Runways in the Desert: FIMA and the Future of African Fashion

Lire hors-ligne :

This is the Festival International de la Mode Africaine (FIMA), in Niamey, Niger. Fifteen kilometers from downtown, on the banks of the Niger River in a bucolic setting near the village Gouru Kirey, the tenth installment of this event took place from October 28th to November 1st, 2009. The sand-covered runway was the focus of thousands of cheering audience members. Fashion was the biggest game in town, the subject of presidential declarations and all-night parties. The crowds that encircled the flood-lit runway included international fashionistas, Nigerien politicians and prominent cultural figures, as well as young people who wanted to be a part of their city’s-one can even go further-their country’s biggest cultural event of the year. For these few days in Niamey, fashion became a spectator sport for everyone. With nightly television coverage, billboards throughout the city center, traffic jams leading to each evening’s events, the powerful presence of FIMA was clearly evident.
Locating FIMA: National Discourses, International Aspirations
While the clothing and the theatricality of runway presentations were the most visible elements of the event, organizers and supporters also championed FIMA as a source of national pride and an engine for development. Fashion, a prototypically elite, frivolous, highly commodified artistic expression, was surrounded by discourses that linked it to broad economic and cultural benefits for the nation. This emphasis on fashion as a tool for development was an important element of the presentation of this very expensive undertaking in a very poor country.
Since 1998, FIMA has represented the vision of Alphadi, one of Africa’s best-known fashion designers and arguably one of Niger’s leading cultural figures. He has created ten major international fashion events in a country whose fashion infrastructure is limited at best. Along with Chris Seydou, Kofi Ansah, Pathé O., Katoucha Niane, Mickaël Kra, and others, Alphadi was a founding member of the Fédération Africaine des Créateurs, a professional organization created in 1993 to support African (particularly West African) fashion industries. These clothing and jewelry designers, all of whom had studied or worked in Europe, were the first generation of self-consciously African, globally oriented fashion designers. Coming of age during the era of African independence, these designers created garments and accessories that reflected both local and international dress styles. Most were trained in Western design techniques, and all were oriented toward Western methods of presentation and marketing of fashion, including runway presentations, urban boutiques, and photographic spreads in fashion magazines.
Within the framework of global fashion production and promotion, often using tailoring techniques based on Western design, Alphadi and other designers have produced garments with a distinctively African flair. Many worked with textiles that were deeply rooted in local cultures, such as bogolanfini, kente, and elaborate resist-dyed fabrics. They also experimented with local garment styles, including most notably the large, flowing boubous worn by men and women throughout West Africa. Through their materials and garment styles, the first generation of African designers, many of whom continue to pursue careers, created fashions that reflected their diverse sources of inspiration. Their work is varied; though they often make use of African sources of inspiration, these designers do not create garments that are neatly classifiable as African. Their networks of collaboration and inspiration reach across national, ethnic, and regional identities. FIMA is one manifestation of this trans-national conception of African fashion design.
In addition to creating audiences and markets for the work of African fashion designers, FIMA aspires to serve as an engine for national development. In his introduction to FIMA’s printed program, Alphadi noted that electricity was brought to the village of Boubon, where FIMA was held in 2003, as a direct result of the fashion event. Elsewhere in the program, a short text enumerates other permanent benefits to which FIMA has contributed, including the reopening of the airport in Agadez and the paving of roads. All of these direct benefits seek to move FIMA beyond the realm of the elites who can afford to buy the clothing on the runways. The fashion shows, FIMA’s organizers explain, affect ordinary people as well.
This year’s FIMA took place at a tense political moment in Niger, just weeks after the nation’s president, Mamadou Tandja, had dissolved the government, declared a state of emergency, and held a referendum that extended his mandate for three more years and expanded his powers. Though he won the referendum, national and international election authorities protested, calling into question the legality and constitutionality of the proceedings. On October 20th, mere days before FIMA’s models walked the runway, parliamentary elections were held despite boycotts by opposition parties. ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) suspended the country’s membership as a sanction against the president’s undermining of constitutional rule. That a fashion event was held in the midst of such political turbulence and uncertainty lent the proceedings an air of incongruity, even as they may have provided a much-needed respite from the strains of the progressively worsening political crisis. The energetic assertion of FIMA’s relevance to Niger’s national interests is illuminated by this context; a fashion show that had the official endorsement of the state could ill-afford to be seen as purely elite entertainment at a time of potential unrest.
The association of fashion with national pride and economic development was dramatically evident at the major event of the festival: the final night’s fashion show, which featured prominent designers from throughout Africa and Europe. The proceedings began with a welcome from Alphadi, the founder and organizer of FIMA, and a short video presentation by François Lesage, president of the leading Parisian haute couture embroidery atelier and a sponsor of FIMA-related projects. Next, Niger’s Prime Minister Ali Badjo Gamatié praised FIMA’s impact on the country. He noted that the first FIMA, in 1998, was held in Agadez, the vast Saharan region in Niger’s north that has been the site of sporadic violence for decades in the rebellion of Tuareg forces against the central government. Implying a connection between the two events, Gamatié declared that after FIMA peace came to Agadez. (In fact, a peace accord signed in 1995 and led to an uneasy but official end to the movement for Tuareg autonomy.).
The Prime Minister went on to note that the event is an instrument for regional unity, symbolized by the fact that it was taking place on the banks of the Niger River, which flows through six West African countries. Thus, he declared, FIMA is a force for peace: « Le FIMA pour nous, c’est la paix! » The close ties between national politics and this fashion festival were still more evident in the presidential honor bestowed on Alphadi on the Friday of FIMA week. At a ceremony in the presidential residence, President Tandja made Alphadi a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques de la République du Niger. The short ceremony included the reading of a long list of Alphadi’s accomplishments, punctuated by the singing of a griotte.
In addition to these conventional forms of development, FIMA aims to foster entrepreneurship in Africa, providing training and opportunities for young African designers in Africa. Rather than leaving their home countries to study and practice fashion design, Alphadi and the FIMA organization have emphasized the development of markets and training facilities for designers. The 2009 FIMA inaugurated a trade show, the Salon International de la Haute Couture et du Prêt-à-Porter Africains, which is intended to bring together designers and potential marketers. In addition, the day after receiving his presidential honor, Alphadi presided over the laying of the first bricks for the construction of a fashion school, L’Ecole Supérieure de la Mode et des Arts. The school, which is sponsored by François Lesage (owner of the haute couture embroidery house mentioned above), is projected to have an enrollment of 150 students in fashion design and related disciplines. When it opens, the school will be the first permanent manifestation of FIMA’s impact on Niger’s cultural scene and, more importantly, its economy. For now, the school is a work in process, marked by a small stack of bricks on a plot of land in a neighborhood a few miles from downtown Niamey.

University of Florida (School of Art and Art History, Center for African Studies)///Article N° : 9307

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© Toutes photos DR

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