Paris is getting ready to host its first-ever Black Fashion Week. Organisers and featured designers say they are fighting to make a place for themselves in a rigid industry.
A few days before Black Fashion Week opens in Paris, Adama Paris is excitedly dashing from one media interview to the next. However, the event’s creator is also getting slightly annoyed at the recurring questions: Why exclude certain people by labelling the event “black”? What would you think if someone launched “White Fashion Week”?
Adama Paris, whose real name is Adama Ndiaye, has not been tripped up by the queries. “I would say fine, create a White Fashion Week,” she told the French press earlier this week “But guess what, the fashion world is already white.”
As a respected Senegalese designer who has spent much of her career in Europe, and the creative force behind ten editions of the wildly successful Dakar Fashion Week, Paris is speaking from experience. “We’re trying to break into a tightly closed world of strict codes,” she told FRANCE 24.
Indeed, Black Fashion Week will debut in Paris on October 4 on the heels, and in the overbearing shadow, of the 2012 Paris Fashion Week. A critical moment in the fashion industry’s calendar, this year’s edition saw familiar battle lines drawn between couture titans Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior.
If not for its eye-catching title, Black Fashion Week might have strutted through the French capital unnoticed. Many in France — where ethnic origins are strictly banned from population censuses — are uncomfortable with the name. A beauty pageant exclusively for black women in France last April drew wide attention — and condemnation — for its race-specific character.
But Adama Paris is ready to face the critics. After a decade of showcasing African fashion in the Senegalese capital, and helping Western designers make inroads in the African markets, she feels it is time for the African Diaspora to penetrate the mainstream fashion world.
Not colour specific
While she argues that dark-skinned designers and models are underrepresented in the fashion industry — accounting for less than ten percent of industry professionals, recent reports have revealed — Adama Paris says the label “black fashion” refers to a movement rather than a colour of skin. “This is not a fashion show by black people, for black people,” she says. “It’s part of a movement, like “black music” and “black art”, and it is inclusive of all the people that are drawn to it.”
As evidence, she points to the list of Black Fashion Week’s featured designers, which include European, Tunisian and Moroccan designers who are not black. “Not all of Africa is black, and not all black people come from Africa,” she notes.
Black Fashion Week will include a score of designers mostly from the African continent, like South Africa’s Thula Sindi and Morocco’s Jamila Lafqir, but also fashion artists from France, Haiti and the United States.
Katherine Pradeau, a white French designer whose creations are inspired by Niger Tuareg culture and are part of the upcoming show, agrees. “It’s less a question of identity or skin colour. It’s an opportunity to share cultures, a space where each designer can share their own experience,” she said.
Rendez-vous in Paris
A geographically diverse cast of designers has been coupled with a programme and setting tailored for Paris. Compared to previous installments in Prague and Bahia, Brazil, Black Fasion Week will strive for “elegance” and “glamour” in the French capital, organisers say.
“We have decided to adopt a unique approach because each country is different and has different needs,” Adama Paris explains. “Any designer, no matter where they are from, dreams of having a show in Paris because it’s been the world’s fashion capital for more than a century.”
Black Fashion Week is being hosted in the Pavillon Cambon Capucine, the former house of industry icon Chanel, in the heart of Paris. “I think the people who come to the show will be very surprised, surprised at the level of quality and high-end couture they will see, rather than the usual clichés associated with African fashion.”
The show’s designers, which include Adama Paris herself, are excitedly awaiting the big debut, but they are not the only ones. Members of the prestigious Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne will fill out the front rows at Black Fashion Week, with the president of the Fédération française de la Couture, expected to be in attendence.
Setting the tone
The questions about whether African or African-inspired designers need their own show are likely to outlast Black Fashion Week. Many of Adama Paris’ critics have said the best way to prove their talent is for black and minority designers to work within the established events.
“I am not one of those people who sit around waiting for others to take notice,” she shoots back. “It’s up to us to set the tone.”
Designer Katherine Pradeau takes a slightly different position in defending the show. She says she had a very traditional training for a French designer and spent many years in Paris’ fashion world before she became disenchanted with all of it.
For the past 12 years she has spent her time shuttling back and forth between Paris and Niger, and her encounters with Tuareg women breathed new life into her work. She jumped at the chance to participate in Black Fashion Week. “I have chosen a different option. I am trying to connect two worlds that have a hard time meeting each other,” she says.