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 , Correspondent

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

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.”

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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.

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.

“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.”

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