] cities and what you find in Europe or the United States,” he said. “We’re not here to do business, we’re here to participate in and benefit from the creative energy here in Dakar.”
Chanel kicked off its residency on Monday with the latest edition of Les Rendezvous Littéraires Rue Cambon, its regular literary event hosted by Casiraghi, featuring a talk with French writer Marie NDiaye. “I consider her one of the great contemporary authors who will make a mark on the history of French literature. I hugely admire her work,” Casiraghi said.
“It turns out that Marie also has a history with Senegal which is complex, but very powerful,” she said of the author, whose father is Senegalese but who considers herself entirely French. “I think for her, coming to Dakar was a powerful gesture, perhaps also a way to reconnect with part of her history.”
Casiraghi said she knew of Dakar from her mother, Princess Caroline, who has traveled extensively as head of the children’s charity AMADE. “I would love to be able to stay longer to discover all the intricacies of the city. Let’s say that for now, I’ve only caught a quick glimpse of it, but I did feel a creative effervescence,” she said.
Chanel took some guests on a tour of the capital’s art galleries, which are staging special events for the annual Partcours fortnight of cultural events that also coincided with the latest edition of Dakar Fashion Week. Some VIP clients were treated to an exclusive visit of Black Rock, the studio and artist residency founded by U.S. painter Kehinde Wiley, who was at the show.
“I think Dakar slowly sneaks up on you. It’s a country and a city that presents in a very simple way. It’s relatively dry. It’s in the Sahel, but then the people and the beaches and the food and the creative energy here is something that’s so charming that I continue to come back,” he said.