- History has been made as Imane Ayissi becomes the first sub-Saharan African designer to show in the elite Paris haute couture week.
- The 51-year-old Cameroonian couturier and former dancer is using the opportunity to fight the stereotype of what “African materials” are supposed to be.
- His show is called “Akouma,” which means wealth.
Imane Ayissi has become the first sub-Saharan African designer to make it to the Paris Fashion Week’s Haute Couture.
He will be showing off his work at one of the four major fashion shows (also known as the “Big Four”) in the world.
Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi makes history by becoming the first sub-Saharan African designer to show in the Paris haute couture week (Rebecca Blackwell / AP)
But before we get into this major accomplishment, let us go to the beginning.
Ayissi was born to Jean-Baptiste Ayissi Ntsama, an undefeated boxing champion who later founded his political party, and a former Miss Cameroon.
Describing his childhood, he told Agence France-Presse (AFP): “Within the family, we had boxing and dancing clans, and a bit of modelling too, and mother loved all that. I did a bit of boxing — it was obligatory, it was the family tradition after all — then I started to dance.”
He also cut up and re-sewed old dresses that belonged to his mother and his aunt.
As an adult, the Cameroonian had a thriving dance career. He mixed ballet, modern dance and pop as he toured with French tennis star-turned-singer Yannick Noah. He also danced in videos for famous musicians like Sting and Seal.
From dancing to becoming the first sub-Saharan African designer to make it to Paris Fashion Week
While dancing, Ayissi also worked as a runway model in Paris. This parallel career revived his love for fashion which eventually led to him staging his first Paris fashion show in 1993 with some 200 dresses “for his friends.” Reminiscing with a laugh, he noted that “only one or two” actually worked.
Years later, Ayissi has now been elected as an “invited member” to Paris’s Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM).
Explaining what this means to him, he told Fashion United: “First of all, it’s a recognition of my work by the profession since, in order to be registered, you have to be accepted by a committee that includes representatives of the biggest Haute Couture Houses and the most prestigious brands (Dior, Chanel, etc.), so it’s quite rewarding personally.”
He added, “The fact that I am the first designer from a sub-Saharan African country is also symbolically important, it shows that this part of the world is no longer the only region that is excluded from international fashion.”
Now that he has joined fashion’s creme de la creme, the 51-year-old hopes to change the stereotype of what “African materials” are.
Instead of using wax prints which he dismisses as “colonial,” Ayissi uses only natural dyes and organic cotton.
Sharing his reasons, he said, “We only started wearing wax during the colonial era. Africa has more to show for itself than that — and the whole world needs to know that.”
This game changer will be showing off painstakingly handmade pieces made from the strip fabric kente woven by the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast decorated with “Obom,” which means the bark of a tropical tree.
His show is called “Akouma,” which means wealth in the Ewondo language of Cameroon, will also have pieces made using an expensive Cameroonian tie-dye technique called “Mon mari est capable.”
Roughly translated, it means “My husband can handle it,” which is all about showing how rich you are. This is supposed to pay homage to the fact that haute couture is usually preserved for the ultra-rich.
Ayissi dreams of “opening up a new path for Africa” in an “alternative way of doing luxury fashion” with his show which closes Paris Fashion Week’s Haute Couture on January 23, 2019.