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A west African designer goes global

Senegal style

Selly Raby Kane is gaining an international fashion following. Jennifer O’Mahony joins the devotees

Selly Raby Kane is gaining an international fashion following. Jennifer O’Mahony joins the devotees

Jennifer O’Mahony | December/January 2019

Selly Raby Kane is eyeing me through a pair of bright-pink, frameless glasses. Senegal’s most famous fashion designer has clomped across her graffiti-decorated studio in black biker boots to come and introduce herself. SRK, as the 31-year-old styles herself, says she is currently “a recluse”, holed up in her studio in Dakar, the Senegalese capital. She is working on writing a piece of fiction and a long-standing (non-fashion) virtual-reality project that will eventually feed into her new collection. She clearly enjoys the drama of creating. But this is not merely for show: her designs are increasingly recognised far beyond west Africa.

No other designer in Senegal has such an international profile. Kane’s renown can be traced back to a single moment in 2016 when Beyoncé, an American singer, was spotted wearing Kane’s creations out on the streets of New York. The distinctive black kimono covered in pop-art creepy crawlies, parrots and swallows, worn with a rainbow-striped skirt, provoked the interest of celebrity magazines and fashion bloggers. Other high-profile devotees soon followed Beyoncé’s lead and searched out Kane’s clothes, including French comedian Jamel Debbouze.

Kane smiles as she talks about her Beyoncé moment. “Her stylist contacted my agency and we lent her several pieces, and then we never heard about it again,” says Kane. “Three to five months’ wait, then all of a sudden she was out somewhere wearing all those pieces from the collection.” The effect on her small studio was immediate: orders and demands for lookbooks flowed in from Europe and America; her social-media following shot up.

Kane’s rise is part of a bigger shift in the Senegalese fashion industry. Until recently most people there wore clothes made by neighbourhood tailors or bought in roadside markets. Now Senegalese designers are starting to show their wares in new boutiques in Dakar and sell them online to the rising middle class in Senegal, elsewhere in Africa and beyond. Senegal’s government wants to expand its textiles industry as part of a broader shift away from agricultural exports. Despite widespread poverty, the country is a rare beacon of political stability and sustained economic growth in west Africa: in 1980 President Léopold Sédar Senghor, a poet and cultural critic, was the first African leader of the post-independence era to resign voluntarily. Senegal has avoided the coups and civil wars that have plagued its neighbours.

Trend spotting

Spring/Summer collection 2018

Though Senegal remains poor – half of all adults live below the poverty line – the once tiny, cosseted elite that Kane grew up in has now expanded into a highly visible presence in Dakar. More Senegalese youth have the money to wear luxury brands and sip cocktails in bars once dominated by Dakar’s expats. These newly wealthy locals form the core of Kane’s growing customer base; many have dual nationality and are taking her clothes overseas too.

The daughter of a banker and civil servant, Kane was educated at Catholic schools. “It was quite a narrow circle,” she says. Compared with her peers Kane had a relatively free upbringing. Her parents responded to their own strict childhoods by indulging her love of origami, theatre and all things creative. That levity only went so far: when she turned 18, she agreed to go to law school in France.

Paris, she says, was a “social immersion”. She was “surrounded by people who had very different music tastes, artistic tastes, and who were very far culturally from me”. But the law didn’t hold her: she was captivated by the mass of different styles and looks she saw on the street.

She went on to study at Mod’Spé, a business school focused on the fashion industry. Kane sought to make a living from the pieces she sewed together in her free time; she says she learned more from her fellow students, who came from all over the world, than from the teachers. “I love to proceed by clashes, by collages and surreal juxtapositions of motifs, materials, techniques,” she says of her work, a fusion of styles that she dates back to the Paris years. She also picked up artistic cues from urban spaces. These have remained a strong influence: the collages of a graffiti artist called Invader, for example, which were inspired by arcade games, fit perfectly with Kane’s love of the kitsch and cartoonish.

When she graduated in 2011 she took her styles back home. Senegal had been undergoing its own makeover. After the country won independence from France in 1960, many rich Senegalese continued to favour Western dress. More recently traditional clothing has made a comeback, part of a newly resurgent national identity, particularly among young people who make up more than 60% of the population.

Today’s trends are often a fusion. On Dakar’s streets, many young men have swapped sportswear for traditional boubous (tunics and trousers) paired with Timberlands and Gucci accessories (real or fake, depending on their income). For women, a two-piece outfit in a brightly coloured print may be matched with mini versions for their toddlers.

Kane has embraced that shift, ripping apart Senegalese sartorial traditions and reassembling them into a bold, idiosyncratic aesthetic. Her first capsule collection, released in 2012, featured vivid batik patterns with PVC cutouts on the shoulders, and textured, quilted fabric into which she wove shapes from west African masks. She slashed a fitted white boubou to make room for bright panels, and cut red and gold leather stripes into a desert camouflage jacket. Beyoncé’s kimono was another example. She used Senegalese motifs on a Japanese shape, and adorned the item with something from neither culture: pop-art inspired giant insects and shrimps.

The designer wants to keep alive some of the fast-disappearing techniques of Senegalese tailors, but is unapologetic about mixing them with her own experiences of a world far from Dakar. A 2014 collection was named “Alien Cartoon”. “One day I saw macro photographs of insects and sea fauna,” she recalls. “I became obsessed with the very small, with what I couldn’t see. It has a link with my childhood because it was always marvellous for me to imagine things that didn’t exist and give them shape, give them form.” And not just the small: a giant, yellow, cast-iron beetle now sits at the entrance to her Dakar store.

Punk-rocker

Selly Raby Kane has reassembled Senegalese traditions into a bold, idiosyncratic aesthetic

The collection also featured the “Dakar bird” motif, a nod to the hawkers in Senegal who sell tiny chicks on the street that offer the buyer a single wish. Kane has since used this insignia on a bomber jacket that has become a bestseller.

Over the last two years, Kane has incorporated more traditional Senegalese techniques into her new styles. She has taught herself to make shirts and jackets using the “Njkahas” patchwork of the Baye Fall, a Sufi sect in Senegal known for their distinctive, multicoloured robes. She has taken hair extensions, beloved by many of the city’s young women, and plaited them into the items she makes.

Kane’s own look could be described as Senegalese punk rock. She often opts for silver lace-up boots, patterned shirts, leather and reconstructed traditional tunics that hang over her slight body. On Instagram she is usually unsmiling, chin tilted upwards, almost confronting the camera. In person she is far warmer and laughs often, though her defiance comes through when I ask her about differentiating male and female clothing. “When I work on jackets, I don’t think about gender at all. Or T-shirts. Most of the (non-seasonal) products of the brand are unisex,” she says.

Such statements put her at a remove from many in Senegal, where society still prizes strong gender norms and shows of masculinity and femininity; homosexuality remains illegal and is widely frowned upon. Among her group of well-travelled and worldly customers, however, such views are changing. Her international following needs no convincing.

You can now buy Kane’s pieces online in Europe, North America and Nigeria; she hopes soon to move into Asia. Her clothes are well within many middle-class budgets. A woven golden jacket sells for around $90; the most expensive item in her shop when I visited was a $250 bag with a handle wrapped in chunky rings. Kane wants to keep it this way: “I think it’s important for me not to cut myself from the people who I imagine when I draw the garments and create the collections.”

Yet as Kane’s style develops, she finds herself being drawn further from the streets of her youth. Most ordinary Senegalese could never buy such pricey items anyway. But new projects distance her in other ways. She is currently working on a furniture line for IKEA, the Swedish homeware brand: in 2019, it will launch millions of SRK-branded tables, chairs and lamps as part of a collection based on African urban spaces.

For a woman used to hand-weaving hair braids, she has found working on mass-produced pieces a challenge. “It was quite fascinating. I have to be able to stack the objects! The stacking interfered with my creativity,” she laughs. “You have to think about so many details: storage, the country where you’re going to produce it, the materials you’re choosing.”

The tables, chairs, stools, rugs, baskets, lamps and tote bags will soon take a small piece of Africa into homes across the world. Yet Senegal, swinging though it is, will be left behind: IKEA has yet to open a store there. Her Dakar clientele will probably do as they have for years: snap a picture of the items they like, and get a copy made for themselves locally.