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.
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Her Aschobi venture lets her combine both, she says, by fusing everyday styles with the colors, patterns, and textures that define African fabrics. She’s given herself a crash course in local specialties – the thick, narrow pieces of fabric handwoven from the Mende tribe’s cotton ronko yarns, the deep pastels of stiff, waxy gara tie-dyes.Skip to next paragraph
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“It’s all about the fashion of the textile ... the juxtaposition of the African aesthetic and modern design,” she says. “The last time that happened was in the 1960s, postindependence ... when my mother was in miniskirts in African material, with her ’fro and her platforms. But you don’t see that now.”
Partly, observers say, that’s because the young are turning away from traditional wear and embracing Western style. Secondhand clothes from the West pour into Freetown and sell for a fraction of the cost to commission a traditional outfit, says Hindolo Trye, Sierra Leone’s minister of culture and tourism.
“Young people want to wear Western fashion,” Mr. Trye says. “This is true for most third world countries.” Trye says appreciation for local clothing and custom sets in only as the young grow older. Most of the customers who’ve chosen from the dozen or so $30 to $150 designs on Kargbo’s rack have been expatriates working in Sierra Leone, or natives who’ve recently returned. But she aims to use Western styles that appeal to the young to regain the interest and pride in African fashion she says women like her mother felt.
“My mother is the first person I dressed,” Kargbo says. “She’d say, ‘Pick me out something to where to work.’ I was 5 or 6 years old, but I would follow the trends.”
Indeed, her mother, Jennifer Aksua Kargbo, who had a career with the United Nations, gave her children a cosmopolitan upbringing: childhood in Ethiopia (“known for its linen”), summer vacations in Sierra Leone (“famous for its gara dyeing”), boarding school in America (a capital of fashion magazines). Her mother’s forethought helped make it possible for Kargbo to get the student loans she needed to attend Parsons: Every time she neared a due date, Kargbo’s mom boarded a plane for the US, making Kargbo and her siblings – with the exception of a brother born at the Lungi Airport in Freetown – American citizens. Here, that background makes Kargbo (who also has Sierra Leonean citizenship) more expat than local. She still brandishes some elements of Western urban fashion – chunky black glasses and figure-flattering dresses. Others, like her black Gucci boots, she stores until vacation takes her back to the fashion capitals she loves.
But being an insider’s outsider is about more than what she wears. She picked up street skills, like “hustling with taxi drivers” quickly, she says, while other elements of this culture – her culture – she still struggles with.
“The mentality is the hardest,” she says. “I can’t allow my workers to decide what time I open my shop. You can’t be late because you live far away and there’s traffic; you should know that.... But it doesn’t work that way with them. Er, us.”