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Sierra Leonean designer redefines African couture

For modern urban women hopping a bus or grabbing a cab, the head wrap and billowing fabric are literal stumbling blocks.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / October 8, 2008

Redefining the African look: Sierra Leonean fashion designer Adama Kargbo (right) adjusts one of her creations worn by model Ramatu Wurie.

Katrina Manson/Reuters/Newscom

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Freetown, Sierra Leone

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If she were still in New York or Paris – anywhere but here, really – Adama Kargbo would be wearing striped socks that reach her knees, or a blouse in an outrageous color, or a one-of-a-kind couture find.

Not so here, she says, walking the Freetown streets to which she’s been exiled, on a workday, by yet another power cut. “Here, they’d say, ‘She done gone cris’ – that I’d gone crazy, that my head is no longer there.”

Ms. Kargbo came back to her native Sierra Leone about a year ago, to do something that may also seem a little cris. She wants to launch a fashion empire – in a country where tailors still power sewing machines by pedaling and stitch buttonholes by hand.

“I can’t find good zippers, or buttons that aren’t plastic, or machines that will finish things,” Kargbo acknowledges, referring to the embroidered touches that polish off pieces sewn on serious machines. “I would love to buy industrial machines which sew better, stronger stitches, but – I buy a machine, [when] I don’t have lights?”

Little about setting up shop in a post-conflict country seems to make sense, but tens of thousands of Africans are returning to their native countries as stability takes root. Kargbo is one of hundreds of Sierra Leoneans who’ve returned and opened businesses; she thinks her home is poised for an economic upturn. Longtime and recently returned Freetown residents alike say peace feels permanent – it has been six years since the infamous diamond wars here officially ended, and last year’s presidential elections changed the political leadership of the country for the first time in a decade.

Kargbo wants to parlay the optimism that pulses through Freetown into profit. This year, she rented a space on busy Padembe Road and opened Aschobi Designs, a business whose name is a play on one kind of traditional wear in this part of the world. For weddings and funerals, families choose their own aschobi – a matching fabric that each member stitches into an outfit in a style of their choosing.
Like traditional aschobi, Kargbo’s designs combine individual style with small-scale mass production. Unlike most designers here, who craft clothes on commission for clients, she’s selling to strangers.

She buys fabrics at the local markets in quantities large enough to stitch three dozen of the same shirt or skirt, making her store the closest thing this city of 1.2 million people has to J. Crew. It’s the start, Kargbo thinks, of western-style retail shopping for the small but growing upper middle class.

As Sierra Leone urbanizes, Kargbo thinks her clothes will be as much about what women need as what they want to wear. Women often take a brightly colored lapa fabric and simply knot it around their waist, topping it off with a blouse. The effect is a mishmash – more of necessity than style – Kargbo thinks. And the intricate wraps women wear high on their heads are easily knocked off by the low roofs of private cabs or public minibuses.

“Women tend to wear African fashion in a way that’s restrictive, that’s not everyday-accessible,” says Kargbo, whose shop is nestled between traditional tailors’ storefronts. With her designs – that leave out the head wraps and avoid the copious loose fabric of traditional designs – she says, “it’s easier to hop in and out of a taxi.” Kargbo learned about the considerations of working-wear fashion during her years at the prestigious Parsons The New School for Design. In New York City, Kargbo says, she learned the ins and outs of office basics, like button-down blouses. But she preferred the school’s Paris campus, where the couture culture allowed her to indulge her design inclinations.

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