August 26, 2011 9:55 pm

Showtime in Dakar

Fashion week featured a mixture of sub-Saharan textures and colours, with a softening of shapes and more urban accessories

A charter flight to Africa might sound terribly chic but, like so many things in life, I recently discovered the reality was anything but. It started at Charles de Gaulle airport, where I was happily rifling through the Hermès boutique and contemplating another macaron binge, when an announcement was made stating that the scheduled flight to Dakar had been cancelled due to an airline mechanics’ strike in Paris, and instead we would be flying on an “airline-approved” charter – which was more like a probably-a-cargo-plane-but-why-not-try-passengers vehicle, configured with non-reclining seats, a palpable shortage of non-alcoholic beverages, and no safety briefing or announcements from the crew.

By the time we arrived (safely) in Senegal, I was in desperate need of a glamour pick-me-up ahead of my schedule for the next four days, which revolved around conference rooms, business centres and financial analysts, all championing investment in west Africa.

Luckily, the Radisson Blu, where I was staying, is adjacent to the Sea Plaza mall, though the 8pm closing time didn’t leave much post-meeting time to browse.

Given these constraints, on night two and near closing time, I walked past the familiar Mango and Hugo Boss stores and focused my attention on the home-grown outlets instead. Claire Kane (www.clairekane.com) is a local favourite, with a loose-fitting street style, and there I tried on a black drawstring-waist bubble canvas miniskirt with white stencils for CFA Fr130,000 (£173), but it felt a little young for me (think: old lady knees). On a nearby shelf were co-ordinating white and black scarves in an odd rectangular shape that felt a lot like pillowcases that had been painted for CFA Fr40,000 (£53).

Across from this shop was Coup de Coeur, where I found a black V-neck linen midi dress with ribbed cotton inserts along the bust and waist to add shape (CFA Fr59,000, £77). Also interesting was the Extreme Collection (www.theextremecollection.com), where I resisted a surprisingly alluring pink seersucker blazer in favour of a heathered black linen jacket with gold buttons, black frogging detail on the bust and black piping along the arms (CFA Fr62,000, £83); chic, if a little Sgt Pepperesque. The helpful staff then convinced me to try on a short-sleeved tartan button-down blouse (CFA Fr36,000, £48), but even they agreed that the buttons were just not designed to manage the strain of a large bustline.

So far, so promising, as far as my own investment in west Africa went, but when I got to L’Artisan Cordonnier, things turned strange. There were three things I wanted: an army green linen and silk scarf, a super lightweight seven-inch bronze metal cuff, and a tortoise-tinted plastic body harness secured at the neck by a gold brace. But when I asked the salesperson the cost she didn’t know, said she couldn’t find out, and surmised that the items were not for sale. She did offer to put me in touch with her boss, and I later learned that the shop contained only display items that could be tailor-made. Like many things in this part of Africa, sometimes crucial information is offered only on a need-to-know basis.

. . .

Driving around the city on day three and wondering what else I might be missing, I noticed a billboard advertising Dakar Fashion Week (www.dakarfashionweek.com) and asked the hotel concierge to chase down some tickets. Since the shows were compressed into one nightly spectacle (the “week” lasted four nights) and were not scheduled to start until 10.30pm, I could easily fit them into my schedule. Especially as they didn’t actually start until nearly midnight, and ended well past 2am.

It was worth it. The clothes reflected as much as any official conversations I had the challenge of mixing African tradition with western exigencies. The end result was a mixture of distinctly sub-Saharan textures and colours, with a softening of shapes and more urban accessories. Ghanaian-Russian designer Bee Arthur (www.bq.awuraba.com) presented Moscow-worthy opulence ranging from asymmetric bejewelled leopard-print miniskirts to embellished Malian mudcloth dresses, while Alain Niava (www.alainniava.com) from Abidjan, who has dressed first ladies like Simone Gbagbo and Marie-Thérèse Houphouët-Boigny, showed formal evening dresses and oversized earth-toned bags with huge handles. Another Ivorian, Patrick Asso (www.patrick-asso.com), presented an “all blue” collection; Alfredo Monsuy, an Equatorial Guinean, combined traditional waxed cotton prints with softer satin and silk, which actually made them look more wearable and bodycon than boxy waxed cotton alone; and Senegalese Yolande Mancini offered a red siren dress, capped at the shoulders with funky batik.

Although none of the items were yet for sale, I am hopeful that in a few months I will be able to track them down on my next quick trip to Accra-Abidjan-Malabo-Dakar. If I can avoid charter flights and unscheduled fuel stops, that is.

The Mystery Shopper is a globe-trotting executive who shops as she travels for work

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