Africa united: How Dakar Fashion Week has tackled prejudice – and helped build a creative hub in Senegal

In Senegal, fashion is a challenge to class taboos, to machismo and to the prejudices of the outside world. And, as Peter Popham discovers, it is also a vigorous celebration of young Africa coming into its own

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A piece in The New York Times last month was headlined, "Below the Sahara, A Population Bomb". The West will, it seems, never run out of reasons to wring its hands about Africa. It's a compulsion which leaves the fashion designers of Dakar fuming. "I can't stand people who look at Africa with a pitying expression!" explodes Beatrice Bee Arthur, originally from Ghana and one of the rising throng of designers whose new clothes will grace the catwalks of the Senegalese capital next month. "There are still people who buy African clothes in a spirit of charity. It's crazy! I want people to buy my clothes because they are well made and because they are marvellous."

African fashion was born on the catwalks of Paris. One of the first Africans to tread them was Sadiya Gueye, taken on as a model by Yves St Laurent in 1987 and long in competition with Naomi Campbell for the title of Black Venus. Retiring from modelling in 1997, she went home to Dakar and opened a fashion school in the city called Complexe Sadiya. Degree courses last three years and the women – very few men enrol – who emerge dream of conquering Europe.

Complexe Sadiya is in competition with another school, Ecole Leydi, set up by a woman who is one of the godmothers of Senegalese style, Oumou Sy. Child of a strictly orthodox, high-ranking Muslim family of the Peul people and barred from learning to read or write or to work, she shattered their taboos to become one of Senegal's most distinctive designers, mastering the fusion of African and Western looks to become the best-known international face of African fashion, her work shown in Europe and the US. Many of her students have followed her example, ignoring or overcoming the disapproval of their elders to k embark on a career in fashion. "Some of them come from traditionally minded families which don't like to see women working," Oumou says. "But today, thanks to fashion, many girls can put their names up in lights, shattering prejudices and amazing the world with their incomparable elegance."

Indeed, the vivid colours and wildly extravagant use of fabric which have always distinguished sub-Saharan style have been a major influence on European designers ever since Yves Saint Laurent showed his "African" collection in 1967. But only now are designers born and trained in Africa beginning to make their mark internationally.

Bea Arthur was born in Accra, and emigrated with her parents to Ukraine, where they still live. But she returned to Africa to make her way as a designer. "I need to rediscover my roots to nourish my creativity," she says. "I wanted to make funky clothes that were colourful and fun. The fabrics village women wear with pride are not suitable for girls in the big city. There is a need for a new line of clothes influenced by tradition but projected into the future."

And Dakar Fashion Week is where the fusion and the creativity happen. Last year's edition had its problems. For a start, it was held in stony silence. As it was about to begin, a government official suddenly appeared, claiming that the organisers had not made an official request to use the building. He demanded a bribe of €1,500 to allow the proceedings to start. The organisers stood up to his corrupt bullying, but were forced to turn off the music. The Ministry of Commerce subsequently gave a formal go-ahead for the rest of the week's shows.

"In Africa we love fashion!" declares Adama Ndiaye, more commonly known as Adama Paris, the designer and organiser of the Fashion Week who stood up to the gouging efforts of the corrupt bureaucrat. "We are not properly organised yet. We don't have a good distribution system. But come and buy!"

And why not, for these designers are truly beginning to make the highest grade. Frocks by Nigerian designer Duro Olowu are worn by Michelle Obama. Arthur's clothes, a massive hit with the movers and shakers of Dakar, are also worn by the wife of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. "We must not restrict ourselves to the folklore dimension," she insists. "When I make clothes, I am thinking of an international clientele. I don't want to sell them only on this continent but in Europe, too. There needs to be a flavour of Africa in our designs, but only enough to distinguish them from the rest."

The 10th annual Dakar Fashion Week is from 11 to 17 June